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Von der Leyen: Too right for the left and too left for the right?

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Von der Leyen: Too right for the left and too left for the right?

Ursula von der Leyen has presided over the most transformative years of the European Union in recent memory. But after weathering a string of extraordinary crises, her ideology might have gotten lost along the way.

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Von der Leyen has had few quiet days since moving to Brussels. Just three months after assuming office as the first female president of the European Commission, her executive was faced with a global pandemic that killed millions, brought the economy to a standstill and left wealthy governments scrambling to get hold of basic medical supplies.

The formidable test turned the president into a crisis manager, a position she initially struggled with but later appeared to rejoice. She was then tasked with guiding the bloc through Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a painful energy crunch, a steady rise in irregular migration, a combative China, ubiquitous online threats and the mounting devastation wreaked by climate change.

Now, after almost five years of emergencies, von der Leyen wants a second chance at the very top: she is running as the lead candidate, or Spitzenkandidat, for her policy family, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), to preside over the Commission for another term. With the EPP projected to emerge victorious at the June elections, the odds are in von der Leyen’s favour.

As the campaign intensifies, so does the scrutiny over her legacy and ambitious policies. Did she fulfill her promises or did she break them? Can she be trusted? These are legitimate questions for a candidate seeking to rule the bloc’s most powerful institution. But the scrutiny inevitably extends to a more enigmatic question surrounding von der Leyen: Is she still a conservative?

In her speech during the EPP congress in March, she referenced World War II and touched upon a variety of topics, such as family values, security, border controls, economic growth, competitiveness and farmers, all of which tend to resonate well with right-wing voters. 

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Notably, though, the intervention featured only one mention of Christian Democracy. The word “conservative” was nowhere to be found.

Even more notable was the scathing letter the French delegation of the EPP had sent ahead of the congress in Bucharest, opposing von der Leyen’s nomination. Les Républicains (LR) lambasted the German for her “technocratic drift,” “de-growth policies” and failure to control “mass migration.”

“A candidate of Mr Macron (The French president) and not the right, she has continuously left the European majority drift towards the left,” the letter read.

A few days earlier, socialists had gatheredin Rome for their own congress during which Iratxe García Pérez, the chair of the Socialists & Democrats (S&D), was asked if her group would support von der Leyen, the indisputable frontrunner, for a second term. 

García Pérez said her group was open to negotiating but insisted they would not back a contender “who doesn’t accept our policies.” She then went on an extensive denunciation of the EPP for abandoning the mainstream and embracing talking points of the far right. “This is a real danger,” she told journalists.

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Consensus vs ideology

With the right and the left hardening their positions ahead of the elections, von der Leyen’s accomplishments appear caught in the middle.

The last five years have seen the Commission designing policies that cater to the right, including a sweeping reform to speed up asylum procedures, harsher penalties for human traffickers, deals with neighbouring countries to curb irregular migration, plans to boost the defence industry and a toolbox to address demographic changes.

On the other hand, von der Leyen’s executive has spearheaded initiatives warmly welcomed by the left, such as a €100-billion scheme to sustain employment during the pandemic, new rules to improve the conditions of platform workers, standards to ensure adequate minimum wages, a pioneering law to protect journalists from state interference, the first-ever LGBTIQ strategy and, most crucially, the European Green Deal, a vast set of policies aimed at making the bloc climate-neutral by 2050.

But pigeonholing her proposals into an ideological sphere fails to give a complete picture of von der Leyen’s true creed. Instead, they serve as a reminder of the particular nature of the European Commission, an institution that, according to the Treaties, is independent and meant to promote the bloc’s general interest.

By constantly negotiating with the Parliament and member states, the president has no choice but to give preference to consensus over ideology, says Fabian Zuleeg, the chief executive of the European Policy Centre (EPC).

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“She has been, in many cases, very much a crisis manager. Certainly with COVID and with Ukraine. It wasn’t so much, in the first instance, about ideology. It was about reacting. But, of course, certain preferences have come through. But this has been very much in the interplay with member states,” Zuleeg said in an interview.

“From a European perspective, pragmatism is the name of the game. You have to have pragmatic compromises, so you can bring enough on board to get things through.”

