Von der Leyen: Her term’s final stretch and the minefield ahead

Bernardo de Miguel

6 mins - 12 de Septiembre de 2023, 12:00

Ursula von der Leyen’s mandate as head of the European Commission seemed destined to become one of the most successful in the history of the EU body and certainly the most brilliant so far in the 21st century. But the final verdict on the German conservative’s management of Brussels is still awaiting a final year that looks set to be very complicated politically and fraught with dangerous terrain. Von der Leyen approaches the final stretch in a firm position but with vital decisions ahead along with numerous rivals ready to exploit even her slightest mistake. 

The German conservative, who arrived in Brussels on the rebound and by surpassing those aspiring to the presidency of the Commission (Manfred Weber, Frans Timmermans, and Margrethe Vestager), will deliver her last State of the Union address in the European Parliament this Wednesday, 13 September 2023 (SOTEU, according to the endless catalogue of acronyms in English in Brussels). Von der Leyen can lay claim to the success of much of her term in office, which has included the completion of Brexit, the fight against the pandemic, and the response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine along with the energy crisis triggered by Moscow. 

[Recibe los análisis de más actualidad en tu correo electrónico o en tu teléfono a través de nuestro canal de Telegram]

The first four years of the mandate of the first woman at the head of the Commission have been marked by historic milestones, such as the creation of the Recovery Fund, the joint purchase of vaccines and the shared financing of armaments for Ukraine. And the fifth and final year of the Von der Leyen era (whose mandate expires on 31 October 2024) includes challenges such as a possible budgetary spill-over (of almost €100 billion), the reform of the Stability Pact, the conclusion of the Migration Pact, and the sending of an unequivocal signal about a future enlargement of the bloc to include, at least, several countries of the Western Balkans and Ukraine, provided that the war is over and its reconstruction is successful.

The final stretch of this Commission, therefore, will be almost as demanding, if not more so, than the previous one. And Von der Leyen arrives with little political strength, with few supporters around her, and with very experienced rivals – even among her colleagues in the European People’s Party (EPP) – ready to sour her final push and even to snatch the post from her if she ultimate pursues reappointment. As in the great cycling tours, there is a clear risk that Von der Leyen could fall apart and in a single off day lose everything she has achieved thus far.

In her favour is the experience of four years, during which she has demonstrated her ability to seize opportunities (she quickly took up the proposal for a recovery fund launched by Spain and promoted by Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron) and to correct mistakes (such as the one made in the application of the Brexit Protocol on Ireland). The president has also been able to maintain the support of the main capitals (Berlin and Paris) and of governments of different political persuasions (from the socialist government of Pedro Sánchez, to the liberal executives of the Benelux or the Baltic countries, or hardliners from the EPP such as the Greek Mitsotakis). 

Her image in Brussels, on the other hand, has not gained much ground. Even her worst enemies recognise her tireless work capacity. However, she is accused of being far too great of a protagonist, of monopolising all the Commission’s successes without allowing her commissioners to shine and of making them deal alone with any possible stumbles or clashes between the EU body and any government (such as the recent appointment of an American woman to a high competition post, thus provoking the ire of Paris and which Vice-President Vestager had to accept and backtrack).

Von der Leyen has also raised eyebrows with a style of command that some officials find too authoritarian and prone to hierarchical imposition without adequate counterweights. But it is also true that the result of this relentless leadership has been a torrent of legislative projects in the six areas that the current Commission has set itself as priorities (Green Deal, Digital, Economy, Multilateralism, Europe as a Model for the Rule of Law, and Democracy). 

Of the 610 initiatives announced by Von der Leyen in these areas, 69% (420) have been tabled so far, according to the European Parliament’s latest assessment. With eight months to go before the end of the legislature, significant and difficult-to-negotiate legislation has been passed, such as the Climate Law (which sets the goal of zero emissions by 2050), the law on digital services as well as the the law on digital markets (which tightens regulation of large platforms), the minimum 15% tax on multinationals, the launch of a joint plan to rearm European armies, and the granting of EU candidate status to Ukraine and Georgia kickstarting their potential accession to the bloc.

But in recent months, von der Leyen has been losing steam, partly because Brussels has already entered ‘election mode’, and the nudges to position herself well in the final sprint are increasingly visible and painful. The President of the European Parliament, the Maltese Roberta Metsola, who sounds like a possible EPP replacement for the German, has joined the crusade of her party’s president, Manfred Weber, to put the brakes on the environmental agenda pursued by the Commission. 

Von der Leyen herself has also begun to tone down her ‘green’ enthusiasm and has not hesitated to forge closer ties with the government of the ultra-conservative Italian Georgia Meloni. The Italian prime minister’s European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR) may prove key in the appointment of the new Commission if the June 2024 European Parliament elections bring a rise of the far right. 

But the current Commission president must move very carefully if she wants to preserve her legacy and, above all, if she wants to run for a second term. Socialists and Greens have already warned her that they will not accept any backtracking on environmental legislation. And the flirtations with the far right may end up leaving Von der Leyen and the European People’s Party in the same situation as Núñez Feijóo’s PP: with a cordon sanitaire from the outside groups and them trapped inside.
Se puede leer el artículo original en español

¿Qué te ha parecido el artículo?