New European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was put on the spot during her visit to Zagreb on Friday (10 January). Asked how she would prove that her Commission is ‘geopolitical’, given the EU’s weak response to growing challenges in the region, von der Leyen failed to provide convincing answers.
At a press conference to mark the start of the Croatian Presidency of the Council of the EU, a French journalist asked von der Leyen how she would prove credible the ‘geopolitical’ qualification she had given to her team, in the current context of the crisis of NATO and the tensions in Iraq and in Libya.
He also asked her to take a position regarding the recent proposal by the Finnish Presidency to slash the European Defence Fund (EDF) from €6 billion to €2.5 billion.
Von der Leyen, who had been Germany’s defence minister before taking the EU’s top job, did not comment on the Finnish Presidency’s proposal and said the EDF was important in terms of inter-operability in defence procurement and for boosting innovation in the European military industry, including SMEs.
On NATO, she said it was the strongest military alliance in the world and would stay so. She ended by saying that “the EU is complementary to NATO” and for collective defence, “it will always be NATO and Article 5”.
A Croatian journalist asked von der Leyen how the EU could make a difference in the Middle East, where it has very little influence. She answered by saying that having a more influential Europe was composed “of many different topics”. She mentioned trade agreements, or defining standards such as GDPR, as examples to measure the EU’s influence.
Von der Leyen spoke in general terms about the Middle East, where tensions and violence have been rising recently, saying that whenever violence was increasing, at the very end, spiralling violence could be only stopped by restarting talks.
“The occurrence of violence is always the failure of dialogue,” she added. The EU has a very good reputation, she further argued, and has many of “trusted, time-tested dialogue channels” that, according to her, are being used now.
Von der Leyen also possibly disappointed an Italian journalist from ANSA who asked her about the crisis in Libya and the possible re-launch of the Operation Sophia in the Mediterranean, which patrolled the sea with the aim to deter people smugglers. This operation is practically defunct, at a time when instability in Libya can lead to a massive exodus to the Italian islands and coasts.
The Commission chief passed the buck, saying that questions went deep into the remit of Josep Borrell, her deputy in charge of EU foreign affairs. She added that the EU supported a UN-led process in Libya, and that Borrell would push for that.
Regarding Operation Sophia, she said it was a matter for the member states to decide. “This is where the decision-making process takes place, and where at the very end the European Union decides”, she said.
Von der Leyen praised Croatia for its success as a new EU member and for its recent accession experience, which it could bring to bear on the future of EU enlargement.