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Ursula von der Leyen treads narrow path to second term

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Ursula von der Leyen treads narrow path to second term

Ursula von der Leyen became president of the European Commission five years ago with a razor-thin parliamentary majority of just nine votes.

Securing a second term may be even more fraught, hinging on uncomfortable choices and backroom deals that must navigate the EU’s rightward shift in elections on Sunday.

While her centre-right European People’s party parliamentary group won the election and secured 185 seats in the 720-strong assembly, von der Leyen’s other centrist allies have fared worse, while the hard right surged from a fifth to nearly a quarter of seats.

“She has options, which is better than only having the hard right to turn to,” said Nathalie Tocci, director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali. “But that doesn’t mean it will be easy to choose which option works.”

For a second five-year term at the helm of the EU commission, Brussels’ most powerful job, von der Leyen needs both the backing of the EU’s 27 leaders and a majority of the newly elected parliament. The latter has long been more of a concern.

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In addition to the EPP, the other two groups that backed her in 2019 — the centre-left Socialists and Democrats and the liberal Renew — are projected to command around 402 seats in total according to preliminary results on Monday morning.

Her projected majority gives her a narrower space for manoeuvre compared with 2019, when the three groups together should have secured a 68-vote majority. But because many lawmakers voted against her and the ballot is secret, she passed by just nine votes.

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In a vote expected on July 18, analysts forecast that von der Leyen would lose as much as 15 per cent of that coalition, which would leave her short of the majority she needs.

That means she and her team would need to reach out to other parties, officials said, including the hard-right European Conservatives and Reformists, led by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, and the Greens.

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But the jeopardy is that by expanding her coalition, she risks losing votes from the other side of the political spectrum. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a Social Democrat, has warned against a pact with Meloni — and so has French President Emmanuel Macron’s party.

Bas Eickhout, one of the Greens’ two lead candidates for the election, said he was in touch with von der Leyen but that no formal negotiations had started. “I always had difficulties in understanding exactly how a coalition with ECR would work,” he said. “I’ve always seen the only reliable, stable democratic coalition possible is with the Greens.”

A person briefed on the discussions said: “You would not be surprised to know how many conversations have taken place between the EPP and the Greens in recent weeks.”

Seeking Green support would put von der Leyen in a complicated position given her retreat from a swath of climate legislation in recent months to fend off protests from farmers and rightwing parties. Embracing Meloni would be likely to involve a tougher stance on migration that could alienate her liberal supporters.

Ursula von der Leyen speaks to Giorgia Meloni
Ursula von der Leyen with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni at an EU summit in April © Omar Havana/AP

Von der Leyen will spend the next two weeks in a series of meetings with EU national leaders, including during an EPP conclave on Monday, the G7 leaders’ summit in Italy starting on Thursday and the Ukraine peace summit in Switzerland next weekend.

She will seek both their personal backing at an EU summit on June 27 and for their parties’ backing in parliament.

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“She needs to get the 27 [leaders] both comfortable with her vision for the next five years, but just as importantly, convinced she’s got the numbers in parliament,” said an EU diplomat involved in the preparations for the summit. “It would be a disaster for them to endorse someone who gets rejected by the MEPs. So she can’t approach it as two separate processes. They run in tandem.”

Von der Leyen’s pitch will be threefold: that she is the only available candidate who can win support from leaders and negotiate a deal to win a majority in parliament; that she steered the EU through the twin crises of Covid-19 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine; and that it would be folly to change leadership in the middle of a war in Europe and with the potential return of Donald Trump as US president.

“We won the European elections. We are by far the strongest party. We are the anchor of stability and voters acknowledged our leadership,” von der Leyen told the party faithful on Sunday night to cheers of “five more years”.

She said she was “confident” of winning a second term, and that on Monday she would begin negotiating with the S&D and Renew groups, “building on a constructive and proven relationship”. When asked about coalition partners, she said she was open to talks with “those who are pro-European, pro-Ukraine, pro-rule of law”.

