Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Ursula von der Leyen could be on the way out as EU heavyweights turn against her

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Ursula von der Leyen’s chances of a second term as president of the European Commission are in doubt amid claims EU heavyweights are turning against her, and a fresh outbreak of infighting among the Brussels institutions.

The European Parliament elections this weekend will be the prelude to an intense period of international horsetrading over the EU’s top jobs for the next five years and how they are shared out among the bloc’s political families.

Until very recently, Mrs von der Leyen’s coronation for another five years  was seen as a foregone conclusion. Leaders were expected to be reluctant to make big changes while Europe was still dealing with the cost of living crisis and the war in Ukraine.

But the Brussels rumour mill is now abuzz that she has lost the support of Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz, and that other EU leaders are exasperated at what they see as her high-handed posing as the “Queen of Europe”.

The mutual antipathy between Mrs von der Leyen and Charles Michel, the European Council president, was no secret even before hostilities erupted again on Tuesday.

Israel support was controversial

With days to go to the crucial elections, Mr Michel attacked Mrs von der Leyen’s record, accusing her of turning the commission into an overtly “political” body with herself front and centre.

“The impartiality of the commission should be an absolute priority,” Mr Michel said.

Mrs von der Leyen’s early support of Israel’s war against Hamas left the EU open to accusations of double standards over its reaction to the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza, he said.

It certainly infuriated pro-Palestinian Spain and Ireland, while other member states saw it as a pattern of repeated overreach.

From the headquarters of the commission, there was a swift and tart reply to Mr Michel.

“The commission acts in an impartial manner for the benefit of the general interests and we expect all other institutions to do so as well,” the commission’s chief spokesman said.

Mudslinging between Mrs von der Leyen and Mr Michel’s teams has been de rigueur since  “sofagate” erupted during a joint visit to Turkey in 2021

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan offered Mr Michel a chair, before relegating Mrs von der Leyen to a distant sofa.

“It happened because I am a woman,” Mrs von der Leyen said at the time, as Mr Michel was forced to apologise for taking the seat.

June 17 meeting to discuss top jobs

Some see Mr Michel’s intervention as revenge, and he has been accused by diplomatic sources of trying to land the plum job of the EU’s foreign affairs chief.

“If there is anything EU foreign policy can’t afford these days, it’s a chief diplomat who hates the commission president,” one source said.

Mr Michel’s spokeswoman insisted: “He is not a candidate” and added that he is “entirely focused” on his current job.

The council president has calls scheduled with a string of EU leaders to discuss the allocation of top jobs this week, and has called a June 17 meeting on the issue, which he will chair.

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