Ursula von der Leyen

Von der Leyen wants a stronger Europe in the world. She has taken steps towards this objective, as among her commissioners we can find influential global figures such as Borrell, Timmermans, and Vestager. Her decisions in the EU politics field would be influenced by this purpose. During her career in Germany, as a Defence minister in Merkel’s Cabinet, she has shown the world that she is a challenging politician who seeks to make her objectives achieved. Her attitude and support between other Member States’ leaders and other influential personalities might soften her path. Even though her political desires are ones, her power is very limited in the field of foreign policies because of the European Council – in this institution, she has the support of Merkel and Macron, two powerful figures – and the Member States themselves. In the domestic scope she needs the approval of the EU Parliament to pass legislation. Her paper, anyway, is vital in the EU long-term budget design, and we have to bear in mind that she is one of the EU faces when talking about EU foreign

From “Great Reformer” to “President of the Rich”, Emanuel Macron has been given many labels throughout his presidency. An ambitious political leader, Macron has been confronted with the realities of French public opinion, the power of labour unions and opposition to his liberal policies. Nonetheless, Macron has had success implementing certain reforms on his quest to create jobs, make the French economy competitive and limit public debt. A European visionary, Macron has repeatedly sought to accelerate European integration but is limited by European partners who are unwilling to trigger the necessary reforms in such a short time span. Finally, the French president has sought to use French diplomatic power to maintain French influence in West Africa and strengthen transatlantic ties. The following sections will outline Macron’s political manoeuvring to achieve his objectives of domestic reform, European reform, French foreign policy in Western Africa and transatlantic politics. 

The EU Parliament’s role for Ursula von der Leyen and her accountability

According to the EU Treaties, von der Leyen, as President of the European Commission, determines the Commission’s policy agenda defending the general European interest. She also is meant to give political guidance to the Commission, lead its work in implementing EU policies and represent the EC in European Council meetings, including the G7 and G20 summits, in bilateral summits with third countries, and in major debates in the European Parliament and the Council, with representatives of national governments. 

The fields in which von der Leyen has a more powerful role is in the initiation of the law-making processes. We can consider that Von der Leyen as the president of the Commission has a very big influence in the decision context of which policies are sent to the Parliament and Council. While the Parliament will have the last word on the matter, the power to initiate is on the Commission. Nevertheless, in general terms of decision context, Ursula Von der Leyen depends heavily on the Parliament. 

In other words, this implies that within the decision context there is a big power in terms of initiating the conversation, but in the actual decision context, the power competes with the EU Parliament (mainly) and the Council.

In any case, we can be sure that von der Leyen would take advantage of her position and political contacts, as she has done during her political career in Germany. Also, we have to bear in mind that she, is part of the most voted political party in the European hemicycle, so it is expected to have her will supported by the Parliament.

Another limit to her actions: the European Council and national governments

Von der Leyen is a politician with strong ties to military issues and “hard” diplomacy tools, as she has developed a political career as defence minister. As a consequence, she is aware of the existing need for a strengthened European Union in defence matters, mainly because of the dependence the EU has on the U.S. in this field. 

Despite her expertise and willingness in building a more geopolitical EU, reaching a bigger strategic autonomy, von der Leyen ambitions can be struck. The Commission does not have powers to implement legal acts in common foreign and security policy. It is in the European Council where the political guidelines that the EU should follow rely on, so the weight of intergovernmental agreements could undermine Von der Leyen’s ambitions. The opinion of member states would affect von der Leyen’s decisions, so the Council has to agree to what she proposes.

Ultimately, she has very limited power in decision making in terms of foreign policy. She can hold meetings with the Council and try to convince the members, however, there is no power to initiate the law-making process.  

Despite this, we must bear in mind that the High Representative of the Union is also Vice-President of the European Commission, and therefore Ursula von der Leyen maintains a certain amount of influence on Josep Borrell. A degree of influence that could be greater than it may appear from the outside.

Not a Spitzenkandidat

Ursula von der Leyen was the second candidate proposed by the European People’s Party to preside over the European Commission. Her candidacy was approved by an adjusted majority in the EU Parliament. Concretely, she only won 383 of the 374 required to be elected, while 327 MEPs voted against her. Currently, she is ruling with the backing of her parliamentary group, EPP, and also with the Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats (S&D), and the liberal Renew Europe group, although the latter groups are divided on whether to support her or not. This means that von der Leyen must rule with diligence, as her political aspirations may be blocked by a Parliament which does not entirely support her. 

The afore-mentioned is relevant as the policies initiated by the European Commission, need the approval of the EU Parliament. As a consequence, von der Leyen would have to make use of her negotiating abilities in order to reach her political goals towards the EU. A thing that would probably happen as she tends to be more progressist than her party colleagues – at least regarding the economy and social affairs -, and that could lead to the support of the more left-wing groups.

She is one of the EU’s faces, which means she shapes geopolitics.

As it is stated above, the European Council is the institution responsible for defining the main lines of EU foreign policy. It can be assumed, then, that von der Leyen has little to say there, but it is not the case. The EC President represents the Commission in the European Council meetings, thus, von der Leyen can influence the decision-making debates that are developed in that frame. Furthermore, the High Representative Josep Borrell is a member of the Commission, and as a consequence, he might be influenced by von der Leyen.

Also, von der Leyen is the face of the European Union in the G7 and G20 summits, and in bilateral summits with third countries. That means a lot of power in shaping diplomacy relations and playing in the geopolitics scenario. It is in those situations where we see a woman who is not afraid of talking about a powerful European Union, referring with these words to a more military and geopolitically-relevant EU in the global dashboard; a position which differs from the normative and economic strategies usually undertaken by the European Commission when it comes to foreign policy.

Also, from an economic perspective, the maintenance of strategic alliances of the EU will be a key factor in this geopolitical strengthening, an example of which is the meeting held on 26 May 2020 between the EU and Charles Michel – President of the European Council – and the Japanese Prime Minister, to reaffirm and deepen their relations. These economic alliances coincide with the defence of a liberal economy typical of the German political party -CDU- from which the President comes.

Von der Leyen, in her position as EC President, can also shape geopolitics by economic means, a traditional tool in the EU foreign policy. Common commercial policy is an exclusive competency for the EU, a field in which the Commission negotiates, prepares and makes proposals, while it seeks the approval of the Council and the EU Parliament. Thus, the European Commission and, as a consequence von der Leyen, has a fundamental paper to play in economic agreements with third parties.

Domestic policy as a tool for geopolitics

In the field of domestic policy, she would focus her energy on achieving her ultimate goal, a stronger Europe in the world. This is not only achieved by foreign policy but also by strengthening some aspects of the internal functioning of the EU itself, such as the economic one. Regarding the economy, she wants to establish a Common Consolidated Tax Base at the EU level, as well as other measures to reach a more solidarity-based European Union. In fact, she has also made statements in which she said that she would be more flexible towards Italy and their debt.

Claudia María Yáñez Sangil

Research and Analysis Intern