Viktor Orbán arrives to cast his vote for European parliament elections at a polling station in Budapest
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, a staunch von der Leyen critic © Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images

Among the lawmakers who supported her in 2019 were MEPs from Poland’s ultraconservative Law and Justice party and Hungary’s far-right Fidesz, the party of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, a staunch von der Leyen critic.

EPP officials on Sunday expressed confidence in her winning a second term.

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“There is no alternative being discussed in the party. And there’s a plurality of EPP leaders around the summit table. So she has nothing to worry about there,” said a senior commission official close to von der Leyen. “And so the question to the parliament is: if you are going to shoot a hostage, do you have a plan for afterwards? Because if they don’t, they’re voting for chaos.”

So far, only party leaders of the EPP and S&D have openly said they would back von der Leyen.

“At the end of the day the members of parliament are basically kids with guns,” said a senior EU diplomat. “So, really, who knows?”

How will the European parliamentary elections change the EU? Join Ben Hall, Europe editor, and colleagues in Paris, Rome, Brussels and Germany for a subscriber webinar on June 12. Register now and put your questions to our panel at ft.com/euwebinar

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French businesses court Marine Le Pen after taking fright at left’s policies

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French businesses court Marine Le Pen after taking fright at left’s policies

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France’s corporate bosses are racing to build contacts with Marine Le Pen’s far right after recoiling from the radical tax-and-spend agenda of the rival leftwing alliance in the country’s snap parliamentary elections.

Four senior executives and bankers told the Financial Times that the left — which polls suggest is the strongest bloc vying with Le Pen — would be even worse for business than the Rassemblement National’s unfunded tax cuts and anti-immigration policies.

“The RN’s economic policies are more of a blank slate that business thinks they can help push in the right direction,” a Cac 40 corporate leader said of Le Pen’s party, which is ahead of other groupings in the run-up to the two-round vote on June 30 and July 7. “The left is not likely to water down its hardline anti-capitalist agenda.”

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Another major business leader and investor in France added: “If you had told me two weeks ago that the business world would be rooting for the RN and counting [President Emmanuel] Macron out, I would not have believed it.”

Both spoke anonymously out of fear of commenting publicly on politics during the lightning legislative election campaign triggered by Macron after his centrist alliance was crushed in European parliament elections by the RN. 

Le Pen’s lieutenant Jordan Bardella, who is expected to be prime minister if the RN wins an outright majority, had already begun to woo business leaders in closed-door meetings in recent months, said investment bankers in Paris and executives.

Jean-Philippe Tanguy, an RN MP who works on economic policy, said he had been getting calls from lobbyists, investors and companies eager to understand the party’s plans. 

“We’ve told them that the RN will hold the line on deficits and present a credible plan,” he said. “The markets will be severe on us, so we really have no choice but to do so.” 

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Markets responded to the political uncertainty by sending the blue-chip Cac 40 index down more than 5 per cent between the announcement of the elections just over a week ago and Monday’s close.

The spread between benchmark French and German bond yields — a market barometer for the risk of holding France’s debt — has risen 0.31 percentage points since the election was called in the sharpest weekly move since the Eurozone debt crisis in 2011.

Another high-level executive said the prospect of either far-right or leftwing parties setting France’s economic strategy was “a choice between the plague and cholera”.

Both the far right and the leftwing New Popular Front (NFP) alliance want a radical break with Macron’s business-friendly economic policies. 

The president has cut production taxes on corporations, made it easier for companies to fire workers and wooed foreign companies, including JPMorgan Chase, Pfizer and Amazon, to invest in France. Unemployment has fallen and recession has not set in as elsewhere in Europe.

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But his government has also hugely expanded public borrowing during the Covid-19 pandemic and the energy shock linked to the war in Ukraine.

Skyline of La Défense financial district in Paris
The financial district of La Défense in Paris. Le Pen has sought to reassure business, claiming that markets find the party’s project ‘reasonable’ when they read the details © Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images

The RN, which has not issued a full economic programme, has signalled it could revoke Macron’s flagship pensions reform later in the year after an audit of public accounts. It has made this a key campaign promise.

