Experts react: What to expect from the European Union’s new leadership

It’s a chip off the old bloc. European Union (EU) leaders on Thursday chose to put forward Ursula von der Leyen for a second term as European Commission president, in the wake of European Parliament elections earlier this month that saw her center-right grand coalition largely hold together even as the far right made gains. They also nominated former Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa to be the next European Council president and Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas to take over as the EU’s top diplomat. Below, our experts break down what each brings to the bloc and what’s ahead for von der Leyen and Kallas, who still need to be confirmed by EU lawmakers.

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Ursula von der Leyen: A welcome sign of stability, but parliamentary approval is no sure thing

António Costa: The skilled negotiator will be a major contrast to Charles Michel

Kaja Kallas: The first EU foreign policy chief from the east takes a stronger stance against Russia

Ursula von der Leyen: A welcome sign of stability, but parliamentary approval is no sure thing

Von der Leyen’s nomination for a second term at the helm of the European Commission is a much-needed signal for stability following the fallout from the European elections in early June. Despite much hyperbolic media speculation to the contrary, it also hardly comes as a surprise. Paris and Berlin, which otherwise could have tried to block von der Leyen, are mired in their own domestic post-election instability—and in the case of French President Emmanuel Macron, lost their political capital to seriously influence decision making at the EU level. All eyes were on Rome to see what Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni might do as one of the few winners among major EU leaders from the June 6-9 ballot. However, Meloni’s moment doesn’t seem to have materialized (yet) as her political family was shut out from negotiations on the EU’s top jobs by the old guard of pro-EU traditionalists from the center-right, center-left, and liberal wings.       

Von der Leyen should not celebrate yet, though, as she faces a tough confirmation vote from the European Parliament. Getting to the magic number of 361 votes could prove a tall order. In 2019 von der Leyen got only a slim majority for her first term. Now an even more difficult road to confirmation lies ahead in the new European Parliament. Von der Leyen will need all her political skill to assemble a new majority in a legislature that includes a much-reduced, less reliable mainstream coalition at her back, with some old and more than a few new detractors. Then there are the hard-right critics who feel emboldened by their performance at the ballot box, and they are irritated by their exclusion from her nomination process. The two options that could push her safely over the finish line—adding Meloni’s political group on the right or the Greens on the left to the pro-EU coalition at the center—are mutually exclusive, as neither wants to be part of a von der Leyen bloc that involves the respective other. But that’s not the only problem. Reaching out to those wings would also risk undercutting the existing coalition, as von der Leyen’s center-right allies are wary of the Greens, while the center-left has warned von der Leyen not to even talk to Meloni’s hard-right group.      

Von der Leyen is still more likely than not to go on to win confirmation for a second term. She has the skill and experience to put together a winning policy agenda with just enough on offer for just enough of the key players. The election outcome helps further converge the agenda for Europe’s next political cycle around themes in part shaped under von der Leyen 1.0—from economic competitiveness and economic security to greater defense industrial cooperation and a Europe that gets tougher on migration. And the combination of Macron’s election gamble at home, the instability that could emanate from a hung parliament in France, and the leadership vacuum from Paris to Berlin more generally will act as disciplining force on some that may have second thoughts about von der Leyen. Many in her existing coalition may not want to risk adding another political crisis at the EU level by rejecting her in the current situation.          

For many in Washington, a second term for von der Leyen would be welcome. Von der Leyen and the European Union played an important role in US President Joe Biden’s “America is back” narrative of reaffirming key alliances. She and her team not only helped keep Europe united on sanctions and energy diversification in the face of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, but also led creative efforts to see the EU step up in major ways from military to macro-financial assistance to Kyiv—without which the administration’s political challenges at home on Ukraine could have been significantly worse. Most importantly, however, the Commission president started building an economic security agenda and toolbox for the EU that led to much greater convergence with the United States on what really matters to Washington—the long-term strategic competition with China. On that front, the United States would probably continue to have a major ally in von der Leyen, especially with the debate among member states on the right course vis-à-vis Beijing likely to heat up in the coming months and years. A second Donald Trump administration could again put all of von der Leyen’s political skills and flexibility to the test of having to both be the “tough negotiator” on behalf of the EU that Trump lauded when they first met in 2020, and also build a rapport anywhere close to the one she enjoys with the Biden White House.               

Jörn Fleck is the senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center.

António Costa: The skilled negotiator will be a major contrast to Charles Michel 

Costa is a safe and smart choice to be the next president of the European Council, succeeding Charles Michel. Costa, who served as the Portuguese prime minister from 2015 to 2024, is expected to be a more selfless convener for the Council and the entire EU, in contrast with Michel, who has irked leaders with his self-promotion. 

Costa is a master negotiator who excels at striking deals behind the scenes. He made his mark forming a unique coalition of left-wing parties (geringonça, in Portuguese) to initially govern in 2015, and he was just as comfortable making deals with the opposition as prime minister. These skills will serve Costa well as European Council president, as he will have to navigate the twenty-seven personalities and priorities of the EU’s heads of state to move policy along, especially given what is expected to be a bold agenda for the next Commission.

Costa brings socialist/center-left and southern European equities to the position. He won the presidency over Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen despite an ongoing investigation in Portugal involving allegations of corruption within Costa’s former inner circle that caused him to resign. The fact that the EU went forward with Costa as the next Council president shows that the bloc is comfortable with the status of the ongoing investigation, one in which Costa has not been formally charged. Costa is expected to have a strong working relationship with von der Leyen in her second term as European Commission president and is also well-respected among other national leaders such as Macron. To be effective in his new role, however, Costa will need to become more hawkish on defense and migration issues, areas that were not his strengths domestically in Portugal.

Andrew Bernard is a retired US Air Force Colonel and a visiting fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center.

Kaja Kallas: The first EU foreign policy chief from the east takes a stronger stance against Russia

If Kallas is confirmed as high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, this will be the first time a leader from Europe’s east will take the EU’s top diplomatic post. While this is a major milestone for the bloc, her appointment is also concerning for some allies. Kallas, one of the EU’s staunchest Russia hawks, has been a leading voice in supporting Ukraine with military and financial aid, and ramping up the dial on sanctions against Russia. She’s even a “wanted person” in Russia in connection with her efforts to remove Soviet-era World War II monuments in Estonia, which the Kremlin decried as the “desecration of historical memory.” Kallas’s highly critical stance toward Russia has made some leaders worry that handing her this post may be seen as too provocative.

Kallas has also faced difficulty on the home front, with her approval rating among Estonians plunging to 16 percent earlier this year after the news broke that her husband had stakes in a logistics company that continued to operate in Russia after its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Further, EU diplomats accused Kallas’s government of inflating reimbursements for equipment sent to Ukraine under the European Peace Facility, an accusation she has denied. 

Overall, however, with her reputation as a pragmatic leader, Kallas is a good choice for high representative, though she will perhaps have some work to do when it comes to ensuring that the EU is seen as a respected authority in regions such as the Middle East and the Global South.

Rachel Rizzo is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center.

Further reading

Related Experts: Jörn Fleck, Andrew Bernard, and Rachel Rizzo

Image: The current president of the European Commission, Germany's Ursula von der Leyen, would be assured of a second term, according to revelations about an agreement for the conservative politician to continue in office, something that will occur once her candidacy is ratified by the summit of Heads of State and Government and then endorsed by the full European Parliament.