French conservatives blast von der Leyen's 'technocratic drift,' oppose re-election bid

Ursula von der Leyen has developed a close working relation with French President Emmanuel Macron.
Ursula von der Leyen has developed a close working relation with French President Emmanuel Macron. Copyright Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.
Copyright Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.
By Jorge Liboreiro
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Ahead of the congress of the European People's Party (EPP), the French delegation has come strongly against the re-election bid of Ursula von der Leyen, denouncing her as "the candidate of Mr Macron and not the right."

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Von der Leyen is expected to be elected by acclamation as the EPP's lead candidate for the elections of the European Parliament during a two-day congress in Bucharest, which kicks off on Wednesday. The nomination will make von der Leyen the indisputable frontrunner to preside over the European Commission for another five years.

But in a deliberately timed letter, the French delegation of the EPP from the Les Républicains ("The Republicans") party, published a scathing letter blasting von der Leyen's policy legacy and leaving no doubt of their opposition to her re-election. 

Les Républicains are in opposition in the French Assembly and support President Emmanuel Macron's liberal government on a case-by-case basis.

"For far too long, the Union has distanced itself from the people of Europe and fed their distrust by building walls in technocratic reflexes. We cannot resign ourselves to this crisis of confidence," Eric Ciotti, president of Les Républicains, writes in the letter.

"To face future challenges, Europe needs clarity. Europe needs profound changes and a renewal at the top of the European Commission. The outgoing Commission president cannot be this candidate because she embodies precisely this technocratic drift."

Ciotti castigates von der Leyen because she did not run as a lead candidate under the so-called Spitzenkandidaten system in 2019 and was instead hand-picked by Macron as a conservative figure who was moderate and flexible enough to appease the progressive faction of the European Council.

Von der Leyen's surprising appointment enraged the European Parliament, which confirmed her bid by a razor-thin margin. She later tried to make amends by putting forward an ambitious, far-reaching agenda that included the European Green Deal, a €750-billion recovery fund, the joint procurement of vaccines, 13 rounds of sanctions against Russia, the opening of accession talks with Ukraine, a comprehensive reform of migration and asylum policy, and ground-breaking legislation to rein in AI and Big Tech.

Ciotti hones in on some of these initiatives to denounce von der Leyen's mandate as overly progressive and contrary to conservative values, directly blaming her for the farmer protests that have recently swept across Europe. The backlash has put von der Leyen in an awkward position, caught between her staunch defence of the Green Deal and the right-wing pressure of her political family.

"A candidate of Mr Macron and not the right, she has continuously left the European majority drift towards the left," Ciotti says.

"This was particularly the case on environmental and agricultural issues, but also in the management of the migration crisis. This drift has fuelled anger that can now be heard throughout the continent, particularly among our farmers and our fishers."

Ciotti then goes on to excoriate von der Leyen for, in his view, having embraced "anti-nuclear dogmas" and "de-growth policies promoted by the left," and "failing to confront mass immigration and secure the external borders," an apparent reference to the steady rise of asylum requests after the pandemic. In 2023, the bloc received 1.14 million applications for international protection, a seven-year high.

Ciotti also censures von der Leyen for having participated in an event of Renaissance, Macron's party, back in October, something that, for him, reflects her lack of party loyalty.

"By giving the impression to the European people that Europe is being built without them, and even against them, Ms von der Leyen and Mr Macron are risking a dramatic and dangerous weakening of the European project," Ciotti says.

The letter is addressed to Manfred Weber, president of the EPP, and is dated 5 March, even if it was made public on social media the following day. Given that Les Républicains hold only seven seats in the 177-member group, the harsh indictment is not expected to derail von der Leyen's electoral prospects.

The text, however, serves to expose the party's ideological divide caused by five years of transformational policies, which have left the largest formation in the European Parliament striving to uphold its conservative roots while advancing von der Leyen's vision.

Speaking to Euronews ahead of the congress, Thanasis Bakolas, the EPP's secretary general, threw his support behind the incumbent. 

"We have one candidate for this position. It is the sitting president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, a person with a (track) record, a person whose commitment to Europe is unquestionable," Bakolas said.

"We're very much looking forward for Ms von der Leyen to be our lead candidate for the European elections. And of course, we look forward to her second term in office."

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Asked about the farmer protests and the pressure put on the EPP to move away from the Green Deal, Bakolas said the party was open to taking their demands into consideration.

"We got a lot of heat and a lot of pushback when we listened to farmers when they were asking society as a whole and us, as the EPP, to listen to their needs because farmers are the custodians of the land," he said. "They care about the land."

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