The party has said it will keep its promises to cut value added tax on energy and fuel, which the government says will cost €16bn. But in a sign of the far-right’s attempts to reassure voters and the markets, Bardella on Monday night postponed a €7bn VAT cut on household necessities. The RN also says it would give French companies preference in procurement, a violation of EU competition rules.

Le Pen has sought to reassure business. “Financial markets don’t really understand the National Rally’s project,” she told Le Figaro on Sunday. “They have only heard the caricature of our project. When they read about it, they find it rather reasonable.”

The leftwing NFP alliance has not made similar overtures. But it depicts its economic plans as more responsible because of billions of euros in planned tax rises to pay for the increased spending. 

“We will finance this programme by dipping into the pockets of those who can most afford it,” said Olivier Faure, head of the Socialist party.

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The NFP’s programme includes scrapping Macron’s pension reforms, increasing public sector salaries and welfare benefits, while raising the minimum wage by 14 per cent and freezing the price of basic food items and energy.

It would reintroduce a wealth tax, scrap many tax breaks for the better-off and raise income tax for the highest earners. 

Corporate bosses recoil at such ideas. “The left’s economic programme is totally unacceptable and would amount to France leaving the capitalist system,” said a high-profile entrepreneur anguished over the choice in the election. “Bardella may look reassuring but the far right represents a threat to democracy, not only the economy.”

Others are more sanguine. Matthieu Pigasse, an investment banker at Centerview who specialises in sovereign debt advisory, said the French economy was “protected by the euro” and the EU itself, even if the Eurosceptic RN has long criticised them.

“In a historical irony, the euro will immunise [the economic impact] from the left or the far-right,” he told L’Express magazine.

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Additional reporting Ben Hall in Paris

Video: Why the far right is surging in Europe | FT Film
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The federal government puts warnings on tobacco and alcohol. Is social media next? : Consider This from NPR

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The federal government puts warnings on tobacco and alcohol. Is social media next? : Consider This from NPR

Social media platforms are part of what the U.S. Surgeon General is calling a youth mental health crisis.

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Social media platforms are part of what the U.S. Surgeon General is calling a youth mental health crisis.

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Emma Lembke was only 12 years old when many of her friends started using phones and social media.

“Each one of them, as a result, was getting pulled away from kind of conversation with me, from hanging out with me, from even, like, playing on the playground, hanging out outside at school. It felt as though my interactions were dwindling,” Lembke told NPR.

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It wasn’t just her experience. On average, teens in the U.S. are spending nearly 5 hours on social media every single day.

You’re reading the Consider This newsletter, which unpacks one major news story each day. Subscribe here to get it delivered to your inbox, and listen to more from the Consider This podcast.

And the children and adolescents who are spending these hours on social media seem to be paying the price.

Those who spend more than 3 hours a day on social media have double the risk of mental health problems like depression and anxiety.

Clinical psychologist Lisa Damour, who specializes in adolescent anxiety says the more time a teen spends on their phone, the less likely they are to be focusing on other aspects of their life.

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“Too much time on social media gets in the way of things that we know are good for kids, like getting a lot of sleep, spending time with people and interacting face to face, being physically active, focusing on their schoolwork in a meaningful way,” Damour told NPR. “So that’s one place that we worry about that they are missing out on things that are good for overall growth.”

The Surgeon General’s call to action.

Vivek Murthy, U.S. Surgeon General, has called attention to what he has called the “youth mental health crisis” that is currently happening in the U.S.

This week, he published an op-ed in the New York Times calling for social media warning labels like those put on cigarettes and alcohol, in order to warn young people of the danger social media poses to their mental wellbeing and development. He cites the success of the tobacco and alcohol labels that have discouraged consumption.

“The data we have from that experience, particularly from tobacco labels, shows us that these can actually be effective in increasing awareness and in changing behavior. But they need to be coupled with the real changes, [like] the platforms themselves,” Murthy said in conversation with Consider This host Mary Louise Kelly.

“Right now, young people are being exposed to serious harms online, to violence and sexual content, to bullying and harassment, and to features that would seek to manipulate their developing brains into excessive use.”

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Part of Murthy’s guidance includes keeping children off of social media platforms until their critical thinking skills have had more time to grow and strengthen against what the algorithms might be showing them.

