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The politics of Ursula von der Leyen: Too right for the left and too left for the right?

Ursula von der Leyen is seeking a new five-year term at the top of the European Commission, the bloc's most powerful institution..
Ursula von der Leyen is seeking a new five-year term at the top of the European Commission, the bloc's most powerful institution.. Copyright Virginia Mayo/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Virginia Mayo/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
By Jorge Liboreiro
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Ursula von der Leyen has presided over the most transformative years of the European Union in recent memory. But after weathering a string of extraordinary crises, her ideology might have gotten lost along the way.

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Von der Leyen has had few quiet days since moving to Brussels. Just three months after assuming office as the first female president of the European Commission, her executive was faced with a global pandemic that killed millions, brought the economy to a standstill and left wealthy governments scrambling to get hold of basic medical supplies.

The formidable test turned the president into a crisis manager, a position she initially struggled with but later appeared to rejoice. She was then tasked with guiding the bloc through Russia's invasion of Ukraine, a painful energy crunch, a steady rise in irregular migration, a combative China, ubiquitous online threats and the mounting devastation wreaked by climate change.

Now, after almost five years of emergencies, von der Leyen wants a second chance at the very top: she is running as the lead candidate, or Spitzenkandidat, for her policy family, the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), to preside over the Commission for another term. With the EPP projected to emerge victorious at the June elections, the odds are in von der Leyen's favour.

As the campaign intensifies, so does the scrutiny over her legacy and ambitious policies. Did she fulfill her promises or did she break them? Can she be trusted? These are legitimate questions for a candidate seeking to rule the bloc's most powerful institution. But the scrutiny inevitably extends to a more enigmatic question surrounding von der Leyen: Is she still a conservative?

In her speech during the EPP congress in March, she referenced World War II and touched upon a variety of topics, such as family values, security, border controls, economic growth, competitiveness and farmers, all of which tend to resonate well with right-wing voters. 

Notably, though, the intervention featured only one mention of Christian Democracy. The word "conservative" was nowhere to be found.

Even more notable was the scathing letter the French delegation of the EPP had sent ahead of the congress in Bucharest, opposing von der Leyen's nomination. Les Républicains (LR) lambasted the German for her "technocratic drift," "de-growth policies" and failure to control "mass migration."

"A candidate of Mr Macron (The French president) and not the right, she has continuously left the European majority drift towards the left," the letter read.

A few days earlier, socialists had gatheredin Rome for their own congress during which Iratxe García Pérez, the chair of the Socialists & Democrats (S&D), was asked if her group would support von der Leyen, the indisputable frontrunner, for a second term. 

García Pérez said her group was open to negotiating but insisted they would not back a contender "who doesn't accept our policies." She then went on an extensive denunciation of the EPP for abandoning the mainstream and embracing talking points of the far right. "This is a real danger," she told journalists.

Consensus vs ideology

With the right and the left hardening their positions ahead of the elections, von der Leyen's accomplishments appear caught in the middle.

The last five years have seen the Commission designing policies that cater to the right, including a sweeping reform to speed up asylum procedures, harsher penalties for human traffickers, deals with neighbouring countries to curb irregular migration, plans to boost the defence industry and a toolbox to address demographic changes.

On the other hand, von der Leyen's executive has spearheaded initiatives warmly welcomed by the left, such as a €100-billion scheme to sustain employment during the pandemic, new rules to improve the conditions of platform workers, standards to ensure adequate minimum wages, a pioneering law to protect journalists from state interference, the first-ever LGBTIQ strategy and, most crucially, the European Green Deal, a vast set of policies aimed at making the bloc climate-neutral by 2050.

But pigeonholing her proposals into an ideological sphere fails to give a complete picture of von der Leyen's true creed. Instead, they serve as a reminder of the particular nature of the European Commission, an institution that, according to the Treaties, is independent and meant to promote the bloc's general interest.

