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6 June 2024

Can imperial propaganda rescue Ursula von der Leyen’s presidency?

Her conservative video campaign is a lame appeal to the populist right.

By Lily Lynch

European parliamentary elections are imminent. In the run-up, the European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has unleashed a full-throttled propaganda assault on the continent. Her campaign team has described the approach as “personal” and “dynamic”, but so far the crop of videos has drawn a chorus of ridicule. In one oddly whimsical clip posted across her social media accounts, Von der Leyen is seen strolling through what looks like a verdant Teutonic forest, uttering the words “this is where I find my strength and the energy”.

Strength, vitality, German blondes looking fresh-faced and purposeful: what associations might she hope to conjure with such imagery? Some noted that the clip was reminiscent of the “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” scene from the musical Cabaret, in which a blonde boy in a Hitler Youth uniform sings a hymn to German nature before a rapt summer party. Instead of Cabaret lyrics like “the branch of the linden is leafy and green”, however, Von der Leyen’s lines are simple campaign slogans, though no less evocative of some völkisch nationalism sprung from the German primeval forest.

She tells us that this is the place where she finds the will “to keep fighting… for our common home. For our Europe. For a strong Europe.” We are left to wonder what a “strong Europe” means. Is it a reference to Fortress Europe and its “strong” external borders? Or is it the fabled “strategic autonomy” of geopolitical Europe, heralding an EU able to “speak the language of power” and prepared to stare down foreign enemies? Or, as another video describes Von der Leyen’s vision, is it “a Europe that dares to act”? We don’t know because we are never told.

In another clip posted on Tuesday, 4 June, we are back in the forest, this time in Sweden. Von der Leyen inspects the pine needles of a tree, as the Swedish prime minister Ulf Kristersson of the centre-right Moderate Party strolls in her company. In a separate clip, they are seen drinking beer together. The Europe promoted in these campaign spots is a nostalgic, almost Disneyfied one, filled with pretty postcard fodder: churches, beer, forests and cathedrals. What is most striking about them is what is excluded – the Europe we don’t see. The Europe beyond Von der Leyen’s idyll is far more diverse; it is poorer, more unequal and disunited on a host of questions, from the EU’s foreign policy direction to its green energy policies.

It is quite clear who Von der Leyen is courting with these images: Europe’s rampant political right, who are expected to see their electoral fortunes soar this weekend. But in other videos she seems intent on appealing to a more conventional centre-right audience. Another spot shows Von der Leyen on a morning jog wearing Lycra pants and an electric-pink T-shirt. It briefly conjures distant memories of the “pink pussyhat” feminism of the Trump era. In Von der Leyen, we can surmise, Europe has a chance to recapture the thrill of a potential Hillary presidency: another hawkish Atlanticist who occasionally cloaks her lust for war and power in flimsy feminist concern. “That’s why I’m running,” Von der Leyen explains to us post-exercise. Get it?

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Except she’s not running, at least not in the conventional sense. She is not courting the public’s vote. She is seeking another term as European Commission president, which is appointed in a much more convoluted way. First, her European People’s Party (EPP) must retain its position as the dominant group in the European parliament. And, according to recent polling data, the EPP is almost certain to accomplish this: the latest Euractiv seat projection shows the EPP with 182 seats, with the centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in second place with 136. It is to shore up this result that Von der Leyen is criss-crossing Europe, electioneering with the EPP’s national parties and making these bizarre propaganda videos.

But after her party clears that crucial hurdle, Von der Leyen will still have to secure the nomination of a qualified majority of European leaders. Then she will need to be chosen by a minimum of 361 of the 720 MEPs voted in on 9 June. For someone who isn’t even asking for the European public’s vote, it is a strangely imperious campaign; Von der Leyen has even rolled out a “merch store” with purple hoodies, T-shirts, coffee mugs and tote bags. This is Von der Leyen as Europe’s queen, distinct in a union that has long been known for its bureaucratic facelessness. Stranger still is that it insists on depicting an image of Europe seemingly drawn from the eve of its darkest days.

[See also: Waging lawfare against Trump will not end well for Democrats]

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