“Imagine pitting a young person, an adolescent, a teenager against the best product engineers in the world who are using the most cutting edge of brain science to figure out how to maximize the time you spend on a platform. That is the definition of an unfair fight, and it’s what our kids are up against today.”

New guidelines moving forward.

Damour says that the Surgeon General’s call for a label is a great start to addressing the larger issue of how phone addictions are affecting young people.

“The other thing that is really important about the Surgeon General’s recommendation is that he’s calling for legislation. He’s calling for congressional action to get in there and help with regulating what kids can be exposed to, she said. “And I think this is huge right now. This is entirely in the laps of parents, and they are left holding the bag on something that really should be managed at a legal congressional level.”

Both Murthy and Damour say that raising awareness of certain strategies for parents can also help teenagers maintain more balanced lives.

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This can include:

  • Waiting until after middle school to let kids get social media profiles.
  • Using text messages as an intermediary step in allowing teens to keep in touch with their peers.
  • And maintaining “phone free zones” around bedtime, meals, and social gathering.

This episode was produced by Marc Rivers, Kathryn Fink and Karen Zamora, with additional reporting from Michaeleen Doucleff. It was edited by Courtney Dorning and Justine Kenin. Our executive producer is Sami Yenigun.

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Mark Rutte offers deal to Viktor Orbán as he seeks to clinch Nato top job

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Mark Rutte offers deal to Viktor Orbán as he seeks to clinch Nato top job

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Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte has promised to give Hungary’s Viktor Orbán an opt-out of Nato activities supporting Ukraine if he is made secretary-general of the military alliance, in a pledge aimed at securing Budapest’s support after months of vetoing his proposed appointment.

Rutte, who is backed by 29 of Nato’s 32 member countries to become the next secretary-general — including the US, UK, France and Germany — has had his path blocked by Hungary’s prime minister, the alliance’s most pro-Russia member.

Rutte and Orbán, who have clashed several times in the past, met on the sidelines of an EU leaders’ dinner in Brussels on Monday night, raising expectations Budapest’s block on the Nato appointment — which requires unanimity among alliance members — could soon be lifted.

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The Dutch prime minister promised that under his tenure, Hungary would have a right to opt out of Nato activities in support of Ukraine and taking place outside the territory of its members, according to two people briefed on the discussions.

Orbán has long argued against western support for Ukraine as Kyiv seeks to defend itself against Russia’s full-scale invasion.

A spokesperson for Rutte said he and Orbán had a “good conversation” on Monday evening, and primarily discussed the outcome of a meeting last week between Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg and the Hungarian prime minister.

“PM Rutte will confirm to PM Orbán in writing what they have discussed. It was a good and open conversation and the two agreed to focus on the future,” the spokesperson added.

A Hungarian government spokesperson declined to comment.

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Stoltenberg told Orbán last week that Hungary could opt out of Nato activities to support Ukraine, such as a plan for the alliance to take more control of military supplies to Kyiv and training of Ukrainian troops, as well as long-term financial support.

“I think that’s a good solution that will enable us to move forward on more support for Ukraine within the Nato framework without Hungary blocking,” Stoltenberg said at the time.

In the meeting between Rutte and Orbán on Monday evening, which took place as the EU’s 27 leaders discussed who would fill the bloc’s top jobs for the next five years, the Dutch prime minister did not apologise for past remarks about Orbán at Brussels summits, one of the people briefed on the discussions said.

Rutte has clashed with Orbán over the latter’s hardline views on homosexuality and Hungary’s judicial reforms.

The Dutch prime minister, who is likely to leave office in July after a new government is formed in The Hague, already has the backing of US President Joe Biden for the post of Nato secretary-general.

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In addition to Hungary, Slovakia and Romania, whose president Klaus Iohannis has campaigned for the Nato job, have yet to publicly back him.

Rutte said the planned new Dutch government, which involves his liberal party but also far-right leader Geert Wilders, would continue to support Ukraine.

“When it comes to foreign policy, the new cabinet will fully continue its course in Europe and Nato with Ukraine,” he added. “There will be no change.”

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