European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen is concentrating ever-more power in her own hands — and it’s happening in parallel with the European Union’s drift to the right.
Taking on unlimited powers has always been a temptation for European right-wing leaders. A full decade ago, Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán began to theorize “illiberal democracy.” He was followed in 2019 by Matteo Salvini, leader of the hard-right Lega, who demanded “full powers” to change Italy.
But when it comes to the president of the European Commission, this tendency looks particularly disastrous, at a time when the future of the EU is hanging in the balance. The bloc’s democratic deficit has not been solved; rather, it is today aggravated by alleged breaches of the rule of law, both in member states and at the EU level itself.
Not only the EU’s democratic standing is today at issue, but also its social vocation, in a time when tens of millions are hit by the rising cost of living. In such a context, Von der Leyen’s actions represent both the result of the EU’s neoliberal turn — and the premise of its further illiberalization.
The State of the Union
“In just under three hundred days, Europeans will take to the polls in our unique and remarkable democracy.” It was with these words of praise for the EU’s democratic vigor that Von der Leyen started her “State of the Union 2023” speech on September 13.
In the United States, the “State of the Union” tradition was begun by George Washington in 1790, and since the invention of mass media has at least supposedly represented a unifying moment. In 2010 the EU also introduced the idea of an annual speech by the European Commission president. Supposed to announce the legislative agenda — and allow the president to be held accountable — this speech is also about this leader’s political capital.
With her term almost over, Von der Leyen is clearly eyeing a second spell in office. That is why she effectively turned this State of the Union into a campaign speech for next June’s EU election, as was clear from the first lines cited above.
But also evident is a right-wing drift: the more proper term would be the “Melonization” of Von der Leyen. The president, who led various German ministries under Chancellor Angela Merkel, belongs to the European People’s Party (EPP), whose leader is Manfred Weber. Two years ago, the EPP intensified its talks with the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), led by Italy’s far-right Giorgia Meloni. This dialogue resulted in a tactical alliance that is today developing apace.
Already before Meloni, leader of the postfascist Fratelli d’Italia party, became Italian prime minister last October, she had boycotted attempts to form a Europe-wide far-right alliance, as proposed by Matteo Salvini, Viktor Orbán, and Marine Le Pen. In return for this role of saboteur, Meloni could become an interlocutor of the ruling right-wing force in the EU, namely the EPP. Without Weber’s normalization of the Italian postfascist leader, it would have been more difficult for her to govern. But this is exactly what she has secured.
In January 2022, the election of the EPP’s Roberta Metsola as the president of the European Parliament was the first test of this alliance itself; the ECR group, which also includes Spain’s Vox and Poland’s Law and Justice, got a vice president. Most importantly, it secured the breaking of the previous cordon sanitaire against the far right. Then came the elections in Sweden and in Finland, whose new prime ministers both belong to the EPP and are both governing with support of far-right parties. EPP chief Weber opened the door to these kinds of deals: postfascists and post-Nazis are no more a taboo for the EPP when it comes to governmental alliances.
The “Melonization” of Ursula von der Leyen
Despite the political infighting between them, Manfred Weber and Ursula von der Leyen have come to terms. While the European Commission president thinks about her second term, her current one is making a clear shift to the right.
Von der Leyen is well known for her centralizing methods: sometimes even her EU commissioners get shut out of decision-making. During the pandemic, Von der Leyen’s ambition for “full powers” came to light when the New York Times wrote about her negotiating with Pfizer about vaccines “with texts and calls.” Already months beforehand, members of the European Parliament had denounced the European Commission’s lack of transparency, as symbolized by the “dark room” where only a few of them, for a few minutes, could take a look at heavily redacted contracts.
After “SMS-gate” exploded, the European Ombudsman concluded that “the Commission should have searched for the documents requested, including those not registered. The Commission’s failure to do so is maladministration.” The European Public Prosecutor’s Office is investigating the case, and the office’s head denounced the European Commission’s “lack of information”.
The tactical alliance with Meloni is exacerbating Von der Leyen’s attitude. The president of the European Commission showed her support to Italy’s prime minister on several occasions: when Meloni invites her, Von der Leyen follows. She went to Emilia-Romagna after the flooding in the northern Italian region, and then to the island of Lampedusa when Meloni spoke of Italy shouldering a migration crisis.
