Von der Leyen treads narrow path to second term

Ursula von der Leyen became president of the European Commission five years ago with a razor-thin parliamentary majority of just nine votes.

Securing a second term may be even more fraught, hinging on uncomfortable choices and backroom deals that must navigate the EU’s rightward shift in elections on Sunday.

While her centre-right European People’s party parliamentary group won the election and secured 184 seats in the 720-strong assembly, von der Leyen’s other centrist allies have fared worse, while the hard right surged from a fifth to nearly a quarter of seats.

“She has options, which is better than only having the hard right to turn to,” said Nathalie Tocci, director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali. “But that doesn’t mean it will be easy to choose which option works.”

For a second five-year term at the helm of the EU commission, Brussels’ most powerful job, von der Leyen needs both the backing of the EU’s 27 leaders and a majority of the newly elected parliament. The latter has long been more of a concern.

In addition to the EPP, the other two groups who backed her in 2019 — the centre-left Socialists and Democrats and the liberal Renew — are projected to command more than 400 seats in total.

Her projected majority gives her a narrower space for manoeuvre compared with 2019, when the three groups together should have secured a 68-vote majority. But because many lawmakers voted against her and the ballot is secret, she passed by just nine votes.

In a vote expected on July 18, analysts expect von der Leyen to lose as much as 15 per cent of that coalition, which would leave her short of the majority she needs.

That means she and her team would need to reach out to other parties, officials said, including the hard-right European Conservatives and Reformists, led by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, and the Greens.

But the jeopardy is that by expanding her coalition, she risks losing votes from the other side of the political spectrum. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a Social Democrat, has warned against a pact with Meloni — and so has Macron’s party.

Bas Eickhout, one of the Greens’ two lead candidates for the election, said that he was in touch with von der Leyen but that no formal negotiations had started.

“I always had difficulties in understanding exactly how a coalition with ECR would work,” he said. “I’ve always seen the only reliable, stable democratic coalition possible is with the Greens.”

“You would not be surprised to know how many conversations have taken place between the EPP and the Greens in recent weeks,” said a person briefed on the discussions.

Seeking Green support would put her in a complicated position given her retreat from a swath of climate legislation in recent months to fend off protests from farmers and rightwing parties. Embracing Meloni would be likely to involve a tougher stance on migration that could alienate her liberal supporters.

Ursula von der Leyen speaks to Giorgia Meloni
Ursula von der Leyen with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni © Omar Havana/AP

Von der Leyen will spend the next two weeks in a series of meetings with EU national leaders, including during an EPP conclave on Monday, the G7 leaders’ summit in Italy starting on Thursday and the Ukraine peace summit in Switzerland next weekend.

She will seek both their personal backing at an EU summit on June 27 and for their parties’ backing in parliament.

“She needs to get the 27 [leaders] both comfortable with her vision for the next five years, but just as importantly, convinced she’s got the numbers in parliament,” said an EU diplomat involved in the preparations for the summit at the end of June. “It would be a disaster for them to endorse someone who gets rejected by the MEPs. So she can’t approach it as two separate processes. They run in tandem.”

Von der Leyen’s pitch will be threefold: that she is the only available candidate that can win support from leaders and negotiate a deal to win a majority in parliament; that she steered the EU through the twin crises of Covid-19 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine; and that it would be folly to change leadership in the middle of a war in Europe and with the potential return of Donald Trump as US president.

“We won the European elections. We are by far the strongest party. We are the anchor of stability and voters acknowledged our leadership,” von der Leyen told the party faithful on Sunday night to cheers of “five more years”.

She said she was “confident” of winning a second term, and that on Monday she would begin negotiating with the S&D and Renew groups, “building on a constructive and proven relationship”. When asked about coalition partners, she said she was open to talks with “those who are pro- European, pro-Ukraine, pro-rule of law”.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán arrives to cast his vote for European Parliament elections at a polling station in Budapest, Hungary, on June 9
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, a staunch von der Leyen critic © Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images

Among the lawmakers who supported her in 2019 were MEPs from Poland’s ultraconservative Law and Justice party and Hungary’s far-right Fidesz, the party of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, a staunch von der Leyen critic.

EPP officials on Sunday expressed confidence in her winning a second term.

“There is no alternative being discussed in the party. And there’s a plurality of EPP leaders around the summit table. So she has nothing to worry about there,” said a senior commission official close to von der Leyen. “And so the question to the parliament is: if you are going to shoot a hostage, do you have a plan for afterwards? Because if they don’t, they’re voting for chaos.”

So far, only party leaders of the EPP and S&D have openly said they would back von der Leyen.

“At the end of the day the members of parliament are basically kids with guns,” said a senior EU diplomat. “So, really, who knows?”

How will the European parliamentary elections change the EU? Join Ben Hall, Europe editor, and colleagues in Paris, Rome, Brussels and Germany for a subscriber webinar on June 12. Register now and put your questions to our panel at ft.com/euwebinar

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