Ursula von der Leyen, as President of the European Commission, is the nearest the EU has to a proper leader. At every G7 summit there she is, rubbing shoulders with presidents and prime ministers who were actually elected to their elevated position.
Of course, no one voted for von der Leyen’s presidency. She wasn’t even the choice of the spitzenkanditat system, which is the European Parliament’s better-than-nothing attempt to create a democratic mandate for the role. Nevertheless, in 2019 she still got the job — manoeuvred into place by Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron.
Four years later, von der Leyen is seeking a second term, but this time she doesn’t have Merkel around to fix it for her. Indeed, as explained in a report for Politico, she faces a possible challenge from Manfred Weber who leads the European People’s Party (EPP) — the largest grouping in the European Parliament. In 2019, he was the EPP’s pick for the presidency — and would have got it had he not been replaced with von der Leyen. Turning the tables in 2023 would be sweet revenge.
The irony is that von der Leyen and Weber have a lot in common. They’re both German Christian Democrats and massive federalists to boot. However, they represent opposite tendencies on the European centre-right. Von der Leyen is more of a centrist while Weber leans strongly to the Right, leading a recent attack on the EU’s green agenda.
And yet there’s much more to this than personal rivalry and ideological tension.
The imposition of von der Leyen as President of the Commission was a grubby little fix, but it was consistent with standard EU practice. Despite their integrationist pieties, Europe’s national leaders don’t like to be overshadowed by the top EU officials. That’s why prestigious positions like the Commission presidency are reserved for big fish from small countries or small fish from big countries. Von der Leyen is an example of the latter — an undistinguished defence minister in Merkel’s cabinet, but a reliable ally.
So if she’s dropped after one term, it would signal that the distribution of power in the EU is shifting. Key players like Merkel have already left the stage, while Macron’s presidency is entering its terminal phase. Further, in both Germany and France the populist Right is on the rise. It might therefore suit the EU establishment to concentrate power in Brussels, which means recruiting serious politicians to wield it.
While Manfred Weber is one such candidate for the Commission presidency, there are others. For instance, Mark Rutte, who is stepping down after thirteen years as Dutch prime minister, is in with a shot.
Von der Leyen staying on would look like the EU giving up. Without dynamic and capable leadership from the centre it is difficult to see where the momentum for further integration would come from. The existing order would be left to decay, with the initiative passing to the populists.
On the other hand, a second term would take us to 2027 — when Emmanuel Macron will be looking for a new job. Trust him to play the long game.