Ursula von der Leyen Might Be Too Pro-American for Europe

The president of the European Commission has Washington’s back on China—but does she have Europe’s?

Vohra-Anchal-foreign-policy-columnist18
Vohra-Anchal-foreign-policy-columnist18
Anchal Vohra
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy.
Joe Biden meets with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on March 10, 2023.
Joe Biden meets with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on March 10, 2023.
Joe Biden meets with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on March 10, 2023. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

Last month, a few weeks after returning from Washington and a few days before leaving for Beijing, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tried setting a new tone for Europe’s China policy. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), she said in a speech on March 30, was pursuing a “systemic change of the international order” with China at its center and moving into a “new era of security and control,” alluding to how Beijing was emerging as a parallel power center in opposition to the U.S.-led Western dominance of global politics. 

Last month, a few weeks after returning from Washington and a few days before leaving for Beijing, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tried setting a new tone for Europe’s China policy. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), she said in a speech on March 30, was pursuing a “systemic change of the international order” with China at its center and moving into a “new era of security and control,” alluding to how Beijing was emerging as a parallel power center in opposition to the U.S.-led Western dominance of global politics. 

Von der Leyen didn’t hold back on her critique when she traveled to Beijing a week later. She warned China against arming Russia as well as unilaterally changing the status quo in Taiwan, reprimanded the CCP for human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and categorically stated that Europe was displeased with a burgeoning trade deficit. Just over the last decade, it has “more than tripled,” she said on April 6, reaching “almost 400 billion euros [about $438 billion] last year.” She also demanded a level playing field for European businesses and said Europe was determined to reduce its dependencies on China when it comes to critical raw materials and monitor the sharing of key technologies developed by European companies. 

It was an entirely cogent analysis. But for some European Union member states, on behalf of which she technically speaks, von der Leyen seemed to articulate a U.S. viewpoint rather than a united European policy—which many say doesn’t really exist. In 2019, the EU’s strategic outlook document on EU-China relations described China simultaneously as a partner, a competitor, and a rival, and nation-states in the 27-member bloc are still widely divided on what that means. Eastern and Central European nations have a more critical view of China, in line with the United States, which they see as their security guarantor, while the giants in Western Europe either don’t wish to play second fiddle to Washington or just don’t want to irk China and fray economic ties.

Elvire Fabry, a senior research fellow at the Jacques Delors Institute in Paris and rapporteur of the EU-China working group, said that at the moment Europeans are focused on the Russia-Ukraine war and grappling with a cost of living crisis. In such circumstances, they simply don’t have the bandwidth to rock the boat with Beijing. Von der Leyen is trying to “speed up cohesion among member states” and press them to decide on a “new position” on China, Fabry told Foreign Policy

“The U.S. expects two things: come up with a coherent, united China policy but also that policy must align with” U.S. policy, she said. Europeans have a clear awareness that they need to rethink China, “but they may not have the appetite to align.” 

The pushback to von der Leyen’s stern message was immediate. French President Emmanuel Macron, who was in Beijing on the same visit, adopted an ingratiating tone toward China and instead distanced Europeans from their most significant ally across the Atlantic. Europeans must not become America’s “followers,” he said. In reference to Taiwan, he said Europeans should not be “caught up in crises that are not ours” and that prevent Europe from building its “strategic autonomy.” 

Back in Brussels, European Council President Charles Michel was among the first to back Macron and said European leaders are increasingly inclined toward the French president’s call for strategic autonomy from the United States. 

“I think quite a few really think like Emmanuel Macron,” he said in an interview on French TV. Both Macron’s and Michel’s comments were reported positively in the Chinese press. 

The rivalry between Michel and von der Leyen is no secret, two Brussels insiders told Foreign Policy. However, polling in recent years suggests that von der Leyen is carrying out a disconnected foreign policy. In a 2021 poll conducted by the European Council on Foreign Relations in 12 EU member states, a plurality of those surveyed felt that “the European Union is engaged in the cold war with China,” not their home countries. 

Von der Leyen is perceived as a vehemently pro-U.S. commission chief at a time when there is discernible annoyance in some European capitals over the U.S. defense sector making a killing in the Ukraine crisis. While the United States has supplied equipment worth $15.2 billion in a boost to its defense industry, the EU has provided around 8 billion euros’ worth (about $8.27 billion). Moreover, Europeans are irritated that they have to purchase U.S. gas at four times the price it is sold inside the United States. 

A recent dispute, however, has topped all others and threatened a trans-Atlantic trade war. The Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, a $400 billion subsidy package to encourage domestic manufacturing in green technologies, is seen as protectionist by Europeans who fear losing business to U.S. counterparts. In response, the EU has announced its own Green Deal Industrial Plan, a set of incentives for European companies. 

