Von der Leyen faces the last part of her mandate with curves | International

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The curves become steep for Ursula von der Leyen's European Commission and for the German conservative herself in the last year of her mandate, which ends in October next year. Criticism and challenges are increasing for the first woman to head the community Executive, who seems to have specialized in crisis and emergency management. After the support received in the pandemic and Russia's war against Ukraine - two milestones in which it assumed previously unthinkable tasks, with the joint purchase of vaccines or the financing of weapons for Kiev - its position in Israel's war against Hamas can complicate an already politically very turbulent period. That crisis, together with the tough battle to expand the budget for the next period, threatens to somewhat tarnish her legacy and perhaps harm her political capital if she decides to run for a repeat term.

The German Christian Democrat, who held several positions in Angela Merkel's Government, came almost suddenly to preside over the European Commission, ahead of her political family partner Manfred Weber (European People's Party), the liberal Margrethe Vestager and the social democrat Frans Timmermans. . Her name did not dominate the first pools and she was on the lists to be high representative for EU Foreign Policy.

Perhaps that is why he has tried to design a “Geopolitical Commission”, as he promised when he took office. That aspiration and his appetite to fly over all issues has, however, generated tensions within the community Executive and with other institutions, according to several community sources. Tensions have become more acute in recent weeks due to her reluctant stance towards Israel and her controversial trip to Tel Aviv after the Hamas attack on October 7, from where Von der Leyen supported the Government of Benjamin Netanyahu on the day he launched the siege on Gaza in response to attacks by the Islamist militia.

That visit, harshly criticized for not publicly demanding that Israel comply with international law—which it violates with its total siege of the Strip—has “damaged” the EU's relations with key countries in the Middle East and the global south, according to what it claims. a high fountain in Brussels. Different countries accuse the Union of having double standards.

Von der Leyen had made other international visits without the specific mandate of the Member States - which are the ones who have the powers in international politics -, such as to Ukraine, where, however, she has expanded and raised her international profile, and skillfully navigated between the differences of the Twenty-Seven, notes Rosa Balfour in an analysis for the Carnegie Center.

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The president of the Commission has also faced other short circuits, such as the one derived from the migration pact with Tunisia, which she launched without a clear mandate from the partners and which, despite the fact that it is foundering, she now wants to revalidate with other countries of origin and transit - such as Egypt—to prevent the arrival of migrants to the EU. However, in an issue as divisive as the Middle East, Von der Leyen's gesture in Tel Aviv has upset many due to this invasion of powers, and has further strained her complicated relationship with the president of the European Council, Charles Michel. .

Ursula von der Leyen and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on October 13 in Tel Aviv. DPA via Europa Press (DPA via Europa Press)

“The crisis in Israel and Gaza – because we must not forget that it was the Hamas attack that triggered this episode – is added to the war in Ukraine and, therefore, requires an additional effort on the part of the European Commission and the EU. ”remarks a spokesperson for the European Commission about whether the current context complicates the last stretch of Von der Leyen's mandate. That period appears almost surrounded by crises: the end of Brexit, the pandemic and Russia's war against Ukraine, which has shaken the European security architecture and has also impacted the EU through the energy crisis or inflation.

“This mode of constant emergency plays in favor of the head of the community Executive, who remains the favorite for a second term,” considers Alberto Alemanno, Jean Monnet professor of Law and Politics of the European Union at HEC Paris. “Although its unilateral and unconditional stance in support of the Netanyahu-led government's revenge against Hamas and the Palestinians trapped in Gaza has not found the support of the majority of the Twenty-Seven, it has not as such eroded its support in the EU,” it continues. the expert. “EU leaders, including rebel Viktor Orbán [primer ministro húngaro] and the Slovak Robert Fico, continue to support it while allowing them to act in constant defiance of the EU without finding any rupture,” adds Alemanno.

Priority areas

The Commission has presented 69% of the initiatives announced in its six priority areas - Green Deal, digital, economy, international scene, European model of life and democracy - according to a report from the European Parliament. And among these crises, the Recovery Fund, the joint purchases of vaccines against covid-19, the ecological transition plan (Fitfor55), the digital services law or the reform of the electricity market have been carried out. And also historical milestones such as shared financing to send weapons to Ukraine. Although several sources criticize that the head of the community Executive has often shown her face by overshadowing the substantive work of her commissioners.

Now, Von der Leyen also wants to add to her list the beginning of the major reforms that the EU needs before the next major enlargement. Almost two months ago, in her last State of the Union speech, the German gave many clues, especially in her tone, that she would want to protect them. In recent times, however, the president of the Commission is losing steam — she has watered down her green policies a bit — and adding criticism, for example, for what some perceive as a stance that is too close to the United States.

And there is still a tough road ahead to achieve the expansion of the European budget before the end of the year, with a possible spills for partners of almost 100,000 million euros. A proposal from Von der Leyen that does not satisfy a good number of Member States that are now negotiating it. Above all, to the most frugal ones, like Germany, the Netherlands or Denmark. Tensions are increasing. Early Thursday morning, during a very tense debate with the leaders of the Twenty-Seven during the European Council summit, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz ridiculed the one-page report that Von der Leyen presented to him with the new chapters of unforeseen spending - endorsement for Ukraine, immigration, funds to make the EU more competitive, support against natural disasters—directly calling it a graphic cartoon, according to several people present in the room.

Charles Michel, Olaf Scholz and Ursula von der Leyen, at the European Council, on Friday.
Charles Michel, Olaf Scholz and Ursula von der Leyen, at the European Council, on Friday. OLIVIER HOSLET (EFE)

Thus, the great budget battle (for the period 2024-2027) prior to the major reforms to absorb the new members is festering. Several partners, including Denmark, have accused Von der Leyen of keeping funds under the rug while he demands new disbursements for the common budget.

The Commission notes that the budget review has only just begun and that there is a “shared awareness” of the financial needs that arise; in particular of the numerous simultaneous crises. “Now it is important that we quickly reach an agreement,” says a spokesperson for the Community Executive, who foresees “intense debates” in the coming weeks with the help of the Spanish presidency of the Council of the EU, which this semester is in charge of negotiating with the Member States and which has now accelerated to try to close the new budget (with the spills) Before the end of the year.

“No part of the mandate has been easy, given the successive crises: covid, Brexit, Russian invasion of Ukraine,” says the spokesperson for the Community Executive. “The President and the Commission have greatly learned how to manage this situation and have shown that it is possible to find effective responses at European level,” he says. While the crises continue, Brussels has entered electoral mode, with the European elections and the fight for key positions. Von der Leyen, who has also been suggested as Secretary General of NATO (she is one of the favorites for the United States), has not clarified whether she will run. “Von der Leyen is perceived as strong enough to be credible internationally and weak enough internally to receive practically unanimous support,” says Alberto Alemanno.

The German conservative has many rivals and does not seem to have it easy within her own party either, where Weber has confronted her over measures such as her ecological initiatives, although in recent weeks he has supported her position on Israel (and her trip), as Partners such as Austria and the Czech Republic also do so, seamlessly. Von der Leyen can also count on strong rivals within her political family such as the president of the European Parliament, the Maltese Roberta Metsola.

To repeat (if she finally steps forward), Von der Leyen needs the support of the Twenty-Seven. And maintain the support of his in-laws. So he is still left, several sources point out. And the race until October 31, 2024 could be very long.

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