Why von der Leyen’s allies have doubts about her re-election bid

The Commission president faces scepticism about her candidacy from within her own European People’s Party, even as she seeks to placate more conservative voices in her camp and shore up support from the far right.
Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, speaks during a press conference at the end of 2024 EPP Congress on March 7, in Bucharest.

By Gabriele Rosana

Gabriele Rosana is a Brussels-based journalist and policy analyst writing about EU affairs

15 Mar 2024

With less than three months to go before the ballots to elect the 720 members of the European Parliament – kicking off the horse-trading season around the bloc’s top jobs – the chief of the European Commission has officially launched her campaign as the lead candidate of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP).  

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen did so by echoing the growing discomfort in her group about the ecological transition and migration, a partial backtrack from the flagship projects of her first mandate in Brussels. On the one hand, she promises a more pragmatic Green Deal. On the other, she has come to terms with the crackdown on irregular migratory influxes, including EPP proposals that include deportation to third countries.  

That’s the balance she needs to strike to rally the support of her political family and “to recreate a majority around her name,” Henning Voepel, director of the Centre for European Policy, tells The Parliament. “At the same time, that causes a problem for her personal credibility. She is not opportunistic as such, but in her political career she has proved to have a good sense for power.”  

Despite being the only person running to be the EPP’s candidate for Commission president – and notwithstanding the effort to side with mainstream Christian Democrats – von der Leyen gathered just slightly more than 80 per cent of the 489 votes cast in a secret ballot at the party’s congress in Bucharest, Romania, on 7 March. Ahead of the vote, both the French and Slovenian delegations had made it clear they would not support her bid. But in the end, the 89 votes against von der Leyen more than doubled the size of the initial internal dissent, in a sign that tensions are there to stay and even likely to increase. 

That comes as a major risk, since every vote counts in the parliamentary confirmation process that will start in the summer. Her EPP colleagues are not alone in feeling disenchanted at the idea of five more years of von der Leyen as Commission president.  

“The EPP itself does not seem to believe in its own candidate,” Industry Commissioner Thierry Breton, a prominent liberal figure and a key ally of French President Emmanuel Macron, said on X after the results came in from Bucharest. He was soon joined by other key actors from the Renew Europe family in hitting out at von der Leyen’s ambitions. Among them were German Finance Minister Christian Lindner and former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who both agreed that “the EU does not need [another term of] von der Leyen.” 

The EPP itself does not seem to believe in its own candidate.

But Voepel does not believe a second term for von der Leyen is actually at risk. In fact, he says, this is a sign that “we are creating a genuine public European discourse around the EU elections – something that has been missing until now.” With June approaching, “everyone seeks to position themselves,” he adds.   

Voepel also points to what he calls “the phenomenon von der Leyen” – a mixture of chameleon-like pragmatism and soft repositioning that previously worked during her tenure as defence minister in Germany. “She is never explicitly outspoken about what she has in mind. On the contrary, she creates a sense of proximity and distance, which is instrumental” in her alliance-building efforts, Voepel argues.  

Von der Leyen is currently employing this strategy with the right-wing camp, by consistently naming and shaming only a selection of anti-EU far-right parties she is not open to working with in the next political cycle. That list includes the French National Rally and the Alternative for Germany, which in Bucharest she dubbed “friends of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.” 

That leaves the door open, however, to the European Conservatives and Reformists – the group in which Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy and Poland’s far-right Law and Justice party both sit. Von der Leyen has said she would be keen on talking with whoever is “pro-Ukraine, pro-NATO, pro-EU.” 

In the end, the ball is in the EPP’s court, says Alberto Alemanno, Jean Monnet professor of EU law at the École des hautes études commerciales de Paris and founder of The Good Lobby advocacy group. 

“The outcome of the European elections will be decided by the EPP,” Alemanno tells The Parliament. “They will have to choose whether to build a right-wing majority or to remain with the centre and the left as in the past.” The group “is not a monolith, with various fractions favouring either of the two options,” he cautions, but its manifesto “would suggest that the second option is still the most ideologically coherent.” 

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