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As EU decides top jobs, von der Leyen faces tough choice – DW – 06/28/2024

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Ursula von der Leyen beamed as she expressed her gratitude to the European leaders who had endorsed her nomination for a second mandate as president of the European Commission

Usually self-possessed and serious, the German conservative was visibly delighted when leaders officially gave her a shot at a second term heading to one of the world’s largest single markets.

Von der Leyen is seen as a stable pair of hands at a time when the Russian threat looms over Europe, and quick to oblige heads of state who often ring up Brussels to decide on key policy.

But their endorsement isn’t enough. She still needs the backing of at least 361 out of a total of 720 lawmakers in the European Parliament in a secret ballot, slated to be held in July. 

Experts say that will be a much harder task, considering each member not only represents one of seven political groups — split along broad ideological lines from the far left to the far right, along with many more national parties — but also their own interests and constituency. 

The key question now is whether von der Leyen has the required support, or if she will have to make unpalatable compromises that risk cracking the foundation of the EU. Some argue her fate is intertwined with Europe’s destiny. The alliances she makes now could decide the direction in which Europe leans, at least for the next five years, but could also have a long-term impact on the future of the continent, and even the planet.

How do the numbers stack up? 

At first glance, it appears that if the conservatives, the socialists and liberals all give their support, von Der Leyen will have what it takes: 

  • von der Leyen’s own center-right European People’s Party (EPP) emerged as the biggest in the bloc with 188 seats. 
  • the center-left Socialists and Democrats came in a second, with 136. 
  • the liberals of the Renew Europe group, who are led by French President Emmanuel Macron and faced a drubbing in France at the expense of the surging far-right National Rally, came in fourth with 75. 

That total hovers around 400 seats, well ahead of the numbers needed.  

Centrist coalition will decide on EU top jobs: DW’s Jack Parrock

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Pedro Lopez de Pablo, spokesperson for the EPP, said von der Leyen may win more seats than initially expected, amid growing worries over the changing political climate — and not just in the EU. 

Thursday’s debate between incumbent US President Joe Biden and Republican candidate Donald Trump was widely seen as a victory for the latter, and Lopez de Pablo said it may have rattled some of among the EU progressives who were thinking of voting against von der Leyen. 

“There is a lot of uncertainty and people here are concerned after the debate last night,” he told DW. “We need certainty in Europe, we need political stability.”

And yet, support from just the three political groupings may not be enough to push von der Leyen across the finish line. Not everyone is expected to vote for her — French Republicans, fellow members of the EPP, for instance, have said they aren’t willing. In addition, the fact that she won by a razor-thin margin of just nine votes back in 2019 may compel von der Leyen and her team to not leave anything to chance.

That leaves von der Leyen with two options, according to political analysts: accept support from the Group of the Greens/European FreeAlliance, or woo Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, one of the European far right’s most powerful politicians.

Support from the Greens or far right

Von der Leyen’s center-right group took notice of the growing appeal of the far right before the EU elections, and despite much consternation among socialists and liberals opened the door to Meloni for a possible post-election alliance. 

Now, she faces a difficult conundrum. If she offers too much to Meloni to seek the votes of parliamentarians from her far-right Brothers of Italy party, she risks losing the socialists. But if she goes with the Greens, she could make some in the EPP unhappy.

From a political point of view, said Lopez de Pablo, the “Greens were unreliable” and it was prudent to opt for the right-wing nationalist European and Conservatives and Reformists, Meloni’s grouping, ECR as allies. “The parties in the ECR actually form governments, they have numbers and their support could prove essential to push through key laws,” he added. “And they are not seen as far right.” 

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But for most lawmakers, the ECR reamins untouchable. A case in point: Meloni was deliberately left out of the top decision-making group — six EU leaders — who finalized the names for key EU positions on Thursday.

They didn’t want the leader of the ECR, a far-right grouping,” said Leo Goretti of the Institute of International Affairs think tank in Rome. “The socialists and the liberals are opposed to leaders like Meloni, because they are trying to protect the basic tenets of Europe.

“In the end Meloni wants a Europe of states,” he said, in reference to lingering euroskepticism that prevails among far-right parties, despite proclamations that they have embraced the EU. 

Meloni abstained from voting for von der Leyen on Thursday, and voted against the candidates for the other two top jobs, Antonio Costa of Portugal as European Council president and Estonia’s Kaja Kallas as the EU’s top diplomat. In a post on X alluded that decision-making at the highest levels in the EU was undemocratic. 

“I decided not to support it out of respect for the citizens and the indications that came from those citizens during the elections,” she wrote.

The Greens are all too keen to make up the numbers for von der Leyen, offering their support on the promise she will put an end to backsliding on the EU’s progressive Green Deal policies, which aim to make the bloc climate-neutral by 2050. In the months leading up to the EU elections, von der Leyen had moved to dilute some its provisions under pressure from protesting farmers

The Greens want to keep the policies alive, but will also want to keep the “cordon sanitaire” — the protective barrier put in place to keep the far right out of top positions in the EU — from crumbling. 

“The general sense is that we want a stable EU and that she absolutely needs us,” said Anna Cavazzini, a German politician with Greens, adding that they wanted “assurances” on the EU’s green policies. “We won’t support her for free.”

Edited by: Martin Kuebler

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