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When Ursula von der Leyen decided to pin her legacy on uniting Europe to stop catastrophic climate warming and rebuild its economy, she called the effort “Europe’s man-on-the-moon moment.”
Then the world changed: the pandemic. war Inflation. A huge US plan to lure green investors.
This has left the EU’s most prominent leader in an existential dilemma: to be able to deliver on his lofty Green Deal promises – seemingly made a lifetime ago – von der Leyen will inevitably have to anger the right people whose support he needs to stay in office.
The result is a landscape strewn with political landmines.
The European Commission president has not indicated whether he intends to seek a second term, but if he does, he will need two things: the support of his home country, Germany, and a sign-off from the EU’s 27 national leaders. There is also one thing that would be powerfully helpful: support as a candidate for his own pan-EU political party, the European People’s Party (EPP).
Every climate decision on the horizon is bound to anger one (or more) of these key constituencies. Billions of euros are on the line. Whole industries will be created, others will wither.
The clock is ticking. Von der Leyen’s five-year term ends with Europe’s 2024 elections, and Brussels is already shifting into campaign mode.
“It’s a very complex constellation to decide on its future,” said Christian Ehler, a German MEP from von der Leyen’s party, the EPP.
On Thursday, von der Leyen will face the group that has the final say on its future: Europe’s 27 national leaders. His Green Deal industrial plan, designed to combat a major US green subsidy push, has left von der Leyen wedged between economic giants France and Germany, who want him to allow the countries to provide more money to local companies; And smaller countries, which are not able to give their companies the same support as Paris and Berlin
An EU diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic matters, said von der Leyen’s re-election “will obviously depend mostly on Germany and France (they run Europe after all).” But at stake is the support of 25 other member states who have repeatedly done so. The diplomat added that issuing warnings about subsidies would make it “impossible”.
Deepening his dilemma, von der Leyen is also dependent on the German government if he wants to stay in power. His name should be mentioned as the representative of the country in the European Commission.
Berlin’s political constellation has changed significantly since von der Leyen first became president. At the time, his own Christian Democratic Party was in power and von der Leyen was a favorite of then-Chancellor Angela Merkel. Now, he faces a coalition of social democrats, business-friendly liberals and the Green Deal, a coalition of ruling parties crucial to the Greens. Adding to the intrigue, under the government coalition agreement, if von der Leyen does not become president, the Greens can choose Germany’s next commissioner.
Another constituency that could make or break von der Leyen’s ambitions for another five years in power is the EPP, the centre-right political party in the European Parliament that has traditionally had an ear for business concerns. Meanwhile, its officials are showing signs of frustration with von der Leyen’s climate push, which it believes is putting too much pressure on companies.
At a dinner in late January, the German EPP delegation in Brussels confronted the commission president — not for the first time — for pushing too quickly on the green agenda, according to three people present.
The conversation, though polite, was forced. And von der Leyen could not ignore the messengers. Not only are they his countrymen and political stablemates, they will also determine who will be the EPP candidate for the post of Commission President.
The day after the EPP’s German crew broke bread with von der Leyen, the group’s president at the dinner, Manfred Weber, opined in Berlin’s Morgenpost that the party was lucky to have two strong candidates: von der Leyen and European Parliament President Roberta Metzola. This is far from an explicit von der Leyen endorsement.
Weber’s inclusion of the more conservative Metsolar echoed grumblings in Brussels.
“There are candidates around, like Metsola, who seem to have support … from smaller European countries,” the EU diplomat said.
Damage to technocracy
Meanwhile, the EPP is quietly fueling the fire according to von der Leyen’s green regulatory agenda.
Since late last year, the EPP – represented in the EU’s three institutions of Parliament, Commission and Council, which speak for EU countries – has fought against the Commission’s climate legislation. It has tried to regulate a torpedo of pesticides and chemicals, tossed in rules to make companies more accountable for their supply chains, and tossed out energy-saving requirements for new products.
Other, non-German members of the EPP are directing a much harder line on the Green Deal to the pro-industrial, German wing of the party.
“Manfred Weber and the German side are dictating what we do, and the CDU has been sliding in the right direction for 10 years,” one EPP lawmaker said, referring to von der Leyen’s Christian Democratic Party. “It’s very sad to see.”
There is a concern among EPP officials that von der Leyen’s centre-right political leanings have been swallowed up by the consensus-driven machine of Brussels policymaking and the Commission’s giant bureaucracy, which could become a liability for von der Leyen.
“Everyone forgets to be political … this is a reality that Brussels faces,” EPP party secretary general Thanasis Bakoulas told Politico.
German MEP Ehler blamed the commission for turning the Green Deal into “the biggest regulatory effort in history”. He and other conservatives are pushing for a more industry-friendly version of the Green Deal.
And, significantly, those designing the EPP’s campaign strategy for the 2024 elections support the push.
“We have to say”It’s just.’ Forget about this red tape,” said Bakolas, who will play a key role in crafting the party’s messaging. “The EPP position on the Green Deal is not a sudden rejection of the initiative as a whole,” he added. “The money, the policies, the good intentions are there – but we have a long way to go to make the policies as effective as we want them to be.”
Such rifts are expanding into von der Leyen’s own territory, the European Commission.
Two senior commission officials told POLITICO that there is growing conflict among the 27 commissioners over the green deal, with EPP commissioners seeking to block green legislation perceived as burdensome for business. Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton, who is from France and is not a member of the EPP, has opposed some green efforts that are widely seen in Brussels as attempts to position himself for the top job.
“Politically … it’s difficult,” Financial Services Commissioner Mairead McGuinness recently told POLITICO in Davos. “I’m starting to hear from somebody that it’s too much, it’s too heavy, we have to be careful not to overburden companies,” he said, referring to his work on sustainable finance. “And of course, we need to listen, because competitiveness is now on the agenda.”
Executive Vice President Frans Timmermans, the Socialist commissioner overseeing the Green Deal (and potential von der Leyen rival), has had to “fight tooth and nail” to keep parts of the package, particularly chemicals and other environmental files. Being completely abandoned, a commission official said.
“For the EPP, it doesn’t matter how much it helps Europe’s sustainability and future growth, as long as you keep the industry afloat now,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak on the record.
McGuinness, whose Irish Fine Gael party is part of the EPP, said of the rift: “The right balance of ideology and pragmatism has to be found here.”
Von der Leyen’s spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, lobbying efforts to put the brakes on the commission’s green ambitions and listen closer to industry appear to be effecting a quiet transition.
A senior commission official, also not authorized to speak publicly, pointed to the decision to delay measures to combat greenwashing as part of the circular economy package announced last November – a key part of the commission’s Fit for 55 agenda.
“It was seen as politically controversial because of the headwinds at the time,” the official told Politico. “But ultimately, it will be put back on the agenda in March. The key now for von der Leyen and his team is to pick their moments.
As von der Leyen tries to strike a balance — keeping her green pledge without being too anti-business — pro-industry voices are convinced she is making changes and paying more attention to the long-term needs of business and industry based on green ideals.
Peter Leys, a German MEP from the EPP who has led work on several climate files in the European Parliament, has lobbied to remove red tape so that companies can more easily invest in clean technology. It was a key part of what von der Leyen laid out in his new European industrial plan to be discussed by leaders this week.
“He’s listening,” Lace said.
Sarah Ann Arup contributed reporting.