The awkward truth of von der Leyen’s re-election ‘campaign’

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Good morning. Yesterday, Poland’s right-wing opposition party won the most votes in the country’s local elections in a blow to Prime Minister Donald Tusk, a day after Slovakia chose a close ally of Eurosceptic, pro-Russian Prime Minister Robert Fico to be its next president.

Today, I explain why Ursula von der Leyen’s re-election campaign doesn’t really start until after the election, and our climate correspondent reports on a European green mission to China.

Phoney war

Ursula von der Leyen officially has already begun her bid for a second term as European Commission president, but for all the slogans and oratory, the awkward truth is that her real campaign will begin only after the rigmaroles — and rules — of the EU election are over.

Context: Von der Leyen is the “lead candidate” for the centre-right European People’s party, which is forecast to win the June 6-9 election. That outcome would make her the favourite to remain head of the EU executive, but she also needs the backing of the 27 national leaders and a majority of the newly elected parliament. That vote could take place around October.

Despite being the EPP’s figurehead, she’s not on the ballot. Her campaign will begin on June 10 with the lobbying of leaders and MEPs. They, not ordinary voters, have the power to grant her a second term.

The “lead candidate” principle was introduced in 2014 in an attempt to lend credibility to the idea that voters have a role in choosing the commission. As such, the complications of running the shop while campaigning to keep doing so didn’t trouble previous two-term presidents José Manuel Barroso and Jacques Delors.

Under the rules agreed by the commission and the parliament, she can simultaneously be president and presidential campaigner, provided the taxpayer- and political party-paid elements of her schedule, staff and speeches are kept separate.

The uncomfortable truth is that those rules only apply to the official EU election campaign, ending June 9. After that, it’s an unregulated grey area. In the months where she’ll actually be campaigning for support from MEPs and leaders, she’ll be back with unrestricted access to the EU’s levers of power.

Her debut campaign speech yesterday in Athens — built around the need to stand up against Russia, illegal migration and climate change — sounded much like many she has made as commission president.

But critics say that in the post-June lobbying process, her two personas will inevitably be prised apart as she performs the political contortions necessary to build a parliamentary majority.

A spokesman for the commission said on Friday they were not aware of any plans to adopt similar conflict-of-interest rules for the post-election period.

Chart du jour: Power play

Russia has changed tactics in targeting Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, using precision missiles to destroy power stations in areas less protected than Kyiv.

Green team

The EU is sending a posse of green ambassadors on a charm offensive to China to better understand Beijing’s position on climate change, writes Alice Hancock.

Context: China is the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, accounting for almost a third of total emissions. EU countries stepped into the diplomatic void when US-China relations hit a low at the UN’s COP27 climate conference in 2022 in the hope of nudging Beijing towards cutting emissions faster.

The climate envoys of Germany, the Netherlands, France and Denmark, accompanied by the EU’s own climate ambassador, will touch down in Beijing today for high-level meetings with China’s new green chief Liu Zhenmin, a seasoned diplomat who took the role in January.

Prince Jaime de Bourbon de Parme, the Dutch climate ambassador (and a member of the country’s royal family to boot), said that climate was one of the areas that the bloc had the most productive relationship with Beijing.

The aim of the trip, the first time a group of EU envoys has gone together, is “to establish good relations, understand their positions where we have tensions on climate matters between EU and China, help them with areas where we can work together”, he said.

Those areas include greening cities, cutting methane emissions and developing China’s grid, which is prone to blackouts.

It also includes the EU’s carbon border tax, to which China has been outwardly opposed. Helping Beijing develop its own emissions trading system that would cut taxes on exports to Europe is a key plank of current climate diplomacy. Germany and the Netherlands are China’s biggest trade partners in the EU.

Another element of the agenda is squaring up positions for the UN’s next COP conference in Azerbaijan where negotiators hope to land an agreement on a new goal for climate finance.

What to watch today

  1. Industry ministers of France, Germany and Italy meet near Paris.

  2. EU agriculture ministers meet for an informal gathering in Limburg, Belgium.

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