Ursula von der Leyen announces re-election bid as European Commission president

Ursula von der Leyen is the first woman to preside over the European Commission.
Ursula von der Leyen is the first woman to preside over the European Commission. Copyright European Union, 2024.
Copyright European Union, 2024.
By Jorge Liboreiro
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Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, has confirmed her intention to lead the executive for five more years.

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The announcement was made on Monday afternoon after a meeting of her party, Germany's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which backed her bid by unanimity.

"The world today is completely different than it was in 2019. We've been through a lot together over the past five years, and I think you could say we've accomplished more than we could ever imagine," she said.

"In these five years, not only has my passion for Europe grown but, of course, also my experience of how much this Europe can achieve for its people," she went on.

"The last five years have been as challenging as they have been extraordinary."

In a thinly veiled reference to the rise of far-right parties seen in several European countries, von der Leyen vowed to "make the centre strong" and defend the bloc "against the divisive forces" from inside and outside.

"I am firmly convinced that this is possible and that we have the strength to do it. And that is the task that I set myself," she said.

The news caps off weeks of relentless speculation in Brussels over her political future, which has also been linked to NATO, and heats up the race to preside over the Commission, the most powerful institution in the European Union.

Von der Leyen's nomination will be confirmed by acclamation in early March during the annual congress of her political family, the centre-right European People's Party (EPP). The EPP had set 21 February as the deadline for submitting internal applications.

By officially throwing her hat in the ring, von der Leyen immediately becomes the frontrunner, as the EPP is widely tipped to obtain the largest share of seats in the upcoming elections to the European Parliament.

The Commission president is appointed at the discretion of EU leaders after taking into account the results of the European elections, meaning the party that comes on top enjoys the unwritten privilege of controlling the executive. Socialists and liberals usually divvy up the remaining top jobs among themselves.

Throughout her first mandate, von der Leyen, a gifted speaker, agile negotiator and enthusiastic traveller, has fostered close ties with the majority of heads of state and government. Some of her fellow EPP members, like Finland's Petteri Orpo and Estonia's Evika Siliņa, quickly took to social media to celebrate her announcement.

"Your strong stance and dedication to ensuring the common security and competitiveness of the EU, as well as continued support for Ukraine, are widely appreciated," Siliņa said.

Crucially, the 65-year-old has developed a good working relation with Italy's Giorgia Meloni, whose hard-right group, the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), is poised to make inroads in the June poll and further influence the political agenda. 

Even progressive politicians, like Spain's Pedro Sánchez, one of Europe's most prominent socialists, have signalled their willingness to support von der Leyen in a second term.

As of today, the only prime minister who might forcibly object to von der Leyen's bid is Hungary's Viktor Orbán, who has been under the Commission's intense scrutiny for engineering his country's democratic backsliding.

Von der Leyen's executive has frozen billions in cohesion and recovery funds allocated to Hungary over rule-of-law deficiencies and launched multiple infringement procedures to bring the wayward nation in line with EU law. The latest case, centred on the controversial "sovereignty law," was initiated earlier this month.

In retaliation, Orbán has stepped up his attacks against von der Leyen and her team, going as far as diminishing her standing as EU leaders' "paid employee." In December, Orbán's government was heavily criticised for plastering von der Leyen's face on billboards distributed as part of anti-EU national consultation.

"Let's not dance to the tune they whistle!" the billboards said.

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Still, according to the treaties, the Commission president is appointed by a qualified majority in the European Council, a rule that would, in theory, prevent Orbán from single-handedly blocking her second term should the other leaders endorse her.

The Council's proposal then goes to the Parliament, where it requires an absolute majority to pass through. This is where things might get trickier for von der Leyen.

In 2019, the president received 383 votes in favour, a razor-thin margin more than the 374 votes needed, illustrating the hemicycle's outrage over her surprise nomination.

Unlike 2024, von der Leyen did not run as the EPP's lead candidate and was instead plucked from obscurity by French President Emmanuel Macron, who saw in her a conservative politician with moderate, flexible views able to please the left-wing faction of the European Council.

Following that tight vote, MEPs largely welcomed the first woman at the Commission's helm and helped her advance her ambitious, transformative agenda, including the European Green Deal, the COVID-19 recovery fund, the Artificial Intelligence Act and a comprehensive reform of the bloc's migration and asylum policy.

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Lawmakers applauded von der Leyen for her decisive leadership in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which saw an unprecedented raft of sanctions on the Kremlin, irreversible plans to do away with imported fossil fuels and the opening of accession talks with Kyiv. Von der Leyen's captaincy bolstered her international profile and earned her the title of Most Powerful Woman in 2022 and 2023 by Forbes magazine.

Ursula von der Leyen's political response to the Ukraine war has bolstered her international profile.
Ursula von der Leyen's political response to the Ukraine war has bolstered her international profile.Efrem Lukatsky/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.

But in recent months, her legacy, particularly her green policies, has come under fire from her own conservative family, who are seeking to slow down the Green Deal to alleviate what they call the excessive bureaucratic burden on industry and agriculture. The farmer protests that erupted in January across several European countries have further reinforced the EPP's antagonistic stance and forced von der Leyen to change her tune.

"There is still a lot of work ahead of us. We must adapt our competitiveness to the new conditions. We have to achieve the climate goals with the economy. We must use the opportunities offered by artificial intelligence and combine them with the principles of the social market economy," she told reporters on Monday.

"We have to make progress in digitalisation. This also helps to keep the bureaucracy lean. It is particularly important for medium-sized businesses."

Von der Leyen will be under continued pressure to fully embrace this right-wing shift, but doing so could cost her the key endorsement of socialists, greens and even liberals, who worry the EPP is appropriating the talking points and rallying cries of the far right.

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Still, the electoral cycle is set to be dominated by issues that favour conservative parties: backlash against environmental policies, irregular migration, the cost-of-living crisis and loss of competitiveness. Some studies, however, warn that many voters remain highly concerned about the climate crisis and natural disasters.

Born in 1958, von der Leyen is the daughter of one of the first European civil servants and lived in Brussels until the age of 13, when she moved to Lower Saxony. She studied medicine and joined the CDU in 1990. Von der Leyen served as minister in every cabinet of former German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Her last portfolio was defence, an assignment that saw her immersed in a scandal over irregular contracting of consultants.

On social media, she describes herself as "European by heart."

This article has been updated with more information.

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