Some of von der Leyen’s flagship actions, such as de-risking from China, reining in Big Tech, financial support for Ukraine, the revival of enlargement and the joint procurement of vaccines, further blur the line, as they can appease both sides of the spectrum.

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Instead of treating these sensitive issues through a partisan lens that risks polarisation and dissent, von der Leyen frames them as “European challenges” that require “European solutions,” a vague but catchy wording that she often employs to defend her policy interventions and remain above the fray.

“What has been much more characteristic of (her tenure) is that she has very much pushed this idea of European solutions to all of these issues,” Zuleeg notes. “And in some cases, it’s actually very difficult to say when you look into the details: Is this really left or right? I don’t think you can easily distinguish between the two.”

‘Queen Ursula’

Von der Leyen’s careful pragmatism only compounds the mystery surrounding her political beliefs, despite the high profile and media coverage she has amassed over the past five years.

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Nathalie Tocci, director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI), identifies three ideological tenets that can be attached to von der Leyen: a strong commitment to European integration, a strong commitment to the Transatlantic alliance and a strong commitment to Israel, the last of which responds to her German background.

“I cannot imagine a world in which she would give up those convictions,” Tocci told Euronews. “I think the rest is really up for grabs.”

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Von der Leyen, Tocci says, has been willing to reformulate her agenda and narrative “out of convenience”. When she faced the Parliament in 2019 for a nail-biting confirmation vote, she bet big on the Green Deal, invoking the climate movement that back then was making headlines. Four years later, she rushed to propose exemptions to the Green Deal in a bid to quell farmer protests.

Migration is another field in which the president has swayed between a humanist perspective, speaking sympathetically about the plight of asylum seekers, and a hardline approach, calling for stricter controls and signing deals with authoritarian regimes.

“Depending on what the political trend of the day is, she could be either relatively open and liberal towards migration or she could be somewhat conservative,” Tocci says. “These are things where I don’t think she has very firm convictions.”

An EU official, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, expressed a similar view, saying von der Leyen switches between “ideological positions opportunistically, aligning herself with whatever suits her convenience and interests at the time.”

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“Coherent policy implementation has been noticeably absent, with actions often appearing more geared towards seizing photo opportunities than addressing substantive issues,” the official said, speaking of “political ambiguity.”

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These complaints are commonplace in Brussels. Although von der Leyen has been widely praised for her determined leadership, ambitious vision and energetic rhetoric – skills that come in handy to weather crises –, she has been repeatedly criticised for pushing through the legislative cycle with little to no consultation beyond her closely-knit circle of advisors, some of whom she brought directly from Berlin.

Her penchant for centralisation, her aloof character and her avoidance of controversial subjects have garnered her the nickname of “Queen Ursula” in Brussels, which her calculated not-too-right, not-too-left campaign is bound to reinforce.

“She was progressive on climate because she needed those green votes to get elected,” Tocci said. “This was, in a sense, the price to pay. Now, does this mean that she didn’t believe in this at all? No, not necessarily. But does it therefore mean that she firmly believes in it? Not necessarily either.”

“She’s not ideologically committed,” Tocci went on. “So if she now needs conservatives to vote for her – well, then she will be conservative.”

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Clashes erupt between university students and riot police outside Egyptian embassy in Beirut

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Clashes erupt between university students and riot police outside Egyptian embassy in Beirut

Clashes erupted on Monday between pro-Palestinian university students and riot police outside the Egyptian embassy in Beirut. Dozens of university students gathered outside the embassy, holding Palestinian flags and calling on the Egyptian government to open the Rafah border crossing and allow humanitarian aid to enter the Gaza Strip.

Clashes erupted on Monday between pro-Palestinian university students and riot police outside the Egyptian embassy in Beirut. Dozens of university students gathered outside the embassy, holding Palestinian flags and calling on the Egyptian government to open the Rafah border crossing and allow humanitarian aid to enter the Gaza Strip.


