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Ursula von der Leyen: “Winds of Change” for Central Europe?

European Commission president-elect Ursula von der Leyen will be officially assuming office in November, but has already left her position as Germany’s Defence Minister on the tune of the Scorpions’ smash-hit “Winds of Change”, a song synonymous with the fall of the Berlin Wall and communism in Europe.

With a career spanning several years in the German Christian Democratic Union (CDU, Angela Merkel’s party), and having spent years as the Minister of Defence, Labour and Social Affairs among other posts, members of the EU parliament voted in favour of von der Leyen’s candidacy, hoping for more stability and the continuation of the work of outgoing European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker. After nearly 50 years, a German is once again going to head the EU Commission.

Becoming the first woman to be elected at the EU’s top executive job, Ursula von der Leyen’s rise might perhaps signal another decade of continuous European development and integration just like under Walter Hallstein, ushering in actual “Winds of Change”?

Perhaps the most intriguing part of her becoming the next top EU representative is the push from Central European leaders, first and foremost Viktor Orban, who publicly declared great admiration and respect for von der Leyen.  As a matter of fact, the 13 votes of the Fidesz MEP’s proved instrumental in Von der Leyen’s ability to secure the backing of the European Parliament.

Orban said that “with a Hungarian head and Hungarian eye looking at a German lady, I can tell the Hungarian audience that a serious lady has become the European Commission’s president,” further claiming that von der Leyen “understands what is happening in Central Europe, understands what we say and understands what is important for the Hungarians.”

Orban’s standpoint: Ursula von der Leyen respects Hungarian interests

Viktor Orban meeting with Ursula von der Leyen : the sign of a new and healthier relationship between Hungary and the EU?

The question is, just why would a person like Orban be so enthused by von der Leyen’s election as the next head of the EU Commission? To understand why, one must first grasp just how Orban views Brussels and its politics. Ever since his reelection as Prime Minister last year, Orban has waged a war against the EU in the form of a propagandist misinformation campaign throughout Hungary, depicting the EU and Jean-Claude Juncker as a malignant force hell-bent on meddling in the lives of Hungarians. All of these were and are based, of course, on fake news and distorted facts. Let’s also not forget that Orban’s Fidesz party is a member of the European People’s Party (EPP), which Juncker also belongs to, a European political grouping from which it got suspended due to said misinformation campaign a few months ago.

At first, Orban supported Manfred Weber as the EPP’s candidate for EU Commission chief, but backpedaled later on over repeated clashes and spats between the two men. In March, Weber told German broadcaster ZDF that he “would not accept the post” of Commission president if he had to depend on the votes from Fidesz. Orban duly withdrew his support and started repeatedly slamming Weber, arguing the German lawmaker had offended Hungary and that the head of the Commission should not insult nations he is supposed to represent.

In comes another interesting candidate, put forward at the last minute by EU heads of states and governments after Hungary, along with its Visegrad allies, torpedoed the bid of one of Orban’s arch-enemies, Frans Timmermans: Ursula von der Leyen, the German Defence Minister, who weathered several scandals during her term, such as having far-right extremists within the army, controversial contracts with business consultancies and cost over-runs.

More importantly, however, she has also voiced concerns regarding the rule of law in Hungary, advocated for a deeper European integration and been a long-time ally of Angela Merkel – whose “open-border” migration policy and support for EU quotas at the height of the refugee crisis, in 2015, have more or less been described as the mother of all evils by Orban in the last few years, a stance which also prompted enthusiastic German-bashing throughout Central Europe.

In light of all these elements, Orban’s support for von der Leyen, whose views on migration and other topics more or less echo Merkel’s own positions, at the helm of the EU’s executive body appears suspicious, prompting a number of commentators to speculate on potential behind-closed-doors concessions.

The other side of the fence

The fence built at Hungary’s southern border with Serbia at the height of the refugee crisis.

Ursula von der Leyen comes from the CDU party, which was once ideologically aligned with Orban’s Fidesz as part of Christian conservative Central European parties, but whose relationship has been heavily strained since the 2015 migration crisis and amid further democratic backsliding in Hungary. Having said that, Orban appears to be hopeful he’ll be able to solve the issue of migration in a way that benefits him in the talks with the EU Commission president-elect – and much more easily than with the two Spitzenkandidat Manfred Weber and Frans Timmermans, whose bids he and his Visegrad Group allies categorically opposed.

What might not come as a surprise though, is that Von der Leyen has expressed her opposition against any regression of the rule of law in Hungary, which she described as a crucial part of a strong and united EU – another aspect that heavily questions why Orban appears to support her. She also wishes for the EU to play a more important role in defence, social welfare, to tackle poverty and boost the EU’s Warsaw-based border protection force Frontex while preserving the rights to asylum through humanitarian corridors for migrants. In her victory speech, she also expressed criticism towards the EU’s far-right, for taking credit for her election.

“Winds of Change” for whom?

Why Orban – along with other V4 allies – so enthusiastically endorsed her remains an open question, and might also simply be linked to a PR-stunt, as some have suggested, aimed at persuading his audience back home that Hungary played an instrumental role in choosing the next Commission head.

These are uncertain times, and one will need to wait and see before answering this question. If von der Leyen’s current rhetoric and past actions are anything to go by, one might however be hopeful that she proves instrumental in promoting a more united EU thanks to the support and attentiveness to Central and Eastern European issues. Will she be the European Union’s Iron Lady?

Written by Mark Szabo

An international relations and European politics student at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic, Márk grew up in a bi-cultural Slovak-Hungarian family, stoking his interest in Central European politics and cross-national relations. A former intern at the Bratislava-based Globsec Institute, Márk aims for a career in diplomacy. He joined the team of Kafkadesk contributors in April 2019. To check out his latest articles, it’s right here!