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EU conservatives back Ursula von der Leyen for second term

March 7, 2024

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has won a symbolic vote ahead of EU elections in June. She was the only candidate at the conservative European People's Party (EPP) caucus in Bucharest.

The President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen addresses the audience during a plenary session at the European People Party (EPP) Congress in Bucharest, Romania, on March 7
Ursual von der Leyen first became European Commission president after serving as Germany's minister of defenseImage: Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images

The center-right European People's Party (EPP), the European Union's leading political group, on Thursday endorsed European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen as its candidate for a second term at the bloc's helm.

Von der Leyen, 65, was the only candidate on the ballot at the EPP caucus in Bucharest, Romania, and received 400 votes from delegates, while 89 voted against her. She will now lead the EPP into June's European Parliament elections, in which it is expected to remain the largest grouping.

EU under threat from 'populists, nationalists and demagogues'

The former German defense minister was first elected to the influential EU position in December 2019 and has since steered the bloc through Brexit, the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia's invasion of Ukraine, a related rise in energy prices, the war in the Middle East and the ongoing challenge of illegal migration to the EU.

The first woman ever to hold the job, she has also overseen ambitious European climate and environmental policies and world-leading data protection legislation.

"Our peaceful and united Europe is being challenged like never before by populists, nationalists and demagogues who want to trample our values," she told EPP delegates in the Romanian capital.

"And here at home, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's friends are trying to rewrite our history and hijack our future. They are spreading hate from behind their keyboards. Let there be no doubt what's at stake in this election." 

Fears of populist surge ahead of 2024 EU elections

European elections: will von der Leyen need votes from further to the right?

Winning a standing ovation, von der Leyen vowed to advance EU economies, clamp down on people smugglers, strengthen competitiveness and support farmers as costs of living rise. She promised more financial and military aid to Ukraine and reaffirmed her intention to boost Europe's own defense capabilities.

"Prosperity, security, democracy – this is what people care about in these difficult times," she said. "In times of change, Europe has your back."

Despite Thursday's EPP endorsement, securing the necessary majority in the new European Parliament, where Eurosceptics are expected to win more seats, could still be the biggest hurdle for von der Leyen to clear, possibly forcing her to seek votes beyond the broad political center.

Thierry Chopin, special adviser at the Jacques Delors Institute, told the AFP news agency that von der Leyen appears to be "looking for votes further to the right" in particular by moving closer to Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, with whom she recently traveled to Kyiv.

Faced with growing discontent and far-right parties riding high in polls, von der Leyen has pushed climate concerns to the backburner since announcing her bid a few weeks ago.

EU Commission president seeks second term

mf/ab (Reuters, AFP)