May 15, 2024

How the European Commission Became a Geopolitical Player

Ursula von der Leyen has shifted the balance in Brussels and shown leadership on the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ukraine war, and EU enlargement.

China?s President Xi Jinping, his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von de Leyen meet for a working session in Beijing, China April 6, 2023.
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When US President Joe Biden was in Brussels at the end of March 2022, he was asked about China. An American journalist wanted to know whether he believed that Beijing would support Moscow's attack on Ukraine with weapons. Biden explained that only a few days earlier he had shown Chinese President Xi Jinping the consequences of such a move, both for economic relations with the United States and with Europe. Biden then paused briefly, “But tomorrow is—is it tomorrow or next Monday that Ursula is having that conference with China?” he asked. “April 1,” an aide called out to him, meaning a few days later. 

This small scene says a lot. The US president is standing in the press room at NATO headquarters, being asked about China—and pretty much the first thing that comes to his mind is a video conference between the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and the Chinese president. Von der Leyen, it became clear at that moment, was speaking for the European Union from Biden’s perspective, and on an equal footing with himself. The old question, “Who do I call when I want to call Europe?” was thus answered. It may not have originated with Henry Kissinger, to whom it was often attributed, but it made sense. When the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, the three presidents of the European Commission, the European Council, and European Parliament traveled to Oslo after weeks of arguing about who was actually in charge.

With the commission led by Ursula von der Leyen, things have been clarified in a way that seems almost irreversible. She has delivered on what she first announced in a speech in Paris in November 2019, “I want to build a truly geopolitical European Commission.” With the two major crises—the 2020/21 COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine that began in February 2022—the commission has indeed become a central geopolitical player.

However, this does not apply to the EU as a whole. Shortly before taking office, the president-elect had equated the two. Europe, as she described her vision in Paris, should “defend its common values and interests in the world” and “develop a common strategic culture.”

Major Strategic Differences

The European Union has only achieved this to a limited extent. In fact, there are still major strategic differences between the states, as the war in the Gaza Strip in particular has revealed. This has considerably restricted the scope for action of the two institutions responsible for external representation under the Treaty of Lisbon. Neither Charles Michel as president of the European Council nor the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell can claim to have become geopolitical players—although it is certain that both of them would like to. Michel’s ambitions, in particular, remain seriously unfulfilled.

None of this was foreseeable when von der Leyen’s commission took office at the beginning of December 2019. The term “geopolitical commission” was seen as a rhetorical ploy in Brussels at the time. Von der Leyen used it to distance herself from her predecessor Jean-Claude Juncker, who, speaking as the chosen candidate for commission president, had viewed it as a “political commission.” There was nothing wrong with this as such, but the questionable fast-track promotion of his head of cabinet Martin Selmayr to Secretary-General of the commission in 2018 had cast the claim in a poor light. It looked as if the adjective “political” was canceling out the obligation to act in accordance with the law. Von der Leyen was forced by the European Parliament to sacrifice Selmayr, and her new claim was supposed to refer to non-partisan interests.

After taking office, she was helped by the fact that the issue that Juncker had been forced to pay the most attention to in previous years resolved itself: two months later, the United Kingdom left the EU. Although this did not end the disputes, von der Leyen was able to delegate the negotiations on a new trade and cooperation agreement. She herself undertook her first trip abroad to visit the African Union in Addis Ababa. This was intended as a clear sign. After the nerve-wracking Brexit debates, during which Europe looked inward, the focus should now turn outward—with Africa as a new focal point.

Mixed Results of Vaccination Policy

When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged at the beginning of 2020, it initially slowed things down. EU member states panicked and closed not only their external but also their internal borders. Von der Leyen had her hands full sorting out the resulting chaos and defending the Schengen area. Europeans turned their attention inward once more, to the economic devastation and the development of a vaccine.

However, von der Leyen never lost sight of the external perspective. She saw how China and Russia were using relatively ineffective vaccines to exert influence in Africa, the Western Balkans, and even in the European Union. Her response to this was the development of vaccines financed by the European Commission and organizing a global vaccination alliance.

