Von der Leyen Faces Tricky Balancing Act to Seal New EU Term

(Bloomberg) -- In theory, it should be smooth sailing for Ursula von der Leyen to clinch a second term as European Commission President after her party won the most seats in the EU elections. In reality, it may be more complicated.

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With the EU’s top jobs typically doled out on the basis of the results of European Parliament elections, von der Leyen is well-positioned to remain in power after her center-right European People’s Party won the elections with 185 seats in the 720-seat chamber.

To confirm a second term, the 65-year-old German needs the backing of a majority of EU lawmakers and a majority of the 27 heads of state or government. Securing that’s gotten harder after far-right parties made major gains across Europe.

The only obvious way of winning a vote in the legislature means adding support from the center-left and liberal groups to the EPP’s vote. But the policy mix required to make that work will be trickier to sell to leaders who are worried about the advance of the far-right at home. EU leaders are scheduled to meet June 17 and June 27-28 to discuss the appointment.

“There is still a lot of hard work ahead of me,” von der Leyen said on Sunday evening after the vote.

Von der Leyen’s two biggest stakeholders — German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron — were the biggest losers on Sunday. Both suffered heavy defeats and were outperformed by the far right.

That prompted Macron to call snap legislative elections at the end of June, which could cement far-right rival Marine Le Pen’s gains while hampering Macron’s ability to push through policies — although it doesn’t throw his own position into doubt.

France’s vote could delay decisions on the top jobs until July or even the fall, according to Pawel Zerka, a senior policy fellow at the Berlin-based European Council on Foreign Relations think tank.

“Macron is pretty central in agreeing the next EU leadership and he will be fully focused on domestic elections until mid-July,” Zerka said. “Others will also wait for the French legislative result because it may require a different setting at the EU leadership level.”

Still, turmoil in France may work in von der Leyen’s favor, at least to some degree. While Macron has been floating alternative names to lead the commission, including former Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, that push appears weaker now in light of the election results, one EU diplomat said.

Others insisted that the French vote won’t delay the process. The bloc’s other EU leaders also have an interest in resolving the discussions sooner rather than later in order to avoid a prolonged fight, people familiar with the matter said.

They want to avoid creating a political vacuum when the bloc is about to step up its trade offensive against China, mulling further aid for Ukraine and preparing for the potential return of Donald Trump to the White House. Everybody is aware of the importance of reaching an agreement quickly, one senior diplomat said.

Manfred Weber, head of the European People’s Party, said there’s a “good chance” EU leaders will informally propose von der Leyen at their meeting on June 17. “That could be the best outcome, the best scenario,” he told Bloomberg Radio in an interview late Sunday.

Almost half of the EU’s 27 prime ministers come from the EPP and “that means we have a strong role to play,” Weber said. “I hope we can also convince liberals and socialists to contribute to the stability idea.”

Some diplomats also pointed to the possibility of a preliminary deal during next week’s discussion, but that would also mean reaching an understanding over the other top jobs up for grabs. Leaders are also expected to discuss the appointment on the sidelines of the Group of Seven summit in Italy this week and at a summit on Ukraine in Switzerland this weekend.

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Antonio Costa, Portugal’s former center-left prime minister, is seen as the front-runner to take over from Charles Michel as European Council president in spite of the allegations of influence peddling that forced him to resign from government, EU diplomats said.

The support of the opposition leader in Portugal and center-right prime minister, Luis Montenegro, the backing of large delegations including the Spanish socialists and his good relationship with leaders from other political parties all play in his favor, while the invevstigation has lost weight in Portugal, the people said.

Meanwhile, Estonian prime minister Kaja Kallas, a liberal, is seen as the front-runner to become the EU’s new high representative for foreign affairs and security, although some capitals remain lukewarm because of her singular focus on Russia’s threat. Kallas herself played down her chances on Monday.

Von der Leyen has prioritized building bridges with her two current coalition partners in the parliament. But the Greens, who voted against her five years ago, are prepared to talk as long as she doesn’t reach an agreement with the far right and she keeps the green priorities intact.

Bas Eickhout, the Greens’ lead candidate, told reporters his party is open to supporting von der Leyen. “We are ready to negotiate, we are ready to discuss that with the other political groups,” he said. “For us democracy and the Green Deal are very important elements that need to be addressed.”

--With assistance from Stephen Carroll and Lyubov Pronina.

(Updates results in the second paragraph.)

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