Tested by crises, von der Leyen poised for hawkish second term

Ursula von der Leyen will need once more to deploy her trademark public smile and steely diplomacy as head of the commission (FREDERICK FLORIN)
Ursula von der Leyen will need once more to deploy her trademark public smile and steely diplomacy as head of the commission (FREDERICK FLORIN)

Ursula von der Leyen has navigated back-to-back crises from Covid to the Ukraine war as head of the European Commission, and stands on the verge of a no-less tumultuous second term, provided she can lock in support from EU lawmakers.

In giving von der Leyen the nod for five more years, EU leaders on Thursday sent a message about their priorities for the 27-nation bloc -- putting security first at a time of marked geopolitical uncertainty.

Top of her in-tray is the war in Ukraine, and how Brussels can keep supporting Kyiv in its fight against Russia's army even as the West braces for US presidential elections in November that could return Donald Trump to power.

Ahead of June elections that kept her centre-right European People's Party as the biggest force in the European Parliament, von der Leyen pivoted away from climate change to position herself as champion of a hawkish new European security outlook.

On that front, the 65-year-old's past as a former German defence minister should come in handy, as will relationships developed with powerful leaders and corporate bosses.

More contentious may be how she sees through the European "Green Deal", a flagship achievement of her first term, given it has turned politically toxic, under fire from farmers, part of her own political family, and voters.

- Narrow path in parliament -

Von der Leyen was a relative unknown outside Germany when she was tapped for the top EU job in 2019, in a surprise deal between Paris and Berlin.

The welcome in Brussels, the city where she was born and lived until her early teens, was cool to say the least. She secured the European Parliament's backing by just nine votes.

This time around it could be tight again in the parliament, with the EPP needing allies to secure a majority vote backing von der Leyen.

They could come, as before, from the leftist Socialists and Democrats and the centrist Renew groups. Or, controversially, from the far-right European Conservatives and Reformists that include the party of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, whom von der Leyen has been courting.

"VDL," as she is known in EU circles, has her detractors.

During her first term the commission chief worked to expand the bloc's international role, and also pushed -- overstepped, her critics would say -- the boundaries of her own job.

She has on occasion infuriated EU leaders, like last October, when while visiting Tel Aviv she backed Israel's right to defend itself against Hamas without insisting that any military response must be bound by international law.

Operating from the 13th floor of Berlaymont, the commission's hulking headquarters where she also has her sleeping quarters, she relies on a tight-knit coterie of advisors -- a practice that rubs many the wrong way, as does her bulldozing, top-down leadership style.

But von der Leyen has indisputably made her mark in Brussels.

"There were a couple of major inflexion points where she managed to do the things that were needed and made herself visible doing them," one European diplomat said.

When Europe was brought to its knees by the Covid-19 pandemic, von der Leyen steered a groundbreaking 750-billion-euro ($815 million) recovery plan.

After Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, she resolutely supported Kyiv and set to work on reducing Europe's energy dependency on Moscow.

Beyond the bloc's borders, she is said to have built a strong relationship with President Joe Biden, providing an answer to the old question attributed to Henry Kissinger: When the US president needs to speak to Europe, who does he call?

- 'Sofagate' -

Though the mother of seven -- and first-ever woman as commission chief -- has long championed women's rights, von der Leyen's gender has seldom been an issue in office -- save for an infamous incident known as Sofagate.

During a visit to Istanbul in April 2021, the commission chief found herself relegated to a sofa during a meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Charles Michel, her European Council counterpart, when both men took seats in a pair of armchairs.

The scene went viral, and von der Leyen pulled no punches afterwards, telling lawmakers: "I have to conclude, it happened because I am a woman."