29th Sep 2023

Von der Leyen's speech to address EU future, but what's hers?

  • European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen dressed in the colours of the Ukrainian flag to show solidarity over the war (Photo: European Parliament)
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EU corridors are abuzz with intrigue on whether European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen will seek a second term or try something new, such as becoming the first-ever woman to lead Nato.

Unlike her predecessor Jean-Claude Juncker, who made clear he wasn't staying on, her intentions remain vague.

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  • Von der Leyen helped secure vaccine contracts, amid a transparency scandal (Photo: European Commission)

Von der Leyen herself has said she hasn't decided yet and her state-of-the-union address in Strasbourg on Wednesday (13 September) isn't expected to reveal much either.

At best, she might give a broad hint.

The speech, lasting over one hour, is to focus on Green Deal implementation and industrial competitiveness, senior officials said.

She's expected to call on MEPs and EU countries to finalise negotiations on the long-delayed migration and asylum pact.

She's also expected to go bigger on enlargement than last year, when she barely mentioned it.

But for all her reticence on top jobs, her team has compiled a list of her achievements ahead of the annual address, in what could be seen as an updated CV.

They highlighted her ambitious climate agenda, marking the Green Deal in 2020 as a bright start for the EU Commission president.

She played a high-profile role in the Covid pandemic and in diplomacy on the Ukraine war.

And her team's underlying message was that she's accomplished a lot and now was a time to assess and bank von der Leyen's achievements.

Good choice?

The 64-year old centre-right politician first joined the EU top table as former German chancellor Angela Merkel's defence minister some 20 years ago.

Four years into her Commission post, the EU is facing turbulent times — the war, climate crisis, spiralling inflation and poverty, and a resurgence of populism.

But von der Leyen has navigated the stormy seas in a way that gained respect even from socialist-led nations, such as Spain.

She showed strong solidarity with Ukraine, where she travelled on several occasions.

When the pandemic struck Europe, she played a pivotal role securing vaccine contracts and in launching the EU's €750bn post-corona recovery plan, even though her handling of the vaccine purchases was marred by a transparency scandal on missing SMS-es.

"In view of her record in the first term, she would be a good choice again in 2024," said Jim Cloos, a long-serving senior official at the EU Council who is now retired.

She would likely get the support of most member states for a second term, despite some uncertainties, such as the outcome of Dutch elections in November, he added.

But not everyone's support is a given.

Hungary has openly questioned von der Leyen's agenda and Italy, too, poses a question mark, given that prime minister Giorgia Meloni's Brothers of Italy party voted against her nomination in the European Parliament back in 2019.

Not again?

Von der Leyen's first elevation to the Commission top post was also marked by controversy.

EU leaders parachuted her in from Merkel's defence ministry using their treaty powers after the flop of the Spitzenkandidaten process — in which the EU Parliament's political families put forward lead nominees for the Commission job and the family that does best in the EU elections wins.

It created a feeling that she was imposed on MEPs from above even in her own European People's Party (EPP), let alone the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D).

As expected, EU member states earlier this year failed to back the Spitzenkandidat process, among parliament's other proposals on how to revamp the next elections.

And S&D leader Spanish MEP Iratxe García told reporters last week that it would be "unacceptable" and "ridiculous" if the 2019 situation happened again.

"She [von der Leyen] has proven that it's possible to get the job without running as a lead candidate — but would MEPs let her get away with that a second time? Very uncertain," said Sophia Russack, a researcher from the Centre for European Policy Studies think-tank in Brussels.

Von der Leyen's 2019 election, Russack said, proved how difficult it is to get votes from the EU Parliament if MEPs feel bypassed.

In 2019, the German politician secured approval by a tiny margin, with 383 votes in favour (and 374 votes required).

The EPP could officially designate her as its lead candidate to massage MEPs' feelings, Russack noted, but it remains uncertain if the group would do that.

Von der Leyen is seen as too progressive by some EPP members and her differences with German conservative Manfred Weber, the leader of her EPP group and former EPP Spitzenkandidat, have become noticeable in recent months.

Meanwhile, if the EPP falls short of expectations in next year's elections and the socialists get a good result, many would then call for a change in the commission top post.


But if the EU door were to close, another one might open, as von der Leyen has also emerged as a potential candidate for the role of Nato secretary general.

With Jens Stoltenberg's leadership of Nato to end in October 2024, after the EU elections, the alternative could hardly be more timely.

Nato is expected to announce Stoltenberg's successor at its 75th-anniversary summit in Washington next June.

And if von der Leyen wanted the Nato job she had a lot going for her, according to former senior Nato official Jamie Shea.

Von der Leyen could become Nato's first female head, as she enjoys the backing of the US administration and international respect for her tough stance on Russia, China, and her commitment to the green agenda, Shea said.

Her past role as a defence minister gives her experience in Nato and military matters and Germany hasn't held the Nato helm since 1995, he added.

Other names have also emerged as potential contenders.

Danish prime minister Mette Frederiksen gathered media attention despite her repeated disavowals of interest. Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte is also in the running, an EU source said.

"But von der Leyen is certainly a name that more than most ticks all the right Nato boxes," Shea told EUobserver.

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