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What does Von der Leyen need to do to stay in power?

The landscape facing any president of the European Commission has shifted with defence plans, protesting farmers and the muscle of the far-right all growing factors

When former German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen was first put forward to be president of the European Commission in 2019 it was famously done in a back-room deal between Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron, in a handshake that cast aside the official candidate of her centre-right European People’s Party (EPP).

Her bid for a second term will require similar political deal-making between the EU’s major political forces. This time, the altered dynamics are expected to require beefing up EU defence policy, compromising on green laws and catering to the hard-right. There may be pitfalls ahead.

Commission presidents must be nominated by the leaders of the 27 member states. This process, which will take place after European Parliament elections in June, always involves horse-trading for all the top jobs in Brussels, with the major political forces sharing out the roles between them.

The nomination must take into account the results of the European Parliament elections, with the primary candidate for the presidency as a rule coming from the political force that comes first in the vote, historically Fine Gael’s European People’s Party. This candidate must then be approved by a majority vote in the European Parliament.


The next parliament is widely expected to shift to the right, with large numbers of hard-right MEPs expected from France, Germany and Italy. Currently fragmented in parliament, these groups could represent a serious force if they came together.

In recent months, von der Leyen has appeared to be positioning herself politically in anticipation of catering to these hard-right forces. The farmers’ protests that have taken place in various European countries represent, for the EPP, the risk of losing disaffected rural voters to the hard-right.

As they increased, von der Leyen compromised or backtracked on a series of Green Deal laws, the legislation intended to get the EU to meet its climate commitments and reverse the collapse in biodiversity that was once her flagship policy pillar. She has sought to allow more shooting of wolves, suspended plans to require farmers to leave part of their land unused to allow nature to recover, and scrapped proposals to reduce pesticides use.

This approach is not risk-free. The ultimate result of the elections is uncertain, and von der Leyen could find herself needing to rapidly reverse course to court the support of the centre-left bloc, the parliament’s second-largest force.

Will a Franco-German pact prevail once again?

Though the German chancellor Olaf Scholz is from the rival centre-left party to von der Leyen, it’s considered highly unlikely that Berlin would not back a German commission president. When it comes to getting the support of France, the issue of defence is key.

Von der Leyen has said that, if reappointed, she would name a commissioner for defence, the first time this has been done and a major step forward for EU defence co-operation. The French commissioner, Thierry Breton, is widely thought to have his eye on the role. It would involve co-ordinating directly with the EU defence industry to increase production where strategically required, offering stimulus money if needed – a job that echoes Breton’s role in coaxing up vaccine production during the Covid-19 crisis.

France has much to gain from this, with a large defence industry and long-held policies that favour local industry.

However, von der Leyen is an Atlanticist, and there are signs of friction with this French vision. She has spoken of the importance of keeping defence equipment synchronised throughout Nato – in other words not shutting out the US defence industry – and the merits of choosing a central or eastern European to be defence commissioner.

What does it mean for Ireland?

Von der Leyen’s controversial decision to express unqualified support for Israel on behalf of the EU at the outset of its invasion of Gaza has done deep damage to her public image in Ireland.

The commission president has a very tightly controlled inner circle. For some, her response, which was in the mainstream for a German politician but jarringly out of step in other member states, revealed the extent to which she remains in a German political bubble.

Ireland’s election results are expected to swing the opposite way to the general European trend, with Fine Gael losing seats and a strong showing for left parties, particularly Sinn Féin. There is the potential that a von der Leyen reappointment could land badly.

When it comes to Ireland’s next role in the commission, Fine Gael’s Mairead McGuinness wants a second term and will argue that she is best placed to have a senior, influential position. However Fianna Fáil say it is its turn to choose Ireland’s nomination from within its ranks.

Its liberal Renew party has until now been the third force in parliament and key to deal-making, holding a number of top jobs. However it is expected to lose seats overall in the next European Parliament and though much is uncertain, its influence could slip. To have the best chance at Ireland landing a senior post, Fianna Fáil would need to nominate someone with a high international profile.

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