Sunday, June 16, 2024

Ursula von der Leyen in pole position as she tries to build majority to keep job

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Ursula von der Leyen has begun trying to craft a majority for a second term as European Commission president, after major gains for the far right that are likely to mean a less stable European parliament.

Von der Leyen, a German Christian Democrat, was jubilant after her European People’s party (EPP) secured 186 of the 720 seats in the European elections, maintaining its 25-year hold as the largest group and leaving her a narrow path to a second term.

But she has been presented with a wild card: Emmanuel Macron’s bombshell decision to call snap elections after his Renaissance party came a dismal second to Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally in France.

Von der Leyen, the first woman to lead the commission, was the EPP’s lead candidate and remains in pole position. With the added uncertainty of French elections in the mix, she has to clear two hurdles. First she needs the backing of a qualified majority of EU leaders, then an absolute majority – 361 votes – in the new European parliament.

EU leaders are expected to take a decision on her appointment as part of a package of top jobs at a two-day summit starting on 27 June, just before the first round of French parliamentary elections on 30 June.

Brussels insiders pride themselves on not allowing such decisions to be delayed by elections, as there is always a vote around the corner in the 27-country union. One EU diplomat said von der Leyen “was and still is the presumptive second-term commission president” and there was no reason to expect a delay. “Macron can do what he wants with national elections but he shouldn’t expect all of us to grind to a halt to watch him do it,” they said.

EU’s von der Leyen defends record amid far-right gains in European parliament polls – video

Célia Belin, the head of the Paris office at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the impact of the French elections on the EU jobs talks could depend on Macron’s popularity at home. If opinion polls showed Macron far behind National Rally, “the legitimacy for him to appoint von der Leyen is much smaller”, she said, but if the polls showed a better, or less bad, result for him, “he might feel emboldened to just decide earlier”.

Either way, Macron will discuss von der Leyen’s future with Germany’s Olaf Scholz and Italy’s Giorgia Meloni on the sidelines of the G7 summit in Puglia at the end of the week (13-15 June). As head of the commission, von der Leyen is also expected in Italy, as is the European Council president, Charles Michel, tasked with being an honest broker in the jobs negotiations. These five will join other EU leaders for an informal dinner in Brussels next Monday to widen the discussions, before the summit at the end of the month.

Beyond pitching to EU leaders, von der Leyen arguably has an even more pressing task: persuading the incoming European parliament to back her. On Monday she reiterated that she would turn to Europe’s “main political families” to form her majority, referring to her own EPP, the Socialists and Democrats in second place with 135 seats, and the centrist Renew group with 79 seats, according to provisional results on Monday afternoon.

These three groups hold 400 of the 720 seats but that slim majority is not enough. In the large, ideologically messy European parliament of political families, about 10-15% of MEPs regularly fail to toe the party line. In 2019 von der Leyen was elected with only nine votes to spare, despite a paper majority of 65 for the groups supporting her.

That means she has to look right or left to secure her re-election, either to the hard-right Eurosceptic European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), who surged to win 73 seats, or the Greens, who were knocked down to 53 seats.

While von der Leyen has clearly ruled out working with “Putin’s proxies” on the far right, she has avoided saying whether she favours a deal with “constructive” Eurosceptics in the ECR, led by Meloni.

Speaking to CDU activists in Berlin on Monday, von der Leyen reiterated that her goal was to work with parties that are “pro-European, pro-Ukraine and for the rule of law”, a designation that for her apparently includes Meloni’s hard-right Brothers of Italy.

Unlike Macron and Scholz, Meloni has emerged even stronger from the European elections, with her party beating forecasts by winning almost 29% of the Italian vote, roughly five times its vote share in 2019.

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Hosting the G7 summit in Puglia this week, Meloni is now viewed as somewhat of a beacon of stability in a continent shaken by significant far-right gains in key countries such as France and Germany.

It is an unusual position for Italy, famous for its turbulent, short-lived governments, while establishing Meloni as a “kingmaker” in the European parliament.

The Italian leader on Monday said it was “too early” to answer whether she favoured a second mandate for von der Leyen. But choosing Meloni would put von der Leyen at risk of losing allies in the centre: the Socialists have insisted they will not support von der Leyen if she makes a deal with the ECR.

The commission president could instead look left, turning to the pro-European Greens, who slipped to sixth place behind Meloni’s ECR and the far right.

The Greens voted against her in 2019 but supported her Green deal. “We will never put the bar so high that it is unreachable,” said the outgoing MEP Philippe Lamberts, who has a good personal relationship with von der Leyen. “What will be front and centre for us will be the widening, the deepening of the European Green Deal and the strengthening of European democracy. We will need to see commitments in order for us to support her.”

Alberto Alemanno, a professor of EU law at HEC Paris business school, thinks the appointment of commission president will be delayed until the autumn, not only because of France’s snap elections but due to uncertainty over the next EU programme and the coalition behind it. “Nobody has a clearcut idea what these elections mean and how they can be translated into the next political cycle,” Alemanno said.

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