European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the EPP candidate for the same position, delivers her speech during the second plenary session of the European People's Party Congress in Bucharest, Romania, 07 March 2024. EPA-EFE/Robert Ghement


European People’s Party’s looks Right ahead of EP elections


The European People’s Party (EPP) and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen seem to be preparing a move to the Right – prompting some murmurs of discontent.

As the EPP worked to turn Von der Leyen’s re-nomination as the lead candidate for the EC Presidency into a celebratory inauguration – and sought endorsement for its manifesto at its congress in Romania on March 6 and 7 – certain other important parties still need to be convinced.

On March 7, Von der Leyen won the support of her EPP party, making her the front-runner to lead the EC – in what would be her second term – after the June European Parliament elections.

In that move, some 400 EPP members voted in favour, although 89 were against her nomination.

Johannes Greubel, Senior Policy Analyst with the European Policy centre, on March 8 told Brussels Signal he expected a shift to the Right by the EC President as she looks to improve her chances of election success.

“You can already see the first indicators of rhetorical shifts in programmatics in Von der Leyen’s speech– so moderate policy shifts, particularly in the ‘green’ and migration policies, can be expected,” he said.

“Overall, Von der Leyen needs to prove her capacity to campaign Europe-wide for the first time.

“Given her role as spitzenkandidat [lead candidate] and strong support from [EU] Member States, she will be the obvious choice for a second mandate, unless she makes any big mistakes in the upcoming campaign,” Greubel added.

The French centre-right has led a rebellion against her possible re-election.

Michel Barnier, a heavyweight in European politics, revealed ahead of the EPP vote he would refuse to support Von der Leyen’s bid, telling French news agency AFP he would abstain.

Barnier noted that she attended the launch event of French President Emmanuel Macron’s political list, which is directly competing against the France-based Les Républicains (LR).

Barnier, the former lead negotiator for the European Union regarding Brexit, called that “incomprehensible”.

He further pointed out that, under Von der Leyen, agriculture and the environment had become what he called hostile entities.

Barnier’s remarks came after his LR party had already made clear it would oppose Von der Leyen’s re-election bid as EC chief.

After she announced her intentions in February, François-Xavier Bellamy, head of the LR list in the European Parliament elections, said he too would not support her.

Bellamy said he believed a change of course was needed – and likely.

LR has been saying for years that Von der Leyen is too closely affiliated with Macron. On March 6, at the start of the EPP’s latest congress, Eric Ciotti, President of Les Républicains, published a letter directly attacking her.

Ciotti wrote: “Europe needs profound changes and a renewal at the top of the European Commission.

“The outgoing Commission President cannot be this candidate because she embodies precisely this technocratic drift.”

According to Ciotti, Von der Leyen is not a candidate for the Right, either.

“She has led the European majority towards the Left, in particular regarding environmental and agricultural issues, but also regarding migration policies,” he said.

“By siding with the de-growth policies of the Left and the anti-nuclear dogmas of the ecologists, by failing to tackle mass immigration and to secure the Union’s external borders, and also by giving the impression to the people of Europe that Europe is being built without them, or even against them, Von der Leyen and Macron have risked a dramatic and perilous weakening of the European project,” Ciotti added.

With a strong Rassemblement National and a new Reconquête party, LR faces significant competition itself, also leaning more towards the Right.

Still, many EPP parties are facing challenges, or are even outmatched in the case of LR, on their Right flank across the continent.

The French EPP faction is not alone in its opposition to the overall EPP party line that has dominated from 2019.

Italy’s foreign minister Antonio Tajani said that following June’s European elections, the right-wing group of European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) in the European Parliament could be partners – if they continued to “take the side of Europeanism”.

Yet, just ahead of the EPP congress, Austria’s ÖVP declared early on March 6 that its delegates would not be supporting the party’s manifesto.

The Austrians take issue with the extension of the Schengen area of border-free travel to EU Member States Romania and Bulgaria, the softening of the green policies and support for nuclear energy.

The EPP manifesto, approved at the start of its congress, pledges to outsource asylum issues to third countries. It aims to establish a Commissioner for Security and Defence and referred to what was described as a true European Defence Union with integrated European forces on land, sea, air and the internet.

The EPP even called for “a European nuclear shield”, far different from earlier “open” and “peaceable” reflections that seemed to be the prevalent feeling within the party until recently.