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A reflection on the presidency of Ursula von der Leyen

Adelie Aubin

Last week, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, spoke at the State of the European Union, where she retraced the events of the past year and laid out hopes and guidelines for the upcoming European challenges. In her address to the member states, von der Leyen highlighted the challenges the EU has overcome during her presidency: the on-going European conflict between Ukraine and Russia; the energy crisis; the climate crisis; and European external affairs. 


This State of the Union address (SOTEU) also concluded Ursula von der Leyen’s first mandate. And, whilst she has not confirmed her hopes for a second mandate, the nature and contents of her speech were very much aimed at preparing the field for an extension of her time in Brussels.  


Let’s look back on what von der Leyen’s mandate was composed of, and what to expect from the upcoming elections. 


When von der Leyen assumed her presidency of the European Commission in 2019, Europe was a continent facing a rise of populism and far-right movements, and an impending and complicated Brexit deal. It seems like much has changed in the past four years; the world has been ravaged by a global pandemic and a European conflict, forcing us to reconsider our globalisation chains. Europe has indeed entered a new geopolitical landscape, with the Ukrainian conflict facing Russia – and, more than ever, we are grasping the disposability of our resources and the effects it has on our planet. 


Von der Leyen’s plans for a more integrated European project were to be paved with green agreements, digital innovations, and international agendas.  As of today, it is to be recognised that the current Commission’s President has indeed enforced a general movement towards a greener Europe – mainly through the Green Deal. This devotion to reducing emissions by at least 55% by 2030 through the electrification of the economy (that is, moving towards electric vehicles and more energy-efficient buildings) is a massive step forwards not only for climate conservation, but also for the European integration project. Ursula von der Leyen announced that Chinese electrical cars would not be sold in the European market, creating easier conditions for EU-made electrical cars.


Her presidency was accentuated by the economic and geopolitical developments within the European Union. Economically, the Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme (PEPP) demonstrated the importance of European institutions in terms of monetary rule and the influences it exercises over its member states. A lot of criticism against the European Central Bank (ECB) is carried around the loss of sovereignty around monetary policy flexibility, yet the 750 billion euros were proven to have eased the pandemic’s shock on the eurozone economy. 


Additionally, when Europe was undergoing its waves of vaccinations, the European Commission presented the Vaccines Strategy to ensure continent-wide access to these vaccines, in terms of production and supply. 


Finally, the geopolitical turn that the European Union encountered in March 2022 with the war in Ukraine, was unprecedented. The united diplomatic support of the EU was strong, and EU member states such as France and Germany sent arms to support the invaded nation. Howeve, as this united support slowly dissolved over time, countries affected to different extents by the conflict could no longer continue providing support. Poland, for example, can no longer sustain its military support as it faces shortages of grain and other resources. The geographical aspect of this conflict weakens the military role the Union can have as an entity in and of itself.


And yet, as the European elections approach, they will certainly not depend on the EU’s foreign policies. 

The waves of European unity are slowly reverting back to the nationalist sentiments which prevailed in the continent before the pandemic. The prices of electricity and other goods continue to surge, and the Green Deal is only a baby step compared to the mountain of work the EU still needs to do for climate action.


So, what should we expect the EuropeanPparliament to look like this upcoming spring? Will Ursula von der Leyen assume a second mandate within the Commission? 


In 2019, a strong green wave of votes penetrated the youth of Europe. But, at the same time, the far-right parties asserted themselves on the benches of Brussels. Projections so far for the 2024 elections indicate a rise in popularity for right and far-right parties. This can be explained by the sentiment within several EU member states that Europe does not do enough to tackle the matters which affect the daily lives of their citizens. 


The plans to manage the surge in electricity and gas prices are unsustainable, and, realistically, are not working. Further, how are member states supposed to move towards using more electric vehicles and renewable resources, when the prices of said resources are through the roof? How can the Union continue to support a conflict which shows little prospect for resolution, and mostly, which affects member states differently? 


These questions will remain in the minds of European citizens until it is time to step in the voting parlor once again. 


Image: Getty Images

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