Von der Leyen may have tried to mitigate the damage, but instead she was accused of jumping the gun when she tried to secure exemptions for European companies that export critical materials to the United States so they could then avail U.S. subsidies and stay competitive. 

Marie-Pierre Vedrenne, a French member of the European Parliament, told Foreign Policy that von der Leyen launched negotiations with the United States whilst on a trip to Washington, “without a mandate and without informing the member states,” and that Europe needed to rethink all of its supply chains and its relationships with all states, including the United States. 

“This is a discussion that we need to have in Europe before we go and publicize it,” Vedrenne added. “We must work on our European autonomy, have European production lines and European supply chains. This is why we were surprised that the president of the commission announced her commitment to the formation of an agreement with the United States on critical raw materials.” 

Even when von der Leyen said decoupling from China was an unviable option and instead advocated de-risking, a policy in line with Germany and France’s thinking, she was still seen to be cornering the giants into articulating a China policy. 

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the German government has accepted the failure of its much-touted Wandel durch Handel policy—or changing the attitudes of autocratic regimes through trade—and said it needs to rethink relations with China, but it has not yet revealed a comprehensive strategy. 

Experts say Germany and France do not necessarily disagree with the substance of what von der Leyen has proposed but only with the manner.

“Europeans have become aware that unilateral dependencies on China for rare earth, lithium, cobalt, are not sustainable,” said Stefan Lehne, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe in Brussels. “A lot of legislative work has happened in the EU to diversify supply chains to resist coercion from China.” 

EU members acknowledge that they have to reduce dependence on China and have formulated a Critical Raw Materials Act, which calls for exploration of mining opportunities inside Europe, procuring raw materials from resource-rich nations, and building their own refining capacity. 

China holds the largest deposits of rare earths, which are needed in electric vehicles (EVs), wind turbines, solar panels, and much more, and is the global leader in refining raw materials such as lithium, which is needed for EV batteries, among other devices. While EU demand for rare earths is expected to grow 4.5 times by 2030, demand for lithium in EV batteries will spike elevenfold. 

Ian Lesser, the vice president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said that even though most key European actors have a more nuanced view of Beijing, there has been a clear shift. He said their stance toward China has hardened and in principle they agree with most of what von der Leyen has projected as European policy, even if their language sometimes differs. 

Von der Leyen “believes that EU and U.S. interests are not separable and that our approach should be convergent, evidently so, visibly so,” he told Foreign Policy from Brussels. “But leave aside the language that comes from [the] EU Commission and certain member states, [the] approach to China is not that different.” 

Yet others argue that von der Leyen pursues U.S. interests with vigor but lacks similar enthusiasm on matters of utmost importance to the EU’s future. 

“We haven’t seen a major push when it comes to EU reforms, and I find that frightening,” said Daniel Freund, a member of the European Parliament with the German Greens. “[Russian President Vladimir] Putin needs just one member to veto our decisions, and that has been Hungary,” he added. Freund argued that von der Leyen has been “hesitant of confronting [Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor] Orban” because she came from the same conservative political grouping, the European People’s Party. 

He said the EU has long discussed repealing the clause on all decisions by unanimity so the institution is not held hostage by Hungary. But while von der Leyen welcomed the idea, she has failed to make it a priority. She only “reluctantly” agreed to freezing Hungary’s funding and announced Poland’s EU-financed recovery plan despite concerns over the independence of the Polish judiciary, Freund added. 

Von der Leyen’s centralized decision-making vexes many in the EU’s top institution. She is accused of sidelining more than two dozen commissioners and working with a small group of advisors, operating more like a U.S. president. Yet no one doubts just how much of a workaholic the German politician has been since she moved into a bathroom-turned-bedroom on the 13th floor of the Berlaymont building in Brussels, which houses the EU headquarters. 

“Von der Leyen is determining the policy of the commission as a whole,” Lehne of Carnegie Europe said. “Sometimes you will get pushback from one of the commissioners, and there is some risk whether there might be some backlash [from member states]. But overall she has established herself as a strong player.” 

There is a view that von der Leyen is merely doing her job as European Commission president. Even those who dislike her top-down approach compliment her for quickly pushing for sanctions on Russia while some of Europe’s top leaders were dillydallying and hoping Putin wouldn’t dare weaponize gas supplies. She has already received the backing of her conservative Christian Democratic Union if she pursues a second term. She would, almost certainly, also have the White House on her side. 

Twitter: @anchalvohra

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