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Israeli excavators discover 2,300-year-old gold ring at City of David site

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Israeli excavators discover 2,300-year-old gold ring at City of David site

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Israeli researchers digging in Jerusalem’s City of David archeological site have uncovered an “exceedingly well-preserved” 2,300-year-old gold ring that is believed to have belonged to a boy or girl that lived in the area during the Hellenistic period. 

The piece of jewelry, which is “made of gold and set with a red precious stone, apparently a garnet,” has “accumulated no rust nor suffered other weathering of time,” the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced Monday. 

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“I was sifting earth through the screen and suddenly saw something glitter,” Tehiya Gangate, a City of David excavation team member, said in a statement. “I immediately yelled, ‘I found a ring, I found a ring!’ Within seconds everyone gathered around me, and there was great excitement.”

“This is an emotionally moving find, not the kind you find every day,” she added. “In truth I always wanted to find gold jewelry, and I am very happy this dream came true – literally a week before I went on maternity leave.”   

EXPEDITION TO ‘HOLY GRAIL’ SHIPWRECK FULL OF GOLD, EMERALDS BEGINS IN CARIBBEAN SEA 

The Israel Antiquities Authority says because of the ring’s small diameter, “researchers estimate that it belonged to a boy or girl who lived in Jerusalem during the Hellenistic period.” (Israel Antiquities Authority)

The Israel Antiquities Authority says the ring was “recently found in the joint Israel Antiquities Authority-Tel Aviv University excavation in the City of David, part of the Jerusalem Walls National Park, with the support of the Elad Foundation.” 

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It will be put on display to the public in early June during Jerusalem Day. 

“The ring is very small. It would fit a woman’s pinky, or a young girl or boy’s finger,” the IAA cited Dr. Yiftah Shalev and Riki Zalut Har-Tov, Israel Antiquities Authority Excavation Directors, as saying. 

Tel Aviv University Professor Yuval Gadot and excavator Efrat Bocher added that, “The recently found gold ring joins other ornaments of the early Hellenistic period found in the City of David excavations, including the horned-animal earring and the decorated gold bead.”   

WOMAN OUT FOR A WALK STUMBLES UPON ONCE IN A DECADE DISCOVERY 

Gold ring found at City of David

A researcher poses with the ring after it was found in Jerusalem’s City of David. (Israel Antiquities Authority)

“Whereas in the past we found only a few structures and finds from this era, and thus most scholars assumed Jerusalem was then a small town, limited to the top of the southeastern slope (“City of David”) and with relatively very few resources, these new finds tell a different story: The aggregate of revealed structures now constitute an entire neighborhood,” they said. 

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“They attest to both domestic and public buildings, and that the city extended from the hilltop westward. The character of the buildings – and now of course, the gold finds and other discoveries, display the city’s healthy economy and even its elite status. It certainly seems that the city’s residents were open to the widespread Hellenistic style and influences prevalent also in the eastern Mediterranean Basin,” the researchers added. 

Gold ring discovered in Jerusalem

Those involved with the excavation say the ring helps “paint a new picture of the nature and stature of Jerusalem’s inhabitants in the Early Hellenistic Period.” (Israel Antiquities Authority)

 

The IAA says “Gold jewelry was well-known in the Hellenistic world, from Alexander the Great’s reign onward” as “his conquests helped spread and transport luxury goods and products.” 

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The Take: Why all eyes are on Rafah

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The Take: Why all eyes are on Rafah

Podcast,

The aftermath of a deadly Israeli attack on a tent camp for displaced Palestinians in Gaza’s southern city of Rafah.

Days after the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to stop its operation in Rafah, Israel hit a tent camp there, killing more than 45 displaced people. As the world condemns the attack, Israel’s war on Gaza continues.

In this episode: 

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  • Akram Al Satarri, freelance journalist
  • Imran Khan, (@ajimran) Al Jazeera senior correspondent

Episode credits:

This episode was produced by David Enders and Khaled Sultan, with Manahil Naveed, Catherine Nouhan and our host Malika Bilal.

It was edited by Amy Walters.

Our sound designer is Alex Roldan. Our lead of audience development and engagement is Aya Elmileik and Adam Abou-Gad is our engagement producer.

Alexandra Locke is The Take’s executive producer. Ney Alvarez is Al Jazeera’s head of audio.

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