Home Europe Von der Leyen and Costa: Europe’s new dynamic duo

Von der Leyen and Costa: Europe’s new dynamic duo

by editor

BRUSSELS — The EU’s official motto is “united in diversity.”

That optimistic slogan could also be used to describe the warm and fuzzy relationship between Ursula von der Leyen and António Costa, who EU leaders backed on Thursday to serve as the next presidents of the European Commission and European Council, respectively.

It’s a stark departure from von der Leyen’s past five years, which has been spackled with infighting with her current European Council counterpart, Belgian Charles Michel. From coordinating itineraries on international trips so the pair don’t overlap to holding meetings with foreign dignitaries, the relationship never took off. In recent weeks, the bloc’s institutions’ offices were filled with rumors that Michel was gunning to take down von der Leyen by offering up the Greek prime minister in her place.

It created a tense, dysfunctional environment for collaboration among two of the EU’s most critical institutions as they navigated a global pandemic and the biggest war in Europe since World War II in neighboring Ukraine.

In the lead-up to Thursday’s summit, negotiators representing the two largest political families in the European Parliament — the European People’s Party and the Socialists — settled on a new combo that could finally bring peace to the Brussels bubble. Von der Leyen got the greenlight to stand for a second term as Commission president and Costa was tapped to replace Michel.

“Von der Leyen and Costa are tied together,” said one EU official who, like others quoted in this piece, was granted anonymity to discuss the EU’s top leadership.

It’s also a dynamic that works among the unspoken and unwritten rules around the EU’s top jobs. Typically, the 27 heads of state and government consider geographic, political and gender diversity in their appointments for the roles. In the case of von der Leyen and Costa, the official said von der Leyen and Costa’s “team-up” works because it respects those criteria.

“She’s a woman who belongs to the [European People’s Party] and comes from the North and he’s a Socialist who represents the South,” the official added.

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, who the bloc’s heads of government selected to serve as the EU’s top diplomat, rounded out the mix by representing Eastern European liberals.

“Everyone is happy,” the diplomat said.

The pandemic pair

Despite their wildly dissimilar profiles, the two politicians appear to get along and to relish being part of a package deal.

Following the Council’s announcement on Thursday, both gushed while speaking about one another. Costa said he was delighted to be part of a team with von der Leyen, while she spoke at length about his professionalism and sense of humor.

Von der Leyen, the descendant of a long line of northern German jurists and civil servants, is a physician who became active in conservative politics relatively late in life. After a rocky stint as defense minister in Berlin, she was unexpectedly boosted to the Commission presidency in 2019 thanks to a backroom deal forged by French President Emmanuel Macron and then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel. 

Costa, a lawyer of Indo-Portuguese origin, is a lifelong socialist who got his start in local politics in Lisbon and steadily worked his way to the top. As Portuguese prime minister, he oversaw the country’s return from financial ruin. But his eight-year stint running the country ended in scandal, with his abrupt resignation in the midst of an influence-peddling probe.

The roll-out of the vaccination campaign appears to have been crucial to cementing the good relations between the two politicians. | Carlos Costa/AFP via Getty Images

Despite belonging to rival political parties, von der Leyen and Costa appeared to campaign on each other’s behalf in the lead up to their Council confirmations.

In an interview with POLITICO earlier this year, Costa spoke glowingly about von der Leyen, whom he described as “an exceptional Commission president” who has had “an extraordinary tenure.”

Costa is known in Brussels as being able to get along with anyone, regardless of their political background. The socialist became so friendly with the center-right Merkel that he was one of the select foreign leaders invited to a farewell dinner she held before stepping down in 2021, and he’s one of the few European prime ministers to have always had good relations with Hungarian strongman Viktor Orbán.

But Costa described his relationship with von der Leyen as being “especially close,” and attributed that to the work they did together during the “intense period” when Portugal held the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU in 2021.

“We were still in the midst of the pandemic and during this period the war in Ukraine broke out, so we also had to deal with the energy and inflation crisis,” he recalled. “Von der Leyen and I worked together to overcome those challenges, and especially to move toward the launch of the large-scale vaccination process across the EU, which started during the Portuguese presidency.”

The roll-out of the vaccination campaign appears to have been crucial to cementing the good relations between the two politicians. Von der Leyen had staked her reputation on having 70 percent of the EU’s adults fully vaccinated by the end of summer 2021 and was under serious pressure to deliver. Costa put himself and the civil servants attached to his country’s Council presidency at the Commission president’s disposal to ensure she met that target.

In the years since then, von der Leyen may have fondly recalled the Portuguese politician’s willingness to work together as she struggled to coexist with her Belgian counterpart across Rue de la Loi.

While there has always been some tension between the Commission and the Council, previous holders of the highest offices have made a concerted effort to be productive together. José Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy, for example, met for lunch every week. But von der Leyen and Michel were never able to achieve such cordial relations. EU leaders reportedly took that toxic dynamic into account when discussing names for the top jobs package this time around.

Peace in our time?

At home in Lisbon, Costa has long demonstrated his ability to avoid drama and work well with his political counterparts. During his eight years as prime minister, the socialist politician deftly sidestepped confrontations with Portugal’s charismatic president, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, a constitutional law expert and former television commentator with a talent for making controversial statements.

Costa’s ability to avoid confrontations in Brussels is likewise well-known, and his popularity with other heads of government made him an early favorite for the Council post. Indeed, the interest in his potential candidacy stood in stark contrast to that of Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, whose name was also floated for the post, but who inspired far less enthusiasm among her European counterparts.

Even after Costa’s resignation last November, European leaders like Germany’s Olaf Scholz pushed to keep Costa in the running for the Council presidency. Many saw his selection to be one of the keynote speakers at the Commission’s ceremony honoring the late Jacques Delors in February as von der Leyen’s own attempt to ensure he remained visible at the EU level.

The Commission president has everything to gain by having a valued partner in the Council, one who is capable of ushering in a new period without public incidents that reflect negatively on the EU institutions. But his permanence in the post could be imperiled if von der Leyen’s reappointment is scuppered when her candidacy goes to a vote in the European Parliament, throwing off the delicate balance of candidates for the top jobs.

EU leaders have appointed Costa to an initial, two and a half year term as Council president. While all of his predecessors have served for two consecutive terms — occupying the office for a total of five years — the Portuguese socialist may have a difficult time remaining in the post if von der Leyen fails in her quest to remain in office.

“It would be hard to replace her with another female EPP member from Northern Europe,” said the diplomat, who argued that if the alternate candidate was a male politician from the south, it would undermine Costa’s shot at being Council president for two terms. 

“This is a package deal,” the diplomat insisted, implying the political marriage between the German conservative and the Portuguese socialist would be for better or for worse.

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