Europe's centre-right party clears path for von der Leyen’s re-election, despite some objection

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen addresses the EPP Congress in Bucharest, Romania, March 7, 2024.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen addresses the EPP Congress in Bucharest, Romania, March 7, 2024. Copyright AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda
By Mared Gwyn Jones in Bucharest
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The European People’s Party (EPP) on Thursday confirmed Ursula von der Leyen as its lead candidate for June’s European elections, clearing the path for her second term at the European Commission’s helm.

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"We are the party of the people and we deliver on what people care about,” Von der Leyen said as she sought the EPP party's support at its congress in Bucharest.

"Prosperity. Security. Democracy. This is what people care about in these difficult times."

Her re-election bid was approved in a secret ballot of EPP delegates, lawmakers and leaders - including the likes of Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar - as the party gathered in the Romanian capital to gear up towards June’s crunch election.

But 89 of the 489 valid votes cast in the ballot rejected her candidacy, giving von der Leyen a support rate of 82%.

In total, 737 delegates had voting rights and 591 registered to vote, according to the party. EPP sources were not able to confirm why only 499 of those delegates, 10 whose votes were considered invalid, had cast their votes at the Congress.

The EPP group is comfortably ahead in the polls and is tipped to remain the European Parliament's biggest faction, making von der Leyen a firm favourite to clinch the role of European Commission President.

In a speech earlier on Thursday, she promised peace, prosperity and security for Europeans, vowing to continue to firmly back Ukraine, bolster Europe's economic competitiveness, safeguard the rule of law, and crack down on irregular migration.

"It is us, Europeans, who decide who comes to Europe and under what circumstances," she said. Her party's manifesto, unveiled on Wednesday, includes a controversial plan to outsource asylum applications to "safe" third countries based on the UK's 'Rwanda model'.

When questioned about the legality of that model, von der Leyen said that it is "absolutely clear that whatever we do will be in full respect of our obligations under EU and international law," adding that the concept of safe third countries is already enshrined in EU law.

"Our manifesto is written in view of EU law," she repeated.

She also paid a special tribute to Europe's farmers - who have slammed Brussels' bureaucracy in protests across EU countries in recent months - and said her party will resist the rising threat of political extremes.

Speaking to Euronews on Wednesday, EPP chairman Manfred Weber assured von der Leyen was a “firm leader”, with several German delegates claiming her track record shows she is the right woman for the job.

But she does not draw the same enthusiasm from all national delegations within her group.

The president of the French Les Républicains ("The Republicans") party, Eric Ciotti, addressed a harshly-worded letter to Weber on Wednesday accusing von der Leyen of embodying a “technocratic drift” that has alienated the European Union from the Europeans it claims to serve. The party sent no senior leaders from Paris to the party congress in Bucharest.

She also got the cold shoulder from two of the three Slovenian conservative parties in her group, who cited her “weak” leadership and diminished green credentials.

Von der Leyen has built a strong reputation in Europe and further afield for spearheading the bloc’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the ensuing energy crisis and the deepening climate emergency, topping Forbes’ power list twice during her five-year mandate.

But she is rarely seen on the ground in Brussels or other EU capitals, and has drawn criticism for isolating herself within the Berlaymont, the Commission’s headquarters in Brussels.

She has also sparked controversy for recently rowing back on her previously unconditional support for ambitious environmental legislations, and for her reluctance to call out Israel for the excessive loss of civilian life in Gaza.

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One-horse race

Her main rival, the socialist Nicolas Schmit whose party polls second, has been described as a ‘good soldier sent to war’ and is all but guaranteed to lose the race. They will go head to head under the ‘Spitzenkandidaten’ process, in which Europe’s main political groups field a candidate to lead the European Commission, the bloc’s powerful executive arm.

Von der Leyen was unexpectedly chosen for the role in 2019 after French President Emmanuel Macron picked her as a suitable candidate, despite not running as a Spitzenkandidaten. The move cast doubt over the credibility of the process, which has time and again been bypassed by EU leaders.

She will require the backing of all 27 EU leaders and the newly-elected European Parliament to secure the role. Several EPP delegates claimed this procedure would be a mere “formality” and that she would cruise unchallenged to the top job.

Ursula von der Leyen speaks to Moldova's President Maia Sandu before the start of the EPP Congress in Bucharest, Romania, Wednesday, March 6, 2024.
Ursula von der Leyen speaks to Moldova's President Maia Sandu before the start of the EPP Congress in Bucharest, Romania, Wednesday, March 6, 2024.Vadim Ghirda/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved.

If she wins the backing of EU leaders, von der Leyen would then need a majority of members of the newly elected European Parliament to green-light her nomination. In 2019, she passed that test by a razor-thin margin of just nine votes. 

But in Bucharest, her political allies were confident that this time will be different.

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Von der Leyen may rely on members of the right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), set to gain seats in the new parliament's formation. Also on the right is the far-right Identity and Democracy (ID) group, which harbours the likes of Marine Le Pen's Rassemblement National and Alternative for Germany.

"Our peaceful and united Europe is being challenged like never before by populists, by nationalists, by demagogues, whether it's the far-right or the far-left," von der Leyen told the congress. "The goal is the same, they want to trample on our values and they want to destroy our Europe, and we the EPP will never let that happen."

As the June vote draws nearer, von der Leyen must juggle the two roles of European Commission President and EPP lead candidate, building a firewall between her two teams and campaigns in order to comply with stringent rules on political campaigning.

We will deliver on a 'defence union'

Von der Leyen, a former German defence minister, also established defence as a key priority for her potential future mandate.

She wants to bolster Europe's conflict-readiness with more harmonised investment in the defence industry, and to designate a new EU defence commissioner to oversee the creation of a "Single Market for defence."

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"We must turbo-charge our defence industry capacity. Europe must spend more, must spend better, and must spend more European," she said.

"The EPP is the party that has championed a Europe that can defend itself – and we will be the party that delivers a Defence Union."

The party's manifesto also floats the prospect of a European nuclear deterrent, first unveiled by French President Emmanuel Macron.

But some at the Congress called for Europe to go further, with Italy's foreign minister and EPP vice-president Antonio Tajani saying that the EU should consider having its own army. "Making a great leap", he said, would allow the bloc to "play a role as bearers of peace in the Middle East and Africa."

This article has been updated with new numbers provided by the EPP Party for the number of delegates registered to vote at the Congress. The party originally communicated that 801 delegates had voting rights, which was later revised to 737.

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