As a result, von der Leyen chaired an international donor conference in May 2020, at which she called one head of state and government after another and asked them to donate. Around €7.5 billion was raised in this way, just two months after the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic. It was the moment when her Commission took the lead for the first time—while then US President Donald Trump was doing everything he could to produce vaccines only for the United States. American philanthropists like Bill Gates rallied around von der Leyen, who appeared at a charity concert with global stars like Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber.

However, the results were mixed. Within a year, assistance for developing countries worth €12 billion was pledged. By October 2021, however, the COVAX initiative had only managed to distribute 85 million vaccine shots. Most of those were produced in Europe, and over a billion doses were sold at market prices to countries such as Japan and Australia. In the light of this, von der Leyen called the EU “the world’s biggest vaccine exporter.” In Africa and elsewhere, however, governments felt treated like second-class countries. South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa even complained about “vaccine apartheid.” 

The bitterness about this still plays a role today when the Global South looks at the war in Ukraine and Europe from a distance. Anyone who shows leadership always runs the risk of disappointing expectations. For von der Leyen, this was a new experience. For the United States, it is part of everyday life. Leaders are rarely loved.

Russia Sanctions and Aid to Ukraine

The second key moment for Commission President von der Leyen came on February 24, 2022, when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. She showed iron determination on that day. “We will weaken Russia’s economic base and its ability to modernize,” she announced a few hours after the attack.

The commission was well prepared and presented several sanctions packages in quick succession, which were immediately adopted by the EU member states. Russian state assets amounting to a good €200 billion were frozen, the largest Russian banks were excluded from the payment service provider Swift, and lists of goods that could no longer be delivered to Russia were drawn up. The EU closed its airspace to Russian aircraft and stopped imports of Russian products.

All of these sanctions involved the commission’s regulatory powers, particularly in trade matters. In Brussels, this meant that the initiative did not lie with the European External Action Service (EEAS), as is usually the case, but with the president’s cabinet. The EEAS limited itself to imposing travel, asset, and business bans on individuals and organizations that facilitated the war. In contrast, the sectoral sanctions, import and export restrictions, were drawn up by the commission in close coordination with the US. Von der Leyen’s head of cabinet Björn Seibert flew to Washington several times and worked hand in hand with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and his deputy for economic affairs Daleep Singh. The oil price embargo, which was later imposed by the G7 states, was also the result of this cooperation.

This also made it clear where the reins of European action lay. As a matter of course, President Biden came to Brussels in March 2022 without visiting any other European capital. He even attended a meeting of the European Council. The choreography of the visit was quite fraught. Biden was actually mainly concerned with the EU, but to save face he visited NATO first. At his press conference there, he then answered the question about China by referring to von der Leyen.

The European Commission became a more important player in supporting Ukraine than NATO. The alliance decided on February 24 that it wanted to stay out of the war as an institution. Weapons deliveries were coordinated via the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, the so-called Ramstein format, and, initially, meticulous care was taken to ensure that there was no overlap with the alliance, which limited itself to non-lethal aid.

In addition to the sanctions against Russia, the commission was responsible for humanitarian aid to Ukraine and managing the flow of war refugees. Arms deliveries also became an issue as soon as the war began. With the full support of von der Leyen, foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell proposed using the European Peace Facility (EPF) to partially compensate for deliveries by member states. This special fund had actually been set up to not only train security forces in African partner countries, but also to equip them. The still bulging pot was an important incentive for the first rapid deliveries to Kyiv, particularly of Soviet-era equipment from Eastern European stocks.

Offering EU Membership to Ukraine

In retrospect, however, the most important geopolitical decision of those early days of the war was the offer of the prospect of EU membership for Ukraine. On the evening of February 24, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky had made a dramatic appeal to the European Council for support for EU accession. The council reacted cautiously and in its conclusions it merely recognized “European aspirations and the European choice of Ukraine.” The Eastern European member states would have liked to go further, but the Western member states were strictly opposed. They also reacted with great irritation when von der Leyen went well beyond this on February 28. “Over time, they belong to us. They are one of us, and we want them in,” she said.

