Ursula von der Leyen could be on the way out as EU heavyweights turn against her

Montage of Emmanuel Macron and Ursula von der Leyen on broken EU flag
Emmanuel Macron was behind the rise of Ursula von der Leyen, but is now believed to have cooled towards her
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Ursula von der Leyen’s chances of a second term as president of the European Commission are in doubt amid claims EU heavyweights are turning against her, and a fresh outbreak of infighting among the Brussels institutions.

The European Parliament elections this weekend will be the prelude to an intense period of international horsetrading over the EU’s top jobs for the next five years and how they are shared out among the bloc’s political families.

Until very recently, Mrs von der Leyen’s coronation for another five years  was seen as a foregone conclusion. Leaders were expected to be reluctant to make big changes while Europe was still dealing with the cost of living crisis and the war in Ukraine.

But the Brussels rumour mill is now abuzz that she has lost the support of Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz, and that other EU leaders are exasperated at what they see as her high-handed posing as the “Queen of Europe”.

The mutual antipathy between Mrs von der Leyen and Charles Michel, the European Council president, was no secret even before hostilities erupted again on Tuesday.

Israel support was controversial

With days to go to the crucial elections, Mr Michel attacked Mrs von der Leyen’s record, accusing her of turning the commission into an overtly “political” body with herself front and centre.

“The impartiality of the commission should be an absolute priority,” Mr Michel said.

Mrs von der Leyen’s early support of Israel’s war against Hamas left the EU open to accusations of double standards over its reaction to the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza, he said.

It certainly infuriated pro-Palestinian Spain and Ireland, while other member states saw it as a pattern of repeated overreach.

From the headquarters of the commission, there was a swift and tart reply to Mr Michel.

“The commission acts in an impartial manner for the benefit of the general interests and we expect all other institutions to do so as well,” the commission’s chief spokesman said.

Mudslinging between Mrs von der Leyen and Mr Michel’s teams has been de rigueur since  “sofagate” erupted during a joint visit to Turkey in 2021

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan offered Mr Michel a chair, before relegating Mrs von der Leyen to a distant sofa.

“It happened because I am a woman,” Mrs von der Leyen said at the time, as Mr Michel was forced to apologise for taking the seat.

June 17 meeting to discuss top jobs

Some see Mr Michel’s intervention as revenge, and he has been accused by diplomatic sources of trying to land the plum job of the EU’s foreign affairs chief.

“If there is anything EU foreign policy can’t afford these days, it’s a chief diplomat who hates the commission president,” one source said.

Mr Michel’s spokeswoman insisted: “He is not a candidate” and added that he is “entirely focused” on his current job.

The council president has calls scheduled with a string of EU leaders to discuss the allocation of top jobs this week, and has called a June 17 meeting on the issue, which he will chair.

Mrs von der Leyen’s European People’s Party (EPP) is predicted to shrink after the elections. But it will remain the largest group in the parliament, which will strengthen her claim to a second term.

However, it is the 27 prime ministers and presidents sitting in the European Council who will decide who leads the commission.

It was Mr Macron, a leader with a track record and a taste for disruption, who severed the link between the results of the European elections and the presidency of the commission in 2019.

He rejected the EPP’s victorious lead candidate and came up with the surprise nomination of Mrs von der Leyen, who was fresh from a failed stint as Germany’s defence minister.

He also placed Mr Michel, the former Belgian prime minister, into his post. While Mr Michel remains a close Macron ally, the French president appears to have gone cold on Mrs von der Leyen.

Macron allies talk up possible rivals

Macron allies are talking up Mario Draghi, the former Italian prime minister and European Central Bank chief, as a replacement.

Opinion is divided over whether this is part of some “4D chess” game by Mr Macron, a warning shot at Mrs von der Leyen or simple muscle-flexing to prove he is not a spent force in Brussels.

One EU diplomat scoffed at the idea of Mr Macron wielding the axe because it is predicted his party will be trounced by Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in the European elections.

His Renew group of European liberals is expected to shrink to 78 seats, further diminishing the influence of a man in his second and final term as president of France.

Sources said Mr Scholz, who knows Mr Draghi well, could consider getting rid of Mrs von der Leyen. Removing a compatriot as head of the commission would be a big step for the German chancellor, but Mrs von der Leyen is not popular in Germany and comes from the opposition centre-Right CDU.

Mr Draghi, an independent  widely admired for his handling of the eurozone crisis,  would need Italian premier Giorgia Meloni’s support, but that was not impossible, EU sources said.

Mrs von der Leyen has won praise for her staunch support for Ukraine and handling of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as, before farmers’ protests, her championing of Net Zero.

“I’m sure Ursula will be the candidate we present to the council,” said Esteban González Pons, a senior Spanish EPP MEP.

An unexpected candidate ‘very likely’

But sources said some EU leaders were angry over her taste for the limelight and found her insistence that they submit reports to the commission for coronavirus cash humiliating.

They also pointed to her “uncollegial” management style and discontent among her commissioners.

Roberta Metsola, the European Parliament president, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Greek prime minister, and Andrej Plenković, prime minister of Croatia, have been suggested as possible alternatives.

Mrs von der Leyen’s courting of the eurosceptic Ms Meloni has also cost her support in the European Parliament, and could lead to her reappointment being opposed by other pro-EU parties.

Karel Lannoo, the managing director of the Centre for European Policy Studies think tank, said, “ It’s very likely there will be another candidate who will come out unexpectedly, like five years ago with von der Leyen.

“She was not expected until she was announced.”

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