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Von der Leyen gearing up for second term as president of the European Commission

The German Christian Democrat politician, who wishes to continue as head of the EU executive body, wants to bring a defense commissioner onto her team

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels on February 14.OLIVIER HOSLET (EFE)
María R. Sahuquillo

Ursula von der Leyen, the first woman to head the European Commission, is gearing up to run for a second term. The politician who has run the Brussels institution and played a very prominent role in a European Union in turmoil — including a pandemic and a war on the continent — informed her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), on Monday in Berlin of her desire to remain as head of the EU executive body. The party gave her their support, putting her in a strong position to retain the post.

The 65-year-old German conservative, who is experiencing a challenging end to her term in office and has had to abandon some of her flagship green policies due to pressure from the right and fear of the upsurge of populism, is the best positioned within her political entourage, the European People’s Party (EPP), which is expected to officially announce her candidacy at a congress in March.

Should the EPP prove to be the most voted party, von der Leyen has a strong chance of returning to lead the European Commission. The German national seems to resonate with the governments of the EU member states. In the summer, the Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, said that if after the European elections in June the seat is still held by the right, he would support von der Leyen. She would need to be confirmed by the European Parliament, though. In 2019, when the leaders proposed her candidature unexpectedly and she was submitted to the vote of the European Parliament, she narrowly prevailed.

If von der Leyen stands as the candidate of the European People’s Party, the potential rivals that have emerged to date — Luxembourg Commissioner Nicolas Schmit (of the Luxembourg Socialist Workers’ Party) and Bas Eickhout (of the Green party in the Netherlands) — will not stand much of a chance against her. Von der Leyen has had issues within her European fold and with the EPP president, fellow German Manfred Weber, who aspired to chair the Commission she has headed. However, the move by the Christian-Democratic politician leaves the EPP with little or no margin but to support her and anoint her as its candidate.

Although the EPP will name her as its spitzenkandidat (German for “lead candidate”) at its March congress in Bucharest, von der Leyen wants to portray herself not only as the conservative contender, but also as a person of consensus.

Criticism over excessive prominence

Von der Leyen has at times drawn significant criticism for taking too much of the limelight, overshadowing her commissioners and monopolizing the initiatives and achievements of the EU executive. In recent weeks, she has been sketching out the roadmap for the next Commission. One of the things she wishes to see is a new commissioner for defense, as she proposed on Saturday at the Munich Security Conference. In addition, she has even suggested that this should involve a country from the East — the current Polish minister of foreign affairs, Radosław Sikorski, has been mentioned — though defense competences are in the hands of the member states.

In her September State of the Union address, the German conservative, who has been highly committed to making Ukraine a candidate country, showed signs of her desire to spearhead the next major eastward enlargement.

Von der Leyen, a physician, a mother of seven who likes to stress that she was born in Brussels, stepped up to the helm of the European Commission on December 1, 2019. Precisely 101 days after taking charge, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Covid-19 pandemic that rocked the world. The Commission struggled to get up and running, but eventually took historic steps in terms of joint production and the purchase of vaccines. In addition, the recovery fund was created — proposed by Spain and supported by France and Germany —, worth €750 billion, to assist the Member States in climbing out of the doldrums.

Two years ago, when the world was seemingly emerging from the pandemic and its aftermath, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, launched full-scale war on Ukraine. The support for Kyiv and the response to the invasion have continued to mark her premiership. The EU again took unprecedented steps with arms funding for Ukraine.

The term of office held by the German — who served as minister for family affairs and then defense under Angela Merkel — was widely regarded as one of the most successful in the history of the European Commission. However, in the latter part of the legislature, things have taken a turn for the worse. Her controversial trip to Israel following the October 7 Hamas attacks, where she expressed support for the Netanyahu government as it began the siege on Gaza in response to those attacks, disturbed a large number of member states. For some, it was because the president of the Commission has no foreign policy competencies; for others, because the trip fueled accusations from the global south that the EU maintains double standards and does not care about Palestinian civilians.

In recent weeks, environmentalists have been criticizing von der Leyen for losing ground on her green pact policy. The president of the European Union has announced that she is temporarily halting the law to reduce pesticides, following the mobilization of farmers and criticism from the right, which is concerned about the rise of populism and ultra parties that have placed environmental policies in the spotlight.

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