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Von der Leyen’s second term as Commission President should keep the EU in stable hands

On one wall there is a large photo of the signing of the Treaty of Rome in 1957, on the other wall there are photos of her father Ernst Albrecht when he held a high position at the European Commission, and of her children and grandchildren. There is also a photo of her old pony Dolly, who was bitten to death by a wolf in September 2022.

There is a very good chance that 65-year-old Ursula von der Leyen will be allowed to leave everything in her spacious office on the 13th floor of the Berlaymont building at the end of October and that she will continue to live in the 25 square meter apartment for another five years. that she had furnished there.

The German announced on Monday at a meeting of her CDU party in Berlin that she would like to run for a second five-year term on behalf of the European People’s Party (EPP). The official anointing will then follow on March 6 and 7 in Bucharest at the EPP congress, where she will be nominated as a top candidate.

“Unprecedented leadership”

It is not until the recently deceased Frenchman Jacques Delors that a Commission President has been so influential and decisive. In corona times, Von der Leyen organized the rapid, joint purchase of vaccines together with French European Commissioner Thierry Breton, after which she set up the recovery fund worth 750 billion euros to soften the economic consequences. With its sanctions policy, it also set the tone for the European response to Russian aggression against Ukraine. Despite these two major events, she managed to get important pieces of legislation on the Green Deal approved in the European Parliament and the Council of the EU. And with her fluent English she became the face of the EU – she made 230 official trips to more than sixty countries. “She has shown unprecedented leadership in unprecedented times,” said Danish liberal European Commissioner Margrethe Vestager in an interview with de Volkskrant.

No challengers

It explains why there is no serious opponent for Von der Leyen. The Social Democrats are putting forward the Luxembourg European Commissioner for Social Affairs Nicolas Schmit as their top candidate, which is mainly seen as a sign of anemia. The European Liberals and Greens are losing in the polls. Von der Leyen will not campaign intensively and nor does she intend to appear on a list.

Before she can succeed herself, three hurdles await her after the European elections. The EPP must remain the largest group in the European Parliament to claim the presidency of the Commission. According to extrapolations from national polls at the end of January by the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, the Christian Democrats remain by far the largest with around 175 seats.

No experiments

Taking that outcome into account, the European Council must submit her candidacy to the European Parliament. There are hardly any surprises there either. “The chefs know her and know what she can do for them,” says a senior European source. Her pro-German stance in the war between Hamas and Israel after the terrorist acts of October 7 was not well received in pro-Palestinian countries such as Ireland and Spain, but she is not blamed too much.

These turbulent geopolitical times do not invite experiments, Von der Leyen offers a guarantee of stability. Her own EPP will probably have 13 of the 27 prime ministers and heads of state in the European Council around June. Spanish Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has already publicly said he supports her. Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo (Open VLD) is also very pleased with her. The CDU is not part of the coalition in Berlin, but “Chancellor Olaf Scholz cannot afford to give up the most powerful position in the EU for party political reasons,” the European source said.

In recent months, Von der Leyen has explicitly sought rapprochement with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni (Fratelli d’Italia) on migration, who is increasingly calling the shots within the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR). The only person who would prefer to see Von der Leyen return to Germany is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. But because the nomination is made by special majority, he cannot block it on his own.

Right-wing parliament

The most difficult hurdle will undoubtedly be achieving a majority in the European Parliament. In 2019 it was already close, and according to the polls the radical right and the ECR will be the big winners of the elections, at the expense of the liberals and Greens. Her overtures to Meloni must also be seen in that context: there is a good chance that she will desperately need votes from that ECR faction.

But her response to the farmers’ protests and the withdrawal of, for example, the proposal to reduce the use of pesticides by 50 percent by 2030 are deeply troubling to social democrats and Greens. “It’s still early. But our support will depend on the content of her programme,” says Sara Matthieu, MEP for Green. “The fact that she is now asking the European Parliament to start unpacking the Green Deal is not the best signal.”

Moreover, there is a good chance that Von der Leyen will have to take into account the more right-wing position of the EPP group on climate policy and the predicted tilt to the right in the next European Parliament. “Her real problem will be that her workable majority will be narrower and more fragile,” said the same European source.

It is therefore expected that the emphasis in her second term will be on the competitiveness of European companies, support for industry and agriculture to realize the green transition, on security and the development of a European defense (industry). These points are also expressly included in the party program that the EPP will approve in Bucharest. They will also become priorities in the strategic agenda that the European Council will submit to the next Commission. Von der Leyen already knows which way the wind is blowing and said last weekend at the security conference in Munich that she plans to appoint someone specifically responsible for defense in the next Commission.

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