When German conservative politician Ursula von der Leyen took over at the helm of the EU executive branch in late 2019, she vowed to make the European Commission a more “geopolitical” force. Little did she know what lay ahead.

The outbreak of war on the European Union’s doorstep in Ukraine, and the rush to arm Kyiv against Moscow in many ways overturned the EU’s traditional image as a peace project. 

“In the last years, many European illusions have been shattered,” von der Leyen told the European Parliament last week, presenting plans to massively boost EU weapons production capacity. “The world is as dangerous as it has been for generations.”

On Wednesday, the former German defense minister is expected to receive the backing of the largest faction in the European Parliament, the center-right European People’s Party, at its congress in Bucharest.

EU Commission president seeks second term

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With the center- and far-right forecast to fare well in June’s EU elections, being named the EPP’s lead candidate would set von der Leyen in good stead, though it would not guarantee she would stay in the highest EU post until 2029.

In Europe, her legacy positions are clear: backing Ukraine against Russia, greening the EU economy, paving the way for EU neighbors to join the bloc, and more recently a drive to beef up European defense. But assuming she emerges triumphant later this year from the top job race, what would another half-decade of von der Leyen mean for critical players in the rest of the world?

China: Von der Leyen, not Beijing’s favorite

Beijing may be the EU’s top trading partner along with the US, but the von der Leyen years have seen a hardening in the bloc’s stance towards China. The European Commission president advocates “de-risking” relations with China, which the EU has labeled a “systemic rival.”

In practice, that means seeking a more diverse list of suppliers for crucial goods and raw materials, such as microchips, as well as creating new tools to protect European trade, like the anti-coercion tool.

Von der Leyen has also criticized  Beijing for increasing domestic repression, for failure to make its economy more open and equal to foreign businesses, and for not siding with the EU and against Russia in the Ukraine war.

Compared to previous generations of EU politicians, “she’s not the kind of politician [Chinese leader] Xi Jinping is happy with,” said Alicja Bachulska of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

Ursual von der Leyen sits across from Xi Jinping at tables separated by plants
EU-China talks in Beijing in December focused on trade disputes and their divide over UkraineImage: Liu Bin/Xinhua/AP Photo/picture alliance

Beijing, in return, has accused the EU of meddling in its internal affairs, of prolonging the conflict in Ukraine with its arms supplies, and of bowing to pressure from Washington. President Joe Biden is an outspoken China critic.

Bachulska said she believed the hardening had more to do with changes in China itself. 

“[Von der Leyen] was basically forced to deal with a China that was and still continues to be much more revisionist, much more assertive, much more willing to influence third countries, also using economic coercion,” she said. If von der Leyen stays on until 2029, we can expect to see more of the same: continued cooperation in many fields, but an overall harder line, Bachulska said.

Africa: Migration, critical resources and beyond

Before the war in Ukraine started, von der Leyen had made rebooting relations with African countries one of her top priorities. Her first foreign trip was to Ethiopia within a week of taking office.

Mindful of the expanding influence of China in the continent, von der Leyen announced a $170-billion investment plan for Africa, about half of the EU’s Global Gateway infrastructure investment drive, in 2022.

While events closer to home may have reshuffled the agenda, the EU remains deeply interested in Africa for various reasons, Maddalena Procopio of the ECFR told DW.

One is migration, a politically explosive topic in the EU. The EU is keen to have sub-Saharan African countries stem the exodus of people seeking a new life in Europe, something which in recent years it has increasingly tied to development aid. It has also signed a migration-stopping deal with northern African departure state Tunisia that human rights groups have slammed.

“Such migration deals are important,” Procopio noted, especially if the EU shifted further to the right in upcoming elections. “But I don’t think they’re the only story in the relations between Europe and Africa.” The EU is keen to tap into the economic opportunities offered by a continent with a young demographic profile, she stressed.

Above all, African states contain vast amounts of natural resources, particularly minerals, that are critical for the EU’s ambitions to green its own economy in the coming years, Procopio said. The EU is signing agreements with states like Namibia, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The ECFR analyst believes that for whoever holds the presidency of the European Commission, African states will remain key.

Middle East: ‘EU has lost a lot of friends’ over Gaza

If von der Leyen stays on, she has her work cut out winning back the trust of one region in particular. With the Palestinian death toll in Gaza now reported at over 30,000 and UN officials warning of “inevitable famine,” the EU’s standing in much of the Middle East has nosedived since Israel started its retaliatory military operation following Hamas’ October 7 terror attacks.

In a recent survey from the Doha Institute, 80% of respondents in 17 Arab countries saw the French and German responses to Gaza as”bad” or  “very bad.”

The EU has been deeply divided on the conflict and struggled to speak with one voice. Von der Leyen was criticized personally for too closely siding with Israel, while her foreign affairs chief, Spaniard Josep Borrell, has taken a much harder line on Israel.

A tank kicks up dirt as it drives along a border fence
The EU’s position on the Israel-Gaza conflict has cost the bloc a lot of supporters around the globeImage: Amir Cohen/REUTERS

As a result of incoherence among member states and EU institutions, “quite a bit of damage has been done,” James Moran, a former long-time EU diplomat, told DW” “The EU has lost a lot of friends around the world, not least in the Arab world, but also elsewhere in important countries like Indonesia and Malaysia,” the Center for European Policy Studies analyst said.

“Borrell has worked extremely hard to try to repair that damage and has had some success. But there’s still a long way to go,” Moran, who was previously a top EU foreign policy advisor on Middle East and North Africa, continued. As for von der Leyen” “I would hope that lessons have been learned,” he said.

Latin America: Mercosur deadlock

Under a second term of von der Leyen, the most significant item on the agenda with Latin American partners remains the 22-year-old unfinished business of the contested EU-Mercosurfree trade deal.

France and Ireland are opposed to opening EU markets to imported agricultural goods, above all beef, without further environmental confessions from the four Latin American partners, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. These countries, in return, protest “green protectionism” from the EU.

Von der Leyen’s team had hoped for a breakthrough late last year, but the issue appears to have been shelved again. A wave of farmers’ protests in the EU will not make finalizing the deal easier for the next European Commission.

Unpredictability in the US, and the world

The EU breathed a collective sigh of relief with the departure of volatile, isolationist former US President Donald Trump from the White House and the arrival of traditional trans-Atlanticist US President Joe Biden.

With Trump looking likely to secure the Republican party nomination, his potential re-election in November would have huge implications in the EU on everything from support for Ukraine to the US position on Russia and NATO but also trade disputes.

As James Moran of CEPS pointed out, “unknowables” like the outcome of the US elections mean we shouldn’t expect von der Leyen to stick to every one of her policies or approaches if she stays on. “Mandates can change depending on objective conditions, and I think you will have to see how things play out.”

Edited by: Andreas Illmer


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