Impossible to work with ‘Putin’s friends’ after EU elections, von der Leyen says


Ursula von der Leyen has ruled out working with political parties that are “Putin’s friends” if she is re-elected president of the European Commission.

Her comments come as opinion polls project a significant, possibly seismic surge of hard-right and far-right parties after the June elections to the European Parliament. Von der Leyen’s first tenure has been supported by a grand coalition of conservatives, liberals and socialists that is all but guaranteed to shrink in the next legislature as Eurosceptic forces make inroads and gain influence over the political agenda.

“I work with pro-European, pro-NATO, pro-Ukrainian, clearly supporters of our democratic values groups,” von der Leyen said on Wednesday afternoon when asked about potential allies in the re-arranged hemicycle.

“It is more the question: what is the content? Every European election brings a change in the composition of different political parties and different political groups. So the content counts,” she went on.

“Those who are defending democracy against the Eurosceptics and those who are defending our values against Putin’s friends – these are the ones with which I want to work, and I know I can work with.”

The Commission chief spoke to the press after a closed-door meeting of her political family, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), during which she was confirmed as the only name in its internal competition. The German politician is expected to be elected by acclamation as the EPP’s lead candidate in early March.

Von der Leyen is the uncontested frontrunner in the race to preside over the Commission as the EPP is projected to win the largest share of seats in the European Parliament. Still, the decision to appoint her for a second term will have to be decided first by EU leaders and later by the Parliament in a vote by absolute majority.

Back in 2019, von der Leyen’s appointment passed by a razor-thin margin in the hemicycle, although many of her subsequent proposals were backed by large majorities. Given the forecasts for the Parliament’s future composition, it is unclear if the president will be able to sail through the vote without making concessions to the hard right. Doing so, though, will certainly enrage progressives and further complicate the arithmetic.

All eyes will be on the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, a Eurosceptic formation that encompasses the likes of Fratelli d’Italia (Italy), Law and Justice (Poland), Vox (Spain), New Flemish Alliance (Belgium), Civic Democratic Party (Czech Republic), Sweden Democrats (Sweden) and Finns Party (Finland). Reconquête!, the party of France’s Éric Zemmour, has recently joined.

With the prospect of a boost in seats, speculation is growing that ECR will welcome MEPs from the Hungarian ruling Fidesz party to its ranks. Viktor Orbán – who has fostered a close relationship with Giorgia Meloni, the most prominent ECR leader – has publicly expressed his confidence in securing the membership after the June elections.

But the idea of working with Orbán’s party has triggered a backlash from the Swedish, Finnish and Czech delegations, who deplore the Hungarian prime minister for his disruptive stance on the Ukraine war, his opposition to sanctions against the Kremlin, his relation with Vladimir Putin and his delay to ratify Sweden’s NATO accession.

Will von der Leyen work with such a group? It will depend on the positions they take.

“Against (the) rule of law? Impossible. Putin’s friends? Impossible,” von der Leyen said, referring specifically to ECR.

“The cut-off line is do you stand for democracy? Do you defend our values? Are you very firm in the rule of law? Are you supporting Ukraine? And are you fighting against Putin’s attempt to weaken and divide Europe? And these answers have to be very clear.”

Von der Leyen noted that some delegations that are today in ECR could exit the group and join the EPP, a scenario that has been rumoured regarding Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia.

Speaking by her side, EPP Chairman Manfred Weber said ECR had “no common understanding” internally and would be unable to “deliver on EU concerns to citizens.”

“Parties who are campaigning against Europe, who are the friends of Putin, are getting stronger and stronger, and that is extremely worrisome for us, the EPP, up to keep stability,” Weber said.

“I want to have the EPP as strong as possible,” he added. “That is what we strategically want to see, that we have a key position in the next European Parliament, but always based on the cooperation among the democratic pro-European forces.”__Courtesy EuroNews