By constantly negotiating with the Parliament and member states, the president has no choice but to give preference to consensus over ideology, says Fabian Zuleeg, the chief executive of the European Policy Centre (EPC).

"She has been, in many cases, very much a crisis manager. Certainly with COVID and with Ukraine. It wasn't so much, in the first instance, about ideology. It was about reacting. But, of course, certain preferences have come through. But this has been very much in the interplay with member states," Zuleeg said in an interview.

"From a European perspective, pragmatism is the name of the game. You have to have pragmatic compromises, so you can bring enough on board to get things through."

Ursula von der Leyen has fostered close ties with leaders across the political spectrum, including Spain's Pedro Sánchez, a prominent socialist.
Ursula von der Leyen has fostered close ties with leaders across the political spectrum, including Spain's Pedro Sánchez, a prominent socialist.Bernat Armangue/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.

Some of von der Leyen's flagship actions, such as de-risking from China, reining in Big Tech, financial support for Ukraine, the revival of enlargement and the joint procurement of vaccines, further blur the line, as they can appease both sides of the spectrum.

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Instead of treating these sensitive issues through a partisan lens that risks polarisation and dissent, von der Leyen frames them as "European challenges" that require "European solutions," a vague but catchy wording that she often employs to defend her policy interventions and remain above the fray.

"What has been much more characteristic of (her tenure) is that she has very much pushed this idea of European solutions to all of these issues," Zuleeg notes. "And in some cases, it's actually very difficult to say when you look into the details: Is this really left or right? I don't think you can easily distinguish between the two."

'Queen Ursula'

Von der Leyen's careful pragmatism only compounds the mystery surrounding her political beliefs, despite the high profile and media coverage she has amassed over the past five years.

Nathalie Tocci, director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI), identifies three ideological tenets that can be attached to von der Leyen: a strong commitment to European integration, a strong commitment to the Transatlantic alliance and a strong commitment to Israel, the last of which responds to her German background.

"I cannot imagine a world in which she would give up those convictions," Tocci told Euronews. "I think the rest is really up for grabs."

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Von der Leyen, Tocci says, has been willing to reformulate her agenda and narrative "out of convenience". When she faced the Parliament in 2019 for a nail-biting confirmation vote, she bet big on the Green Deal, invoking the climate movement that back then was making headlines. Four years later, she rushed to propose exemptions to the Green Deal in a bid to quell farmer protests.

Migration is another field in which the president has swayed between a humanist perspective, speaking sympathetically about the plight of asylum seekers, and a hardline approach, calling for stricter controls and signing deals with authoritarian regimes.

"Depending on what the political trend of the day is, she could be either relatively open and liberal towards migration or she could be somewhat conservative," Tocci says. "These are things where I don't think she has very firm convictions."

An EU official, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, expressed a similar view, saying von der Leyen switches between "ideological positions opportunistically, aligning herself with whatever suits her convenience and interests at the time."

"Coherent policy implementation has been noticeably absent, with actions often appearing more geared towards seizing photo opportunities than addressing substantive issues," the official said, speaking of "political ambiguity."

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These complaints are commonplace in Brussels. Although von der Leyen has been widely praised for her determined leadership, ambitious vision and energetic rhetoric – skills that come in handy to weather crises –, she has been repeatedly criticised for pushing through the legislative cycle with little to no consultation beyond her closely-knit circle of advisors, some of whom she brought directly from Berlin.

Her penchant for centralisation, her aloof character and her avoidance of controversial subjects have garnered her the nickname of "Queen Ursula" in Brussels, which her calculated not-too-right, not-too-left campaign is bound to reinforce.

"She was progressive on climate because she needed those green votes to get elected," Tocci said. "This was, in a sense, the price to pay. Now, does this mean that she didn't believe in this at all? No, not necessarily. But does it therefore mean that she firmly believes in it? Not necessarily either."

"She's not ideologically committed," Tocci went on. "So if she now needs conservatives to vote for her – well, then she will be conservative."

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