Analysis: Von der Leyen's electoral overture to Meloni could pay dividends – or totally backfire

Giorgia Meloni and Ursula von der Leyen have developed a good working relation over the past two years.
Giorgia Meloni and Ursula von der Leyen have developed a good working relation over the past two years. Copyright Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.
Copyright Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.
By Jorge LiboreiroVincenzo Genovese
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Ursula von der Leyen has given her strongest indication yet that she would be willing to work with Giorgia Meloni's hard-right party after the upcoming elections to the European Parliament.


The overture, which had been previously hinted at, was offered for everyone to hear during the first debate between lead candidates on Monday evening.

Von der Leyen, the sitting president of the European Commission and indisputable frontrunner for a second term, was quizzed on whether she would cooperate with the  European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group once the new Parliament is formed.

ECR encompasses hard-right, Eurosceptic forces such as Fratelli d'Italia (Italy), Law and Justice (Poland), Vox (Spain), New Flemish Alliance (Belgium), Civic Democratic Party (Czech Republic), Sweden Democrats (Sweden) and Finns Party (Finland). Reconquête!, the movement of France's controversial firebrand Éric Zemmour, joined earlier this year.

"Where do you stand on ECR?" asked Bas Eickhout, the Greens representative. "It's time that you are clear that you are not going to cooperate with ECR!"

"First of all, it's the European Parliament that has to find majorities," von der Leyen answered. She then delivered an off-topic explanation of why the rule of law was important for her political family, the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), which prompted the moderator to intervene and repeat Eickhout's question.

"It depends very much on how the composition of the Parliament is and who is in what group," she said.

"What?!" interjected Eickhout.

Standing by her side, Nicolas Schmit, the socialist candidate and current Commissioner for jobs and social rights, quickly jumped into the fray to score much-needed points after an underwhelming performance.

"I was a bit astonished by your response, saying it depends on the composition of the European Parliament," Schmit told von der Leyen, who, technically speaking, is his boss.

"Values and rights cannot be divided according to some political arrangements. Either you can deal with the extreme right, because you need them, or you say clearly there is no deal possible because they do not respect the fundamental rights (that) our Commission has fought for," he added.

The exchange immediately became the did-she-really moment of the evening, as it put von der Leyen, a well-prepared, eloquent speaker, in a tight spot.

The awkwardness was made only worse by way of comparison: the president, a few minutes before the ECR back-and-forth, had delivered a stinging rebuke against Anders Vistisen, the representative of the far-right Identity and Democracy (ID) party, which is saddled with allegations of Russian and Chinese influence and has repeatedly, and unabashedly, voiced talking points favourable to the Kremlin.

"We should not be distracted from the real problem. And these are the proxies of Putin, who try to destroy the European Union from within through disinformation and polarisation. And we see an example here tonight," von der Leyen said about Vistisen.

"I want to be very clear. We will not allow that you will destroy the European Union! We are stronger than you and we will fight your interference with all means!"

Two stateswomen

The grilling of von der Leyen could be reframed in blunter terms: How right is too right?

This enigma has loomed over the incumbent for months, even before she officially announced her re-election bid in mid-February

An EPP party, Forza Italia, is in alliance with Giorgia Meloni's Fratelli d'Italia (ECR) and Matteo Salvini's Lega (ID) in what analysts have described as the most conservative government in Italy's modern history. Fratelli d'Italia's post-fascist inheritance has further reinforced the image of a regressive executive.

But the ECR-ID-EPP collusion, initially received with dread in Brussels, has baffled critics as Meloni began showcasing a more pragmatic approach to EU politics while pushing forward her conservative agenda at home.


Last year, Meloni held amicable meetings with her counterparts from the "Big Four" – Germany's Olaf Scholz, France's Emmanuel Macron and Spain's Pedro Sánchez – despite all of them espousing fairly different projects. The vis-à-vis series played in her favour, building up a reputation as an emerging stateswoman with an influential clout.

Giorgia Meloni and Ursula von der Leyen have worked closely on migration and asylum policy.
Giorgia Meloni and Ursula von der Leyen have worked closely on migration and asylum policy.Roberto Monaldo/LaPresse

She has meanwhile been on joint trips with von der Leyen to Tunisia, Lampedusa, Kyiv and, most recently, Cairo, where they proudly announced a new €7.4-billion deal to boost Egypt's flagging economy and beef up border controls.

The fact that three of these four trips were all about migration reflects a growing ideological symbiosis. After the Commission voiced a vague reaction to Italy's protocol to offshore asylum tasks to Albania, von der Leyen called it "out-of-the-box" thinking. On the other hand, Meloni's backing was essential to move forward with the comprehensive reform of the EU's migration and asylum policy.

The president's team has also relied on the Italian premier to act as a powerbroker with Hungary's Viktor Orbán to prevent the collapse of the bloc's multi-faceted support for Ukraine, which von der Leyen often touts as one of her greatest accomplishments.

'Clearly not the way'

The question, therefore, should not be whether von der Leyen would work with Meloni but whether she would extend that invitation to all her bedfellows, like Vox in Spain, Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland and Reconquête! in France, forces that are much less reticent to emulate Meloni's pragmatism and defy the thin, undefined barrier between hard right and far right.


According to polls, ECR is projected to grow significantly after the June elections, potentially becoming the third-largest formation in the European Parliament with the addition of some non-attached, like-minded parties, such as Orbán's Fidesz.

The ECR group, Meloni predicted last week at a campaign rally, is poised to "play a pivotal role in changing European policies."

The shifts help explain von der Leyen's careful movements, as her potential second term would have to be confirmed by EU leaders and, then, by the European Parliament. While she has unmistakably repudiated Identity and Democracy, blasting them as "Putin's friends," her rhetoric has so far spared ECR, as Monday's debate again demonstrated, to keep communications open – and possibly secure about 80 votes in her favour.

"Meloni's party would support Ursula von der Leyen or another candidate if they get something important in return," said Doru Frantescu, the CEO of EU Matrix, a research platform, who suggested the portfolios of competition or internal market.

"It is not unconditional support, they have no reason to do so."


But leaving the door ajar to ECR, a group that has vowed to turn the Green Deal "on its head" and opposes the "proliferation of cancel culture," could easily backfire and spiral out of von der Leyen's control: an endorsement by Meloni is certain to alienate the socialists (S&D) and Greens in the Parliament, who have been fundamental in helping the president advance the most transformative proposals of her first term.

"This is clearly not the way," S&D Leader Iratxe García Pérez said on social media after watching the debate. "Europe needs to stop those who want to destroy our democracies. Not to make pacts with them!"

"What was always an open secret is now official and clear," said Katrin Langensiepen, from the Greens. "Shame!"

The liberals of Renew Europe could also be turned off by the tacit alliance with a group that has assailed women's rights, abortion access and the LGBTQ community. The inclusion of Orbán's Fidesz would prove simply indigestible for the free-marketeers, who have made the fight against democratic backsliding one of their top priorities.

"Anyone who votes for Ursula von der Leyen's CDU (Christian Democratic Union of Germany) in the European elections is choosing cooperation with this policy," said Moritz Körner, a German MEP with Renew Europe.


With a mass rebellion of socialists, greens and liberals, von der Leyen would face an impossible path to re-election. Her centrist agenda would collapse in plain view. But with an open rejection of ECR, she could risk a damaging backlash among her centre-right peers, some of whom see Meloni's coalition as a workable, effective template.

It would be up to basic arithmetics and von der Leyen's political instincts to balance the scales and carve her way up to office.

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