Then everything happened very quickly, closely coordinated between Brussels and Kyiv. The next day, Zelensky sent his application for membership, and on March 10, the heads of state and government complied and requested that the commission examine the application. In June, they granted the country candidate status. The commission was the driving force behind the entire process, with the large countries Germany and France in particular looking like they were being driven. Von der Leyen had the right instinct and showed leadership.

Competition and Divergence

All of this was accompanied by friction between the institutions in Brussels. In particular, European Council President Charles Michel was not content to simply coordinate the position of the heads of state and government and then represent it to the outside world. The former Belgian prime minister sought an independent role on the international stage and on geostrategic issues from the outset. During the pandemic, he campaigned for an international agreement on cooperation in the event of cross-border health disasters—without the support of the commission. And after Joe Biden was elected as Donald Trump’s successor, the two institutions presented their own strategy papers.

A scandal erupted when Michel and von der Leyen visited Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in April 2021. The two men plopped down in gold-plated chairs, while the commission president had to take a seat on a sofa some distance away. Those around Michel initially said that this was in line with the protocol order of precedence. However, after a wave of public outrage, he had to row back and express “regret” about the seating arrangement. Michel emerged from the conflict politically weakened. At the same time, cooperation between the two leading politicians was badly damaged. They avoided each other wherever possible, stayed in different hotels at international meetings and gave separate press conferences.

Michel looked for a new playing field and tried to mediate between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh from 2022. There was repeated talk of an imminent breakthrough, a peace treaty. However, the initiative ended in disaster when the Azerbaijan militarily conquered the region in September 2023, followed by the mass flight of the Armenian inhabitants. The case showed that the European Council president—unlike the European Commission—did not have the power to back up diplomatic advances.

This was also the case with China policy. Michel and von der Leyen both addressed the topic. The council president advocated a critical but constructive approach toward Beijing. However, the commission president won the upper hand with her tougher strategy of “de-risking,” which she presented in March 2023. This was also done in close coordination with Washington, which even adopted von der Leyen’s terminology. In October 2023, she opened an official investigation into the state subsidization of Chinese electric vehicles on the European market—this is part of the practical implementation.

In August 2023, Michel made his own advance on enlargement policy. Both the EU and the candidate countries should be ready for the next round of enlargement by 2030, he demanded in a keynote speech. He thus began a debate in the European Council on internal reforms. However, he did not succeed in setting 2030 as a target date in the conclusions. The member states wanted to retain full control over the process and not put themselves under pressure. They followed von der Leyen, who advocated a performance-oriented approach that could not be linked to a date in advance.

Michel and von der Leyen fell out again after the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel on October 7, 2023. The German commission president unreservedly sided with Israel and traveled there just one week later to express her solidarity. In contrast, Michel and Borrell criticized the Israeli retaliatory strikes on the Gaza Strip. Borrell made it clear that von der Leyen did not speak for the EU. “The common foreign policy of the European Union is an intergovernmental policy, it’s not a community policy,” said the Spaniard. “So, the official position of the European Union with any foreign policy is being fixed by the guidelines of the high-level decision of the European Council, chaired by President Michel, and by the Foreign Affairs Council ministers, chaired by me.” 

However, this did not describe the political reality. Once again, the main instruments of action lay with the commission, which decides on aid payments for the Palestinians and monitors the Association Agreement with Israel. While von der Leyen arrived in Israel before Joe Biden, Michel and Borrell did not even receive an invitation to go there. In turn, the EU member states were unable to agree on a common line.

This recent episode also shows how much the balance has shifted in Brussels. Von der Leyen has made bold use of her political opportunities and has indeed turned the European Commission into a geopolitical player, as she announced in 2019. The states either followed her lead—in the pandemic, with Russia sanctions, and EU enlargement, or they failed to find a common position, as in the Middle East conflict, effectively leaving the field to her commission.  

Thomas Gutschker is the political correspondent of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in Brussels covering the EU, NATO, and the Benelux countries.