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To be (there) or not to be? Brussels at odds over von der Leyen's presence at key job talks

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel during an EU summit in Brussels, Oct. 27, 2023.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel during an EU summit in Brussels, Oct. 27, 2023. Copyright AP Photo/Omar Havana
Copyright AP Photo/Omar Havana
By Alice TideyGerardo Fortuna
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EU leaders meeting in Brussels next week will start discussing who should get top jobs, including the Commission chief role Ursula von der Leyen has been holding for five years and would like to extend for another term.

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Should Ursula von der Leyen take part in an EU leaders’ meeting where they will discuss her possible reappointment as Commission president? That’s the latest conundrum seemingly tearing the European Council and Commission apart.

EU leaders are scheduled to meet for an informal dinner on June 17 to discuss the next five-year institutional cycle and crucially, who should get coveted EU top jobs such as the next presidents of the European Council, Parliament and Commission as well as the next High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security policy.

Ursula von der Leyen, the current Commission chief and lead candidate for the centre-right EPP party that claimed a comfortable first place in last weekend's European elections, believes she should take part.

"We understand that this is an informal dinner of the members of the European Council of which the president of the Commission is a member and therefore we expect her to be there," a Commission spokesperson told reporters on Monday.

EU leaders, who make up the rest of the European Council, are not so certain.

According to an EU diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity most of the 23 heads of state or government European Council President Charles Michel has had discussions with over the past week to organise the dinner would rather she did not attend.

“A large majority of leaders have a strong preference that they have a behind-closed-doors debate, with no candidates present so to allow for frank exchanges," the diplomat said.

A second, smaller group has expressed no preference while a "very small group" is in favour of von der Leyen attending, according to the diplomat.

Von der Leyen faces more difficult path to nomination

This is only the third time such an informal meeting will be held for leaders to hash out who should helm the EU's most high-profile jobs.

Former Commission presidents Jean-Claude Juncker and José Manuel Barroso attended the ones in 2019 and 2014 respectively but both had already ruled themselves out of the race.

Von der Leyen, however, is actively campaigning for a second term as president of the Commission, the EU's powerful executive arm. Under the spitzenkandidaten system, where the candidate chosen by the party ahead of the elections is meant to secure the job if they get the most seats, she should get the nod.

The EPP won 185 of the European Parliament's 720 seats, nearly 50 more than their nearest rivals, the left-wing Socialists & Democrats.

But the actual nomination remains in the hands of leaders, who can, like they did in 2019, decide not to respect the spitzenkandidaten system and pull a name out of hat, resulting in von der Leyen's appointment over the then-EPP lead candidate, Manfred Weber.

Among the names murmured around Brussels as a possible replacement for von der Leyen, who reportedly fell out of favour with French President Emmanuel Macron, is former Italian Prime Minister and European Central Bank President Mario Draghi.

Securing leaders’ nomination for Commission chief is only the first hurdle. The nominee then needs to be approved by a majority of European lawmakers, which von der Leyen received in 2019 with a razor-thin majority of just nine votes.

Von der Leyen, whose flirtation with hard-right, eurosceptic partiesduring her campaigning has not gone unnoticed by the EPP’s traditional pro-EU allies, could find that even more difficult to achieve this time.

Charles Michel will meanwhile step down in October as he maxes out on the two consecutive two-and-a-half years terms set in the Treaties for the role of European Council president.

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