Ursula von der Leyen—the accidental president

SOCIAL EUROPE – Alberto Alemanno analyzes Ursula von der Leyen’s 2023 State of the Union address.

The State of the European Union address reflected a union buffeted by a series of crises.

Ursula von der Leyen addressing the European Parliament this week—yet to declare her hand as the parliamentary elections loom (European Parliament)
Ursula von der Leyen addressing the European Parliament this week—yet to declare her hand as the parliamentary elections loom (European Parliament)

After more than 1,200 days at the helm of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen delivered on Wednesday her last State of the European Union address, at least in this legislature. The title and guiding theme, ‘Answering the call of history’, sought to cast her tenure in a positive reflective light. Left unaddressed was the direction of the new political cycle following the European Parliament elections next June.

With von der Leyen the frontrunner to lead the next commission, that omission could not go unnoticed. While fuelling speculation, her ambivalent posture further questions the democratic credentials of the European Union’s political set-up. 

After a career in German politics, von der Leyen was appointed commission president in extraordinary circumstances—the European Council bypassing the Spitzenkandidat system, associated with the elections to the parliament, through an intergovernmental deal. To remedy that, she immediately promised to reform the modalities of appointment for the top jobs and embarked on a Conference on the Future of Europe, which had citizens’ panels at the core of its deliberations. This was the first attempt at institutional reform since the Lisbon treaty of 2007.

After all the rhetoric about listening to citizens, the 49 citizens’ recommendations coming from the conference in May last year, as approved by the European Parliament and transmitted to the Council of the EU, have however still not been debated by the member states—despite this being required by the treaty. And this is not the only promise which could contribute to a coherent vision for the union that is falling apart at the end of this five-year term.

Green Deal

In July 2019, during her inaugural speech to the parliament, von der Leyen promised to launch a Green Deal in the first hundred days of her term. With no hint of this in her domestic political trajectory, von der Leyen’s position on climate change was dictated more by the political circumstances surrounding her nomination than her record. It was meant to gain the support of the European Parliament, where following the parliamentary elections her centre-right European People’s Party and the Renew Europe liberals were well short of a majority.

This compromise with the left and green blocs in the parliament could have given Europe a new vision around the greentransition, strengthening the union’s political legitimacy. As the 2024 elections loom, however, such a vision seems to have vanished, due to the reservations not only of von der Leyen’s EPP but also of liberal figures—from the French president, Emmanuel Macron, to the German finance minister, Christian Lindner—who have repeatedly called for a pause.

The hesitations of the EPP and the liberals about the pace of the ecological transition threaten its full adoption and make its future in the next political cycle uncertain. Von der Leyen will need the support of her party for a nomination (this time as Spitzenkandidat), yet the EPP now stands as one of the main opponents to implementation of the green agenda. That support will also be needed to match her promise to reform the ethical rules of the union after the Qatargate scandal, including establishing a new ethics body

Crisis management

Von der Leyen can claim successes. Yet her term has been marked by crises, from the pandemic to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with its many knock-on effects in energy, food and security. Her presidency has been distinguished by continuous crisis management, to the point of turning the state of exception into the norm. Besides constantly reacting to events, she has often delegated the solution of an impending task to member states’ leaders within the European Council—leading to an increasingly evident and damaging rivalry with its president, Charles Michel. 

In this context and reading between the lines of her speech, a fundamental question arises: will European citizens content themselves with institutions that just seek to muddle through? In an evolving political union, the shock of the invasion plus the shared pandemic ordeal should have generated some consensus on the need to regain control of the direction of history.

The time has come to stop improvising and show instead not only Europe’s ability to react to external shocks but also its capacity to build, plan and project. To get out of the current geopolitical impasse and growing internal mistrust, a union that brings together 27 member states—rapidly considering the integration of others in the east and the Balkans—must piece together its many elements into a coherent whole.

Shared project

The next enlargement requires political will and vision. And that must go hand-in-hand with major institutional reforms, including constraining national vetoes, so the EU can be not only effective but also relevant in a fractured world.

The emergence of such a shared, renewed project is constantly threatened by the rebellious governments in Hungary—publicly siding with Vladimir Putin’s Russia—and Poland. This challenges the union’s foundations, from its green credentials to its commitment to the rule of law.

Instead of confronting them, the von der Leyen commission has however preferred to act cautiously, to the point of giving up on exercising its full prerogative of master of the treaties, to which the recalcitrant member states voluntarily agreed to subject themselves. After hesitating to use all available avenues against their governments, the commission initially delayed approval of their recovery plans under the NextGenerationEU programme. In the case of Poland, the plan was eventually approved despite Warsaw’s failure to comply with judgments by the Court of Justice of the EU, which had declared its judicial system to be no longer independent.

Von der Leyen has not yet indicated whether she intends to run for a second term. Will she wait to be renominated by the heads of state and government? Will she seek to become the Spitzenkandidat of the EPP? In the event, would she allow herself to be re-elected commission president with support including far-right parties?

That is the political direction being taken by her party leaders: Manfred Weber overall and, on behalf of the EPP’s German Christian-democrat member, Friedrich Merz. It would be preferable if European history instead took a quite different path.