EU leaders move closer towards giving second term to Ursula von der Leyen

<span>The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen. Her European People’s party has the largest number of seats in the European parliament, improving her chances of getting a second term.</span><span>Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/EPA</span>
The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen. Her European People’s party has the largest number of seats in the European parliament, improving her chances of getting a second term.Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/EPA

EU leaders are converging on a second term for Ursula von der Leyen as head of the European Commission but have failed to reach a quick agreement.

Meeting for the first time since elections shifted the European parliament to the right, with big gains for nationalist and far-right parties in France and Germany, EU leaders discussed how to fill the bloc’s top jobs on Monday.

The European Council president, Charles Michel, expressed confidence of agreement next week, while declining to answer if there had been a majority for von der Leyen or candidates for the other senior roles. “It is our collective duty to make a decision by the end of June,” he told reporters at about midnight.

Over a dinner of pissaladière (flatbread with onions and anchovies), pan-fried pollack and rum baba, EU leaders discussed three positions. Von der Leyen, who has led the commission through the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine, has seen her chances of a second term boosted as a result of her European People’s party taking the largest number of seats in the European parliament.

Former Portuguese prime minister António Costa is widely favoured to take over from Michel as president of the European Council, making him responsible for crafting compromises between EU leaders. Estonia’s prime minister, Kaja Kallas, has been floated as the EU’s new top diplomat, a position currently occupied by Josep Borrell.

But pitfalls lie ahead for all three. Poland’s prime minister, Donald Tusk, called for “public clarification” about a corruption scandal that forced Costa from office last year. Costa, who won three elections, has not been accused of any crime, but an investigation into alleged influence-peddling by his Socialist government is in progress.

Peter Pellegrini, Slovakia’s president, standing in for the prime minister, Robert Fico, who was hospitalised in an assassination attempt, said leaders needed to be “very careful” about who would represent the EU at international level.

“We have to have there a person which will be able to calm the situation, which is now extremely under huge tension,” he said.

Pellegrini did not name anyone, but his point could be seen as a veiled criticism of Kallas, a noted Russia hawk, from a government that is less hostile to Russia.

Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, whose party was expelled from the EPP in 2022 because of concerns about deteriorating democratic standards, has already made clear he will not support von der Leyen.

In a typically pugnacious social media message after the summit, he accused the EPP of making a deal with the Socialists and liberals to divide the top jobs among themselves. “They will continue to support migration and send even more money and weapons to the Russia-Ukraine war,” he said.

Von der Leyen, however, can be appointed without unanimous support of EU leaders.

Arriving at the summit, Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, said it was important for a decision to be made quickly. “Given that the political platform that has so far supported President [von der Leyen] in parliament once again has a majority, I believe it will be possible to find a sensible solution quickly,” Scholz said referring to the centre-right, centre-left and centrist groups that backed her in 2019.

The outgoing Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, said: “I am positive about Ursula von der Leyen, but I am not saying we support her.” He added that there was a question about the whole package of jobs.

While von der Leyen’s ascent looks fairly smooth in the European Council of EU leaders, she also has to win over the European parliament.

As that campaign continues, the commission president was accused of delaying a critical report on media freedom in Italy to assure the support of Giorgia Meloni.

The Italian prime minister, who is also the leader of the European Conservatives and Reformists in the European parliament, has yet to say whether she supports von der Leyen.

Von der Leyen may turn to Meloni’s ECR MEPs to assure she gets enough votes in a European parliament vote in July.

Outgoing Dutch liberal MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld alleged that von der Leyen had misused her powers in exchange for currying support.

Von der Leyen “has politicised the rule of law and uses enforcement as a commodity, to be dropped in exchange for jobs,” the MEP wrote on X after a report in Politico that the commission president had delayed the publication of a report criticising Italy for eroding media freedoms.

The annual rule of law report, which was on the commission schedule for 3 July, will not be published until the new commission is appointed, the website reported.

An EU official dismissed the suggestion the delay was intended to help von der Leyen. “It is a good idea to [publish] it in September/October. If we publish now, everyone will see political gestures, not only in the Italian chapter. Better to do it when the top jobs [discussions] are over,” they said.

A spokesperson for the European Commission also downplayed the timing of the report: “Files are presented to the college once they are considered mature enough for adoption by the college [of commissioners] … It will therefore be presented when we consider that the report is fit for adoption.”

The top jobs discussion comes amid attempts to unite the divided forces of the nationalist and far-right in the European parliament.

Meloni met Orbán where “they reviewed political matters concerning the European right”, according to the Hungarian prime minister’s spokesperson. The Hungarian leader also met the former Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki of the Law and Justice party.

The meetings will fuel expectations that Orbán’s Fidesz party could join the ECR, which includes Law and Justice and Meloni’s Brothers of Italy among its members.

Orbán had a separate meeting Mark Rutte, as Hungary continues to block his appointment as Nato secretary-general. Asked about the job – which is not part of the EU negotiations – Rutte said simply: “We’ll see.”