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Can Ursula von der Leyen snag a second term in EU's top job?

Bernd Riegert in Brussels
February 25, 2024

The president of the European Commission wants to stay in office until 2029. Does Ursula von der Leyen have what it takes?

Ursula von der Leyen speaking at a conference
Ursula von der Leyen was a relative unknown outside Germany before being catapulted into the most powerful job in the EUImage: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

Ursula von der Leyen has been at the helm of the European Commission since 2019. The 65-year-old is the first woman to hold the presidency of the EU executive branch. But despite being of retirement age, the German center-right politician isn't hanging up hat her just yet.

On February 19, she announced her bid to secure another five-year term, which would keep her in office until 2029. Von der Leyen has unfinished business: the transition to EU "climate neutrality," for example, and shepherding Ukraine's hoped-for accession to the 27-member bloc.

"I think Ursula von der Leyen has done a good job," her predecessor, the Luxembourger Jean-Claude Juncker, said late last year. "I know her job and its difficulties," he told German radio broadcaster Deutschlandfunk. "It is not only the most important EU job around, it is also the hardest. Not everyone is up to it. But she is."

Von der Leyen, a former German defense minister, went public with her plans at a Berlin meeting of her domestic political party, the conservative Christian Democratic Union. She will likely secure nomination as the European People's Party's (EPP) candidate for the presidency at an upcoming Budapest convention in two weeks' time. The center-right, 83-party, pan-European EPP bloc currently holds the most seats in the European Parliament.

EU member states call the shots

But due to the way EU politics work, von der Leyen won't run a direct electoral campaign to stay in her job ahead of the EU-wide poll in June, when citizens will elect the members of the bloc's legislature.

First, her fate is up to the heads of the EU's 27 member states, who begin the process by nominating candidates.

Ursula von der Leyen, in a coronavirus mask and coral jacket, stands next to a machine at a Pfizer facility in Puurs, Belgium, as others look on
Von der Leyen's term has been marked by unexpected crises, a pandemic and the return of war to EuropeImage: John Thys/AFP

The Commission presidency is just one of a number of posts to be negotiated this summer. The presidencies of the European Council and European Parliament, as well as foreign policy representative, must all be unanimously appointed, explained Janis Emmanouilidis of the Brussels-based think tank European Policy Centre.

"Von der Leyen's chances aren't bad, but it definitely won't be easy," he said.

Above all, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a fierce opponent of von der Leyen, could block her nomination. "He will definitely name a price," said Emmanouilidis. "And then you need the approval of the European Parliament. It was already very tight back in 2019."

EU lawmakers must sign off

The ball then passes to what will be a newly elected European Parliament, which can approve or reject the choice. In 2019, von der Leyen barely made it over the finish line, with a majority of just nine votes.

This time around, the hunt for a majority could be even tougher. Judging from electoral polls, more right-wing populists and other unpredictable candidates look set to pick up seats in the 720-member parliament.

Italian center-left EU lawmaker Brando Benifei told DW the EU needed change. "I don't think it's a good idea for the European Union to have von der Leyen again. She is trying to become the best friend of nationalists like [Italian Prime Minister] Giorgia Meloni. She has been promoting proposals on migration that are against the interests of the European Union."

Ursula von der Leyen smiles and shakes hands with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy
Steadfast EU support for Ukraine has been one of von der Leyen's flagship policiesImage: Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

In Brussels, many have praised von der Leyen for proving her mettle as a crisis manager during the COVID pandemic and leading the EU response to Russia's war against Ukraine. "It was not easy for Ms. von der Leyen to keep the troops together. She has succeeded and deserves praise and recognition for this," said predecessor Juncker, who also hails from the EPP.

Martin Schirdewan, of the European Parliament's left-wing GUE/NGL group, sees things differently. "What has she actually achieved? She is a master at announcing and producing wonderful headlines. But when it comes to protecting democracy, fighting poverty and strengthening industry in Europe, she has not delivered. Expectations have not been met. That has to improve," he told DW.

Emmanouilidis of the European Policy Centre acknowledged that von der Leyen has at times overpromised, but said it's part of her political strategy. "She has often put more on the table than was ultimately delivered," he said. "But that's part of what you have to do, in communication and in the pressure you exert, if you want to find compromises at the European level and not just talk about leadership but also try to show it."

Trump could make life tricky

When von der Leyen left the German Defense Ministry in Berlin to take up her post in Brussels, she claimed she would lead a "geopolitical Commission." She initially focused on improving cooperation with African nations, but Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 put that project on the back burner.

Generally speaking, it's difficult for the European Commission to truly determine foreign policy, according to Emmanouilidis. "In foreign and security policy, the member states have the central competences and must decide unanimously," he said. "The European Commission does not hold the scepter alone. It's really complex at the European level."

EU Commission president seeks second term

Moreover, there is a chance von der Leyen will have to reckon with Donald Trump running the White House again from 2025. The two do not have a good relationship. An intensification of trans-Atlantic trade disputes would be likely.

"It will be a challenge for all of us," said Emmanouilidis, assessing the prospects for von der Leyen if she does win a second half-decade in office. "It won't just be difficult for the president of the European Commission to deal with. We will all have problems — within the EU but also in NATO."

This article was originally written in German

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union