European elections: Another five years for Von der Leyen?

Grayling Brussels, European Union

After months of speculation in Brussels, current European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has now officially announced her bid for a second five-year term. During a press conference on 19 February 2024, at an event organised by her centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party in Berlin, Von der Leyen proclaimed her wish to become the lead candidate of the European People’s Party (EPP) for the upcoming European elections on 6-9 June. This puts her in prime position to secure a second term. 

Von der Leyen remaining in power: what would this mean for the 2024-2029 mandate? 

“We must defend against divisions from within and from outside. I am sure that we have the strength to do so, and that is the task that I have set for myself,” said Von der Leyen at the CDU event in Berlin.  

In the present geopolitical uncertainty, proceeding from changes in the political landscape and the questioning of European values inside and outside of the bloc, maintaining the head of the EU executive could signal stability and unity. 

The EU’s swift response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and coordinated response (despite resistance from Hungary) is probably one of Von der Leyen’s strongest legacies. With extensive experience not only as Commission President but as former Defence Minister of Germany, Von der Leyen is likely to continue to prioritise strengthening European security and independence – especially if Donald Trump secures a second term in the US Presidential election in November, bringing back his anti-NATO, America-first rhetoric. 

Closer to home, Von der Leyen will also have to adapt to more pressing concerns within her own political group and across Europe. She is likely to face a balancing act in maintaining EU unity and keeping the far-right at bay. Despite her visionary Green Deal under the current mandate, a second term could see her priorities shift towards more urgent citizen concerns: reassuring European farmers, limiting red tape, and developing an EU Industrial Deal to boost Europe’s innovation and competitiveness. 

The Von der Leyen legacy 

While Von der Leyen clearly achieved making the EU more geopolitical and using its economic weight for the advancement of its interests, this does not mean that it has always been a success. Her uncompromising and German-induced support for Israel following the 7 October 2023 Hamas terrorist attacks was followed by silence and indecisiveness towards Israel’s atrocities in Gaza and the West Bank. As such, she is blamed for inconsistent upholding of European values and human rights, whilst severely damaging Europe’s reputation in the Global South.  

More mixed was her track record on dealing with the Covid-19 crisis. On the one hand, as Commission President, von der Leyen oversaw a relatively cohesive crisis response, with the EU managing to maintain a good degree of internal market coherence. It even enacted health-related policies (even though health is technically not an EU competence), with the joint procurement of vaccines a particular success story – though it eventually led to the Pfizergate scandal, which perpetuated the stereotype of a corrupt EU elite and did Von der Leyen’s reputation no good.  

Is von der Leyen’s return a done deal? 

Von der Leyen’s announcement is only the first step towards securing a second term as Commission President. She must be formally nominated as her party’s lead candidate, or “Spitzenkandidat”, at the EPP’s electoral congress in Bucharest, Romania on 6-7 March. 

If she is confirmed as the EPP’s lead candidate, she will become the first sitting Commission President to run for re-election while holding office since the Spitzenkandidat system’s implementation in 2014. This means she will have to abide by a set of rules that govern campaigning for EU office while remaining a Commission official, such as having to set up separate social media accounts, clearly distinguishing between statements made as a Commissioner and as a candidate, and not being able to use any resources from the Commission for campaign purposes. 

What are the chances of a second Von der Leyen term? 

If she is formally appointed as the EPP’s lead candidate (given her popularity and the fact that there is no competition from within the group, this is widely expected to be the case), Von der Leyen still needs to be nominated by Member State leaders and confirmed by the European Parliament in a public vote. As per the Spitzenkandidat process, the lead candidate of the political group with the most votes in the European Parliament election should receive a mandate to serve as Commission President. Therefore, the EPP would need to win a majority of seats in order for Von Der Leyen to assume the role – which they are currently on track to do. It must be noted, however, that EU leaders have a history of circumventing this process – so nothing is a given just yet. 

What’s the competition looking like? 

Von der Leyen will have to face contenders from other political parties, such as Bas Eickout and Terry Rientke from the Greens, Valérie Hayer for Renew, or Nicolas Schmit from the Socialists & Democrats. Currently, S&D holds second lead in polls, directly behind Von der Leyen’s party, EPP. This places Schmit, who currently holds a position as the European Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, as her strongest opposition. 

In the European Council, except for Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, no significant opposition is expected from the EU 27 leaders. Across the EU, prime ministers, such as Finland’s Petteri Orpo, Spain’s Pedro Sánchez, and others, publicly declared their support for her candidacy. 

Photo by: Vincent Kessler/Reuters