But the pair’s trips to the Tunisian capital this summer were the most interesting, in terms of the EU’s lack of democratic legitimacy. Von der Leyen gave Meloni a stage for her propaganda — and a chance to promote the idea of an agreement with Tunisia’s authoritarian president Kais Saied to manage migration, stopping people crossing the Mediterranean. While Saied is an exponent of “great replacement” theory and has destroyed democracy in his country, the European Commission rapidly signed the memorandum with Tunisia.
Sophie in’t Veld, a liberal member of the European Parliament and a strong defender of the rule of law, immediately pointed out that the memorandum had the legal status of “a beer coaster.” In’t Veld asks, “Why were Mark Rutte and Giorgia Meloni with the EU Commission, when the memorandum was signed? What’s the legal status of this so-called ‘Team Europe’ delegation? This is a fantasy body!” Von der Leyen “is more and more ignoring checks and balances; she is blurring the separation of powers. The final effect is the lack of a democratic control: Who should we hold accountable for this memorandum?”
The inconsistency of the EU-Tunisia agreement was evident in September: High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell reported that “several member states expressed their incomprehension regarding the commission’s unilateral action.”
Despite Borrell’s letter, dated September 7, a week later Von der Leyen claimed in her State of the Union address that “we have signed a partnership with Tunisia . . . and we now want to work on similar agreements with other countries.”
“We, the people” is now turning into “me, Von der Leyen.” The State of the Union 2023 is emblematic in this regard. Projected toward the 2024 election, Von der Leyen announced new roles, new proceedings, and new appointments, of which she is the one and only keeper.
“We will appoint an EU SME [small and medium enterprises] envoy and he will report directly to me” — she said, shifting from “we” to “me” — “and for every new piece of legislation we conduct a competitiveness check by an independent board.” She announced, “I have asked Mario Draghi to prepare a report on the future of European competitiveness.”
The EU legislative process already provides for public consultations. The choice to invent a new role for representing corporate interests should be read as a wink to the EPP’s base; but Von der Leyen does no more than widen the EU’s yawning democratic deficit. Corporations and lobby groups already have a privileged access to the European Commission’s policymaking, unlike NGOs and civil society groups, which often remain unheard by Von der Leyen and her commission. The tactical alliance between the EPP and Meloni is also visible in their combined assault against NGOs. Italy’s far right started attacking NGOs rescuing migrants, while Weber used the corruption scandal known as “Qatargate” to try imposing limits on NGOs’ activities in Brussels.
The Rule of Ursula von der Leyen’s Law
“The EU Commission is not inclined to listen to trade union representatives, and the president completely excluded workers from her annual address: she found no room to talk about unaffordable prices or about workers’ rights,” Belgian left-wing member of the European Parliament Marc Botenga tells me.
The EPP group respects ever less the cordon sanitaire against the far right; but at the same time, it projects this cordon against the Left, whether it is left-wing parties or climate activists. “The objective is to delegitimize and marginalize dissent,” Botenga says.
Ursula von der Leyen and Giorgia Meloni’s grip on power is designed to prevent dissent. The vulnerability of the European democratic governance should be considered together with the push for neoliberal policies. Brussels has not buried austerity at all: despite the common response to the pandemic with the “NextGenerationEU” initiative, the debate about the reform of the Stability and Growth Pact is still guided by the principle of tightly controlling public spending. The centralization of powers in the hands of right-wing neoliberal leaders can worsen both the lack of a social Europe and the EU’s democratic deficit.
In 2021, the European Parliament put pressure on Von der Leyen because of her delay in triggering the so-called rule of law conditionality mechanism, a new leeway that allowed Brussels to freeze EU funds in case of a breach of the rule of law. Because of a silent agreement between Angela Merkel and Viktor Orbán, the European Commission president waited until the Hungarian elections of April 2022 before triggering the mechanism.
Since the tactical alliance between the EPP and Meloni’s ECR began, threats to the rule of law have increased, from Italy to Greece. Despite this, Von der Leyen spends her “private holidays” at the beach house of Greek premier Kyriakos Mitsotakis, and openly indulges Meloni’s propaganda. In her State of the Union 2023, Von der Leyen announces that “we will open the Rule of Law Reports to accession countries.” The president makes no mention of Hungary, Poland, Greece, Italy, and the hard-right governments constantly eroding democracy in Europe.