European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is facing growing discontent within her own political family, accused of being too keen on green policies and snappy headlines and not focused enough on traditional Christian Democratic priorities.
The unrest in the ranks of the European People’s Party (EPP), the center-right alliance that forms the biggest group in the European Parliament, spilled out into the open on Thursday. Dennis Radtke, an MEP from von der Leyen’s own German Christian Democratic Union (CDU), published an op-ed in German daily Die Welt lashing out at the Commission chief’s leadership.
Radtke accused von der Leyen of “snappy and/or dramatic headlines for an external audience, internal mistrust and a lack of communication,” as well as “the complete ignorance of the inner life of her own political family.”
Other MEPs and EPP officials said that while Radtke had been too blunt, his comments resonate with others in the group, particularly members of the CDU, Spain’s Popular Party and Italy’s Forza Italia. “I know many colleagues who could co-sign these comments 100 percent,” one EPP member said.
Von der Leyen has struggled to build a strong relationship with the EPP in Brussels since being chosen as Commission chief by the EU’s national leaders in the summer of last year. The former defense minister had spent all her political life in Germany and got the job ahead of the party’s official candidate for the post, Manfred Weber, the EPP group leader in the European Parliament.
Since taking office in December last year, von der Leyen has pursued what many in the EPP see as an excessively progressive agenda. Her critics accuse her of neglecting business-friendly policies and sound economics.
Von der Leyen has made the European Green Deal to tackle climate change a signature policy. She has recently pushed to slash greenhouse gas emissions by “at least 55 percent” by 2030 — something her political party has not supported with the same enthusiasm. Some also accuse her of having been too willing to accept cuts to the Commission’s plans for the EU’s long-term budget and ignoring the EPP’s traditional hobby horses like industry, research and single market.
In an interview with POLITICO, Radtke stood by his criticism. “Have a close look at the EPP soul … Where are the EPP projects that were defended in the EU election campaign?” he asked, referring to the 2019 European Parliament election, in which the EPP came first.
“She is delivering a purely green agenda, and I am not against green but there has to be a balance between a green agenda and an EPP agenda,” Radtke said. “I am very uncomfortable with this situation.”
An EPP insider called Radtke’s comments a “wake-up call.”
“We’re going too far with green enthusiasm,” the insider said.
But some officials defended von der Leyen’s record of engagement with the party, saying she attended EPP group meetings, pre-European Council gatherings as well as meetings organized by the CDU and its Bavarian CSU sister party.
A European Commission official said von der Leyen met the EPP “on a regular basis, and is in close contact with Manfred Weber … at least once a week.”
“There is no other group in the European Parliament she sees this often,” the official added.
Radtke’s criticism came up in a videoconference of CDU/CSU MEPs on Thursday, which von der Leyen also attended. “In the end, they all agreed, and there’s room for improving communications,” the Commission official said.
But one EPP member said von der Leyen generally contributed little to such meetings, beyond smiling and applauding.
Some EPP members have also drawn unfavorable comparisons between von der Leyen and her predecessor, Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg.
“When you see Juncker, for him it was important to be close to the political family,” Radtke said. “This is a complete difference with von der Leyen. It is a question of leadership.”
“Juncker knew everybody in the group,” the EPP insider said. “She is new, comes from German politics, and she is too administrative, she doesn’t have Juncker’s political instincts. She mainly relies on her German cabinet.”
But other EPP MEPs downplayed the criticism of von der Leyen and argued the Green Deal and her budget priorities had fueled a necessary debate inside a group that has struggled to find a new overarching narrative and position itself on major issues like the environment. Some noted that Radtke’s criticism helped raise his profile when he is seen as a potential next leader of the CDA, the social policy wing of the CDU.
“The business model of making a name for oneself at the expense of your own people leads to headlines but not to better results for the folks back home,” said Daniel Caspary, the head of the EPP’s German delegation. “Ursula von der Leyen has been in office with her Commission for less than a year, and already in her second month in office she ended up in this extraordinary situation with the coronavirus. So I wish that we would all work together constructively and do not attack our own people.”