Von der Leyen won’t rule out working with right-wing parties

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BRUSSELS — Ursula von der Leyen has a plan to squeeze back into the Berlaymont.

The European Commission president hinted Wednesday she would be open, after the European election in June, to working with some politicians in the European Conservatives and Reformists grouping who are more right-wing than her own center-right party — albeit on her terms.

“The cut-off line is ‘do you stand for democracy?’, ‘do you defend our values?’, ‘are you very firm in the rule of law?’, ‘are you supporting Ukraine’ and ‘are you fighting against Putin’s attempt to weaken and divide Europe?’And these answers have to be very clear,” she said, when asked if she would work with the ECR, avoiding a direct “yes” or “no” response.

After years of weathering crises and pushing ambitious climate legislation, von der Leyen is gunning for a second five-year term steering the European Union’s powerful executive arm, with a new focus on security, industry and making climate ambitions more palatable to big business.

But to get there she will need the approval of a majority of MEPs in the European Parliament, which is predicted to shift to the right.

In 2024, the right-wing polling surge seems bigger and bolder, with one forecast predicting the nationalist right and far right could pick up nearly a quarter of the seats in the European Parliament in June.

To get Parliament’s backing — which she only managed narrowly in 2019 — it is likely that von der Leyen will either have to secure votes from the Greens, who are not enthusiastic about her ongoing bonfire of environmental bills, or from the ECR.

The parties that von der Leyen will work with are “pro-European, pro-NATO, pro-Ukrainian, clearly supporters of our democratic values,” she said.

`When asked about a possible coalition between her center-right European People’s Party and the ECR, von der Leyen evaded a “yes” or “no” answer again.

Instead, she said: “Against rule-of-law? Impossible. Putin’s friends? Impossible.”

The ECR itself has been rocked by Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán’s interest in joining, which has spooked Czech, Swedish and Finnish member parties.

Von der Leyen hinted that some members of the ECR group could be tempted to quit the ECR and join her own family, led by German MEP Manfred Weber.

“We do not know who is forming ECR after the elections. What groups will leave ECR and for example join EPP,” she said, without naming names.

But leaving the door open to parts of the ECR if they meet her criteria could nonetheless be a risky political strategy.

Other political factions, such as the Socialists, have for months accused Weber of cozying up to the far right, in particular by building bridges with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy.

The Socialists, according to a leaked draft manifesto, are likely to hit that note hard in the coming campaign.

Standing next to von der Leyen, Weber told reporters that populists “will not deliver” for EU citizens and said there is a red line against working with extremists who are not in favor of the EU, Ukraine or the rule of law.

For some in von der Leyen’s family, she isn’t right wing enough. The EPP’s French Les Républicains party said this week it won’t support her candidacy, though that is probably largely to do with French national politics, where von der Leyen is seen as French President Emmanuel Macron’s favorite.

At the press conference, Weber sketched a vision of the EPP — set to win the election by a wide margin according to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls — ruling the roost in the next Parliament.

It could mean an end to a shifting progressive majority of liberal and progressive MEPs that often coalesced around votes on climate and environmental topics, and excluded the EPP.

“I want to see the EPP in a situation that no one can anymore govern against the EPP votes in the next European Parliament. That is a goal which is possible to achieve,” he said.