In her last speech on the state of the European Union before the European elections, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (CDU) set some new exclamation points for the remainder of their term in office. And a big question mark remains: Does the woman who rose to the top of the EU without a vote of voters want to run as the top candidate of the conservative European People’s Party (EPP) in June next year to defend her position in Brussels?
Commitment to climate policy for your own grandchildren
Right at the beginning of her more than hour-long lecture, Von der Leyen turned her attention to the election, which was less than 300 days away. She primarily spoke directly to first-time voters. These are the voters who, according to EPP leader Manfred Weber (CSU), belong to a generation that cannot rely on things being better for them than the previous ones. On the other hand, as future voters, they cannot remain personally disappointed that after voting in the 2019 European elections, von der Leyen was chosen as EU leader – even though Weber had crossed the finish line as the victorious EPP lead candidate.
In parts, the President’s lecture turned into a success story of her entire previous professional experience in Brussels, which would be a credit to any job application. The self-praise aroused the displeasure of the CSU economics and finance expert in the European Parliament, Markus Ferber: “Instead of looking back and celebrating supposed successes, it would have been much more important to develop real answers to the challenges of our time.”
Warning about “boiling planet” and praise for farmers
After recent resistance from her own party family to her climate protection policy, von der Leyen defiantly stated: “We are staying the course. We remain ambitious.” She also owes that to her own grandchildren. If the mother of seven children, who turns 65 this year, decides to run for office, she will have to overcome reservations in the CDU and CSU on the climate issue. There the conviction is becoming stronger that the economy and farmers must now be given a breathing space from new requirements.
The Greens and Socialists, on the other hand, had demanded that the President make her speech a clear commitment to the Green Deal. Von der Leyen also warned dramatically of a “boiling planet”, but at the same time said: “I would like to express my appreciation to our farmers.”
Difficult to organize majority for re-election
If she wants to aspire to the presidency for the second time, she will have to please many people and will have to attempt a difficult balancing act to organize a majority for herself in the new European Parliament – against a rejection front made up of right-wing populists, nationalists and EU opponents that are likely to strengthen again. According to some current surveys, together they could potentially form the second strongest faction in purely mathematical terms.
French President Emmanuel Macron was von der Leyen’s strong advocate in 2019. However, strong criticism of the president is now coming from the liberal faction in the European Parliament, which is dominated by his people. Parliamentary Vice President Nicola Beer from the FDP complains: “The risks and side effects resulting from von der Leyen’s bureaucratic baggage act like an anesthetic on our companies and are an existential threat to the competitiveness of our economy.”
Just the head of a “zombie commission”?
While von der Leyen did not unequivocally say yes to running for office, she did announce an initiative under the heading “No means no” to better protect against sexual assault. Stronger action against Chinese price dumping for electric cars was also one of the exclamation marks that she brought with her to Strasbourg, as well as a new task for the former president of the European Central Bank and ex-head of the Italian government, Mario Draghi: He should develop proposals on how the EU economy would be can become more competitive.
But it seems doubtful how much energy von the Leyens Commission can develop after two of its previous key figures have left: the previous competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager wants to become the new president of the European Investment Bank (EIB), ex-Green Deal mastermind Frans Timmermans wants to become the Dutch one Prime Minister. The news portal “Politico” already mocked the remaining “zombie commission” because of these personnel losses.
Long list of achievements to date presented in Brussels
Long before von der Leyen took the podium in Strasbourg on Wednesday, she had her public relations staff compile a long list of her achievements and countdown the Internet to the start of her highly anticipated speech. The president’s heralds listed the adversities her commission had to contend with for almost four years: pandemic, energy crisis, waves of refugees, Russian threat.
“This is a commission that keeps its word and delivers,” is the self-assessment that appears on the first of 117 pages that von der Leyen’s communications experts have filled with praise for the commission’s work. Despite all the calamities, she never gave up on her priorities: the Green Deal for climate protection, innovative digitalization on a human scale, social justice.
Little willingness to communicate critical questions
During its term in office, the Von der Leyen Commission has not shown such exuberant willingness to communicate when it comes to critical questions. In November 2021, MEPs complained in a cross-party letter that answers to parliamentary questions were “evasive or incomplete”, as well as “lacking substance” and “deliberately vague”.
Immediately before her speech, the President had to quickly address suspicions that she was refusing to provide information about her travel habits, which include the use of chartered private jets – a means of transport that is by no means considered climate-friendly. A corresponding request from Left Party chairman Martin Schirdewan waited months to be processed. Only after he had publicized the failure in the media and had Budget Control Committee Chairwoman Monika Hohlmeier (CSU) also gotten involved, did the commission agree to provide information this week: 57 flights in 2021 and 2022. The answer to the candidate’s question will be provided by Der Leyen may not deliver until next year in order not to get caught up in the vortex of attrition of a long-term election campaign.