Home Society Von der Leyen’s Ukraine flip-flop shows she’s walking an election tightrope
Von der Leyen’s Ukraine flip-flop shows she’s walking an election tightrope

Von der Leyen’s Ukraine flip-flop shows she’s walking an election tightrope

by host

BRUSSELS — In the space of 72 hours, Ursula von der Leyen lurched from Commission president to election candidate and back again.

At a press conference last Wednesday, von der Leyen nixed talk about the next step for Ukraine on its journey toward the EU before this June’s European election. But just three days later on a trip to Kyiv, she reverted to the original timeline and said the Commission will submit the next formal step for Ukraine’s EU bid in mid-March.

“There will be victory for Ukraine. There will be peace and prosperity. And there will be Europe,” said the Commission chief, standing next to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at Hostomel airport.

Six senior EU officials interpreted the backpedaling of the 65-year-old president of the EU’s executive arm as her walking the campaign tightrope as she seeks a second term in charge. All were granted anonymity to speak candidly about the Commission president.

“It was just another reminder that from now on, we have to watch her every move as a campaign move,” said one Commission official. 

In the coming months, von der Leyen will enter uncharted waters combining her roles, while abiding by ethical standards she drew up for candidates campaigning for a second term. After all, she is the first incumbent Commission president seeking another five-year term since the start of the Spitzenkandidat process — in which top EU jobs are doled out based on the results of the European election — in 2014.  `On top of that, von der Leyen did not campaign for the job in 2019 when European leaders unexpectedly anointed the former defense minister into the role.

The European Commission, run by von der Leyen, argues it is absolutely fine to be a candidate and do one’s Commission job, as long as the two don’t overlap.

The problem? The lines are blurry, both when it comes to policy files and her day-to-day management of the Commission.

Flip-flopping

In recent weeks, von der Leyen cut unpopular files on climate, agriculture and health, which could have been seen as having outsized impact on the economics of European voters.

She watered down, held back or shelved policy proposals to avoid handing electoral ammunition to a resurgent far right — often blindsiding the rest of the Commission in the process.

On climate in particular, von der Leyen is walking a fine line between defending her legacy of the Green Deal while addressing the concerns of her party’s constituents such as farmers and business by shifting the focus to competitiveness, security and migration.

But at a POLITICO event last November, von der Leyen said with a second mandate she would “keep the direction of travel for the big topics” from her current mandate — the Green Deal, the digital transition and resilience.

EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT ELECTION POLL OF POLLS

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Then there was the discussion on welcoming Ukraine into the EU fold, a thorny issue for politicians as tens of thousands of farmers across the Continent protest agricultural policies and cheap imports from Ukraine. When von der Leyen aimed to push back conversations around integrating a war-devastated country of more than 40 million people ahead of the European election, senior EU officials and diplomats were quick to interpret it as a campaign move.

One French diplomat said von der Leyen’s statements seemed “reasonable … given the debate surrounding the European elections and the amount of work that needs to be done to build a valid, robust and useful negotiating framework for Ukraine.” 

Polish farmers, particularly, have mounted a blockade of the Ukrainian border to protest against cheap imports, testing Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s support for its neighbor.  European farmers descended on Brussels on Monday, burning tires and hosing liquid manure, protesting against the EU’s agricultural policies.

The accession of the former breadbasket of the Soviet Union would only further test the EU’s policies to support farmers in the future. If Ukraine were to become a member of the bloc tomorrow, it would get by far the biggest chunk of money from the EU’s agricultural subsidy pot.

An EU diplomat said von der Leyen’s comments on Wednesday looked like a combination of pressure from within her own political grouping, the European People’s Party, and from a number of EU countries. “France and Poland are afraid of the farmers, Germany is afraid of the finances,” the diplomat said.

According to two other diplomats, a group of EU ambassadors, primarily from Eastern Europe, reached out to von der Leyen’s head of cabinet after her first announcement on Ukraine, asking for a meeting to clarify the Commission’s line on enlargement and asking for concrete commitments. It was this behind-the-scenes pressure that pushed von der Leyen to make a U-turn and return to the initial Commission commitment of March discussions on Ukraine’s accession, they said.

Internal dynamics

The lack of clarity about von der Leyen’s role, as she campaigns, is already raising questions — both from within and outside the Commission.

Martin Schulz, the former president of the European Parliament and architect of the lead candidate system when he was in charge of the Parliament, has said von der Leyen should step down during the campaign because it gives her an unfair advantage compared to other candidates.

The EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, a member of von der Leyen’s Commission, also fired a warning shot, telling El País on Monday that she should “not personally attribute all the successes” of the European Commission and that she “should take greater care to appear neutral when she is both president and candidate.”

As her flip-flopping over Ukraine last week illustrates, von der Leyen is unlikely to change the habit that has been one of the top criticisms leveled against her since 2019 — that she fails to consult others when making decisions and U-turns.

“[Another] five years like that are hardly sustainable,” said a Commission official.

Yet, there is a near-universal fear inside the Commission of criticizing her. The internal dynamics of the weekly commissioners’ meeting have also changed, three Commission officials said, particularly since the departure of Commission heavyweight Frans Timmermans. The blunt-talking Dutchman publicly disagreed with von der Leyen in the weekly meetings of the 27 commissioners. His voice is now absent since he left Brussels to run for Dutch politics, and the others are less likely to go against the Commission president.

Frans Timmermans publicly disagreed with von der Leyen in the weekly meetings of the 27 commissioners | John Thys/AFP via Getty Images

Von der Leyen has some leverage over Commissioners eyeing their political future. While the make-up of a potential second von der Leyen Commission will depend to a large extent on who the 27 national governments nominate for each commissioner role, von der Leyen does have some sway and ultimately assigns portfolios. Dangling sought-after portfolios over the heads of her favorite commissioners could dissuade dissent as she walks the tightrope.

However, commenting on her top-down, non-collaborative style, another Commission official said that the College of Commissioners was just used to it. “I think most people are resigned to the fact that this is the way she works.”

But as she runs for the top job for the first time, she now has a new body to answer to — voters. “Let’s see if that changes her style,” the official said.

Giorgio Leali contributed reporting from Paris. 

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