Strack-Zimmermann blasts von der Leyen for dragging her feet on defence policy

Strack-Zimmermann blasts von der Leyen for dragging her feet on defence policy

Strack-Zimmermann, who hails from the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), is part of a three-candidate team representing the liberal forces in the bloc-wide poll between 6 and 9 June. Currently a member of the Bundestag, where she chairs the Defence Committee, she is vying for a seat in the European Parliament.

In a wide-ranging interview with Euronews, the contender denounced the policies of Ursula von der Leyen, the sitting president of the European Commission, in the fields of defence, economy and fundamental rights. Von der Leyen is running for a second mandate and is widely considered the frontrunner.

"I'm absolutely disappointed," Strack-Zimmermann said on Monday, speaking in Maastricht hours before a debate with all lead candidates.

The liberal assailed the incumbent for taking too long to put defence at the very top of the EU agenda, only doing so, she said, after Russian troops broke through the borders of Ukraine and unleashed the largest armed conflict in the continent since World War II.

The wait, she added, was particularly striking considering von der Leyen had previously served as defence minister under the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"I have no idea why she didn't talk about military security when she started to be the president of the Commission because she knows the topic, she has an idea of what happened," she said, referring to the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

"I was surprised that didn't say: 'Come on, we have to do more in Europe,' because she has the experience."

When Russia's invasion began in February 2022, von der Leyen's executive was still dealing with the shockwaves sent by the COVID-19 pandemic and the roll-out of the recovery fund, built up by record-breaking amounts of joint borrowing and beefed up with stringent spending conditions to accelerate the green and digital transitions.

But in Strack-Zimmermann's view, this does not cut it as an excuse for procrastination.

"I know the pandemic situation was terrible for everybody. But even then, you could see what (was happening) in Russia. And it was not this or that, it was both. I think if you are the head of the Commission, there is not one (single) topic," she told Euronews.

"It's not a very sexy topic talking about weapons, talking about war. It sounds nicer if you are talking about the Green Deal, it's a softer topic."

The failure to provide 1 million rounds of artillery shells by March 2024, as the bloc famously promised to Kyiv, underlines the overall fiasco, she added. "It's a question of time. It's a question (of) if you say we will deliver it, we have to do it."

On the economic front, the contender warned environmental policies and excessive bureaucracy put a damper on growth, scared entrepreneurs away and killed "every moment to have ideas to stay in Europe as a company."

Regarding the protection of fundamental rights, Strack-Zimmermann said it was "unbelievable" that the Commission had unfrozen €10.2 billion in cohesion funds for Hungary one day before a crucial summit that Viktor Orbán had threatened to blow up.

Brussels argued the release was inevitable after Budapest approved a reform to address long-standing concerns about judicial independence. But the overhaul was deemed insufficient by the European Parliament, which filed a lawsuit against the Commission.

"Everybody was very irritated," Strack-Zimmermann said. "She's responsible for it. And you could see that the Parliament is not amused about this situation."

Despite her harsh assessment, the liberal admitted that being a Commission president was a "hard job."

This interview is part of an ongoing series with all the Spitzenkandidaten. The full interview with Strack-Zimmermann will air on Euronews over the weekend.