Seven trials for von der Leyen

Seven key challenges lie ahead of von der Leyen who will have to invent a magic formula to solve the political puzzles of the European Union

No one expected that it would be easy to govern a fragmented Europe. But the European Parliament’s difficult vote on the appointment of a new president of the European Commission earlier this week – which Ursula von der Leyen apparently came close to losing – was likely just a foretaste of the challenges to come.

In the most general terms, she will have to invent a magical formula to resolve the European Union’s political trilemma of the moment: how to simultaneously deliver on voters’ expectations (including those that follow her own promises), maintain clear red lines on democracy and the rule of law, and avoid creating new divides in Europe. This task would be easier if she could count on the support of all pro-European parties – but trust between them is low after many Socialists & Democrats, as well as the Greens, voted against her.

Still, it is in solving specific political puzzles that she can strengthen her position and resolve the trilemma. Seven of the key tests she will undergo are as follows:

  1. The rule of law versus the need for unity

Geopolitical considerations (such as the need to strengthen Europe’s position vis-à-vis other great powers), as well as negotiations on the EU’s next multiannual budget, will increasingly push European capitals to work together. This may encourage them to forget about their internal disputes – or so Budapest, Rome, and Warsaw likely hope. Most member states seem to have concluded that it is largely Brussels’ responsibility to stand firm on democracy and the rule of law, and to play the role of bad cop. But it is unclear whether the European Commission will be as principled on these issues as von der Leyen has promised. Apparently, the support of Polish Law and Justice party MEPs was necessary for her appointment. Does this suggest that, in protecting the rule of law in Poland, she may now feel constrained by a debt of gratitude to them?

  1. Enlargement versus consolidation

The geopolitical considerations that push European countries together also force them to reconsider the enlargement agenda – and, possibly, to give some Western Balkans countries a realistic prospect of joining the EU. But, across Europe, support for further enlargement is lukewarm at best. Indeed, opposition to it is strong among net contributors to the EU’s budget such as Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. Many critics of further enlargement regard the erosion of the rule of law in Hungary, Poland, and Romania as confirmation that enlargement has gone too far – or, at least, proceeded too quickly. In this sense, a demonstration of the EU’s capacity to protect democracy within its borders could help ease some of their concerns. But opening accession talks to Western Balkans countries will, ultimately, require the unanimous support of the European Council. Therefore, any decision to accept new EU members may be unpopular but driven largely by geopolitics – an area in which strong leadership and commitment from von der Leyen’s Commission will be critical.

  1. Climate concerns versus economic priorities

Von der Leyen has made a great effort to show that her Commission will tackle climate change. But she is yet to devise specific policies in the area. An emphasis on corporate responsibility could interest left-leaning parties. But the Commission will also require support from conservatives and liberals, who may favour policies that emphasise individual responsibility. Therefore, the challenge is in finding the right balance between the sides. It is also about ensuring that the Commission’s climate policies remain acceptable to all governments – especially those of Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Poland, and Slovakia, whose electorates are ambivalent about the need to address the issue at all.

  1. Internal versus external

Meanwhile, member states appear ever more keen to externalise problems that they cannot resolve internally. This is how they have dealt with migration disputes: as they could not agree on who would host migrant processing centres in Europe, they asked North African states to do so. Now that they cannot agree on carbon reduction targets in Europe, member states are becoming ever more eager to shift the responsibility for climate change policy to other parts of the world – as seen in discussions on issues such as the use of renewable energy under agreements with third countries. But such measures can only complement – rather than replace – policies within the EU. Von der Leyen needs to be vocal in resisting the temptation to externalise problems, especially given that many advocates for this approach are her fellow conservatives.

  1. Immigration versus emigration

As ECFR’s analyses have shown, concerns about emigration are widespread in Europe, especially in eastern and southern EU countries such as Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania, and Spain. In the same states, people are pessimistic about their economic and quality-of-life prospects, as well as those of their children. But emigration concerns have been absent from the EU’s main political discussions of late – perhaps because there is no quick fix, and everyone (from member states to EU institutions) is partly to blame, for them. Von der Leyen could raise these issues during discussions of the new multiannual financial perspective. After all, every member state should have an interest in maintaining free movement within the EU while preserving unity and fulfilling the promise of economic convergence between them.

  1. Protectionism versus trade liberalisation

Foreign policy will be high on the agenda of von der Leyen’s Commission – particularly given that several member states have demonstrated a growing appetite for treating economic policy as part of the EU’s strategic toolkit rather than just a tool for creating prosperity. This goes beyond France and Germany. For example, Poland recently joined these countries in issuing a joint declaration on competition policy – calling for Brussels to make intra-European mergers and consolidations easier. Warsaw also supports France in advocating for the GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) tax. But this may be as far as European unity goes in this area. If the EU was to engage in an all-out trade war with the US, it would surely be difficult to maintain the support of countries such as Poland given their wider strategic interests. Similarly, if the EU was to become more economically assertive towards China, it would face an obstacle in member states’ diverging views of the urgency of the challenge and the correct response to it. For example, supporters of French President Emmanuel Macron and those of Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini are aligned in believing that China is a threat to their countries’ economic interests, but most of the former expect Europe to address the issue while most of the latter favour a national response. Moreover, many Fidesz voters believe that their country’s economic interests are secure in relation China. Therefore, while trade and competition policy are already the EU’s competencies, they can only become part of its foreign policy toolkit if member states draw closer together both in their strategic outlook and in their conception of the means necessary to secure Europe’s interests.

  1. Strategic sovereignty versus diverging threat perceptions

More broadly, while they increasingly recognise that Europe needs to become a player in great power politics, member states’ attempts to translate this into policy may fall foul of their diverging threat perceptions. For example – as ECFR will show in an upcoming publication on European strategic autonomy – some member states may perceive European defence integration as causing problems for their commitments to the transatlantic alliance. In Denmark, Poland, and Romania, citizens have a clear preference for strengthening NATO rather than EU defence initiatives. Thus, von der Leyen’s European Commission will need to work to find common ground between member states on defence and security issues. She is surely well placed to do so, given her experience leading the German Ministry of Defence. Nonetheless, this may have implications for other challenges discussed above – from negotiations over the EU’s budget to economic policies, to rule of law issues.

This commentary originated as a presentation by Jose Ignacio Torreblanca and Pawel Zerka on 15 July at the European Political Strategy Centre in Brussels.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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