BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - APRIL 18: Ursula von der Leyen President of European Commission attends a press conference during Special European Council Meeting on April 18, 2024 in Brussels, Belgium. (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)


Von der Leyen fights for survival in live YouTube debate

Von der Leyen appeared alongside seven rival candidates from various EU political groups, many of whom wish to seize the top European Commission job from her following the EU elections.


European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen found herself fighting for survival in an EU election debate on Monday.

Livestreamed on YouTube, Von der Leyen appeared alongside seven rival candidates from various EU political groups, many of whom wish to seize the top European Commission job from her following the June vote.

Von der Leyen is meanwhile battling to hold onto the role amid various ongoing controversies, some of which have seen former allies turn on her in recent weeks.

Amid intense questioning, she passionately defended the EC’s position on issues such as trade deals with Ukraine, the Russia situation and online giant TikTok.

“We have to be careful that Putin isn’t whipping off Ukraine from the map,” she said during the April 29 debate.

The senior Brussels official refused to budge on the issue of supporting Ukraine’s farmers, with the bloc having enabled Ukraine to export around 122 million tonnes of goods since May 2022.

“We have to help [Ukrainian farmers], that’s what we did with the Solidarity Lanes,” she said.

Von der Leyen appeared more willing to shift on other issues, with there being many signs that the Commission president was looking at a shift to the political right.

The EC leader once again hinted at a potential collaboration between her European People’s Party (EPP) and the European Conservatives and Reformists group, with such a flirtation prompting outrage from some of the more left-leaning candidates.

“Where do you stand on ECR?,” Green Candidate Eickhout asked von der Leyen at one stage of the debate.

“It depends on the composition of the Parliament and who is in one group,” she replied.

Von der Leyen’s comment about such a future political coalition was seen as a political gambit to save her career.

Keen to be reappointed as European Commission head following the elections in June, the current leader will require the approval of her own European People’s Party, as well as the European Parliament.

It is uncertain whether either of these two groups will end up giving her the green light, with both groups seeing a significant shift away from von der Leyen’s politics and towards the right.

Amid this drift, von der Leyen has been keen to prove her conservative credentials on various issues, as well as by flirting with the idea of forming alliances with more conservative politician.

This has sparked anger amongst many liberal and socialist politicians, who have accused the EC leader of abandoning her European principles for political benefit.

“Either you can deal with the extreme right because you need them, or you say clearly there is no deal possible because they do not respect fundamental rights,” said Nicolas Schmit, the lead EC candidate for the Party of European Socialists (PES).

The European Greens have also latched on to von der Leyen’s right-wing drift, arguing that “a vote for Christian Democrats and centre-right parties risks bringing the far-right back into power in Europe.”

It is unclear whether von der Leyen’s attempt to appease the right will prove successful as opposition to her reappointment grows.

One ECR representative recently told Brussels Signal that von der Leyen was “finished”, and would be replaced with another candidate by the EPP.