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From Green to Industrial Deal? The price tag on „Queen Ursula’s” next presidential term

When Ursula von der Leyen was picked as the European Commission’s President for the first time in 2019, stakeholders across the EU where asking: “Ursula who”? As a matter of fact, in her function as German Defense Minister at that time, the trained doctor did not hit record popularity levels. But, with her capacity to articulate herself elegantly not only in English, but also in French (as well as with her European background, having grown up in Brussels where her father had worked for the EU Commission), Mrs von der Leyen turned out, especially in French President Emmanuel Macron’s eyes, as the most suitable alternative to Manfred Weber, the EPP’s unfortunate “Spitzenkandidat” for the 2019 European Elections.

Five years later, it can be stated that von der Leyen has managed to navigate Europe through simultaneous crises caused by the pandemic, inflation, Brexit and Putin’s brutal attack on Ukraine. The “geopolitical Commission” that she had promised at the outset of her term tackled the challenges Europe was facing with sangfroid, thoughtfulness and determination. A fair evaluation of an EU Commission’s presidential term has to take into account that in times of crises national interests risk to trump supranational orthodoxy. Meanwhile, the obstructionist approach of Hungary’s Premier Victor Orban to EU’s sanctions against Russia certainly has not facilitated von der Leyen’s task. Nevertheless, the 65 years-old succeeded in holding the 27 EU members together and maintain the EU’s ability to execute a more or less coherent political agenda.

Next Generation debt, Pfizer and the Green Deal

And yet, there are a few “buts”. First of all, with the Next Generation EU fund worth 750 bn Euros, von der Leyen, in conjunction with southern EU member states but also then Germany’s Minister of Finance Olaf Scholz, drew the EU into piling up an immense financial debt which will burden European taxpayers for years, if not decades, to come. Secondly, the President did not care about receiving an official mandate before contracting pharmaceutical giant Pfizer to deliver vaccines worth billions of dollars. Last but not least an ambitious von der Leyen, in the eyes of her critics, stormed ahead with a Green Deal to position Europe as the world’s first climate-neutral continent by the year 2050, that ended up suffocating many European businesses’ competitiveness. Her stubbornness in pursuing the green agenda deserved her, rightfully or not, the nickname “Queen Ursula”.

Therefore, when the EPP gathered in Bucharest recently to nominate von der Leyen for a second term, persuading the delegates certainly came with an expensive price tag. While acknowledging her capacities in crisis management, her fellow party members made very clear to von der Leyen that pursuing a renewed “Green”, e.g. climate and ecological agenda would be a complete no-go. Rather, the pro-business wing of the EPP tabled a number of conditions designed to strengthen European industry’s competitiveness, cut red tape and soften climate protection provisions. In other words: replace the former Green Deal by a Growth, or Industrial Deal. Von der Leyen will have sworn heavily in private about this Copernican turn since it somehow wipes off a major part of what she has fought for in her first term. At the same time, she is Machiavellian enough to smartly modify some of her goals and beliefs if that eases the way towards keeping one of the most powerful political posts in the world. Power, after all, is the “ultimate aphrodisiac”, as Henry Kissinger once coined.

Merz, instead of Merkel

Not only on a sidenote, the mastermind behind the pro-growth shift is the head of the German Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Friedrich Merz. This is not without irony. Whereas von der Leyen recently was described in the media as “the last survivor of Angela Merkel’s CDU”, 68 years-old Merz, a lawyer by profession and former one-term-member of the European Parliament, takes pride in being one of former Chancellor Merkel’s fiercest opponents ever since the latter had brutally ousted him as head of the CDU’s parliamentary group in 2002. Two years into his new role as head of the CDU as well as their parliamentary group, Merz seems to be in a position to establish the conditions under which his former enemy’s friend keeps her prestigious EU job. In consequence, the next EU Commission under von der Leyen’s reign could reduce climate goals and renewable energy generation targets, stop the combustion engine ban in 2035, enable member-states to hand out more tax cuts and cut regulations on the European level to satisfy the growing demands from industries like in the “Antwerp declaration” for a more competitive, business-friendly environment.

This text was produced by the team of Hans Bellstedt Public Affairs, Berlin/Germany.

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