February 21, 2024 - 1:00pm

The popular German columnist Jan Fleischhauer wrote seven years ago that the future of the country’s conservative party under Ursula von der Leyen would be “cold, calculating, and unlikeable”. The Christian Democratic Union dodged that bullet, but the European Union was not so lucky. For five years von der Leyen has occupied the highest office in the EU as President of the European Commission, and is now preparing her bid for a second term.

During her tenure, the EU has faced a number of crises, ranging from the Covid pandemic to the war in Ukraine and the declining relevance of Europe as a geopolitical power. Did von der Leyen steer the EU through these troubled times with a steady hand? It depends on who you ask: some claim she was a transformative president, whose only “real rival is herself”. Others will point towards the still-unresolved secrecy behind the Union’s Covid vaccine contract with Pfizer, a process that has turned out to be so opaque as to raise suspicion about attempts to conceal financial mismanagement or even full corruption.

There is also a lot of talk about her “green legacy” and the importance of the so-called “Green Deal” that was supposed to transform the EU into an environmental and economic powerhouse. A closer look, however, reveals that this legacy consists primarily of announcements, platitudes and missed targets. The EU will miss its climate targets by a significant margin, while the eurozone is dithering on the brink of a recession. It is of course possible that the latter of these two outcomes was the goal all along, given the fact that von der Leyen spoke at a degrowth conference in the European Parliament last year. 

It is not without irony that barely a year after discussing how to replace GDP growth with “the sound of birdsongs”, von der Leyen now wants to make Europe more “competitive”. She did not mention how much of her €33,400 monthly salary will be replaced by birdsong in this new competitive Europe, but European voters should not hold their collective breath. In fact, despite having been a member of the conservative CDU for most of her political career, her governance was always more centre-left than centre-right — as demonstrated by her fondness for the degrowth movement and the green transition.

Whether these inclinations can deliver the necessary solutions to Europe’s biggest problems remains to be seen: the main challenge the continent is facing is the ongoing process of deindustrialisation, something that is a direct consequence of the EU’s main area of activity — regulation. In a plea to the European Commission, industry leaders are now calling for “lower energy costs and less red tape”, as a result of von der Leyen’s hostility towards fossil fuels and other carbon accounting schemes such as the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM). In the words of Wolfgang Entrup, chief of the German chemical industry association VCI, “the bureaucratic madness caused by CBAM is unbelievable.”

The aforementioned Fleischhauer marvelled at the question as to why someone who is a member of a conservative party (like von der Leyen) can continuously speak and act like a member of the Greens. This certainly helped in 2019, when she was confirmed as president of the European Commission by the votes of the conservative EPP, the left-of-centre Socialists and the centrist Renew group in the European Parliament. This time, the expected Right-wing surge could make the addition of the Greens necessary, but given her track record that should not be a problem.