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Home » Content » Ursula von der Leyen: “Nationalism wants to destroy Europe; Spanish law must be respected”
The president of the European Commission says in an interview with EL MUNDO that she is "along the same lines as Juncker: it is not our role to mediate between a regional and a national government"

PABLO R. SUANZES – Strasbourg
Saturday, November 30, 2019 – 02:00

On July 1, when the name of Ursula von der Leyen began to circulate in the halls of Brussels, hundreds of officials, diplomats and journalists were very surprised. The German defense minister had been included in an informal pool for the distribution of European high positions, but with little intensity. However, after an eternal Summit, her candidacy generated sufficient consensus. A few hours earlier, she had been more surprised than anyone when she received the call from the German chancellor. Charles Michel had been sounded out by Angela Merkel months before for the European Council position, but Von der Leyen says she did not see this coming to her.

“It was an overwhelming surprise, for me as for everyone. But I also had the feeling that I was coming home, because I was born and raised in Brussels”, she explains. The call came at a very delicate moment. “I was in a retreat with my team from the Ministry of Defense, there was an accident with a helicopter and one person died. I flew there, I returned with my team and then everything happened”, she recalls in an interview in Strasbourg with El Mundo and six other European newspapers, after receiving the green light from the MEPs to her team for the next five years.

Such an offer comes once in a lifetime and produces vertigo, but Von der Leyen says she didn’t have to think about it. “It’s such an honor that you don’t doubt, you can’t doubt even if it cuts your breath”. Von der Leyen was born in 1958, just after the signing of the Treaty of Rome. She did not know the darkest moments of the continent, but she has them very present.

“All my life I felt protected by the idea of Europe. Clothed, perhaps it is the word, in the idea of Europe. My father saw as a teenager the horrors of war. Being German, he always had a hope: Europe as a future. For me it is also a very strong notion that I will pass on to my children. The feeling that we are part of a culture, but also of Europe as a vocation. A certainty in a changing world. My generation has a duty to make that vision fit to the present challenges. The new generations know exactly that Europe is their future and they are fighting for it and it is wonderful. They are asking us to leave them a prosperous, human and strong Europe, as our parents did with us. It is our turn to accept that responsibility and pass the baton”, she says.

When she talks about Europe, Von der Leyen talks about ‘Heimat’, a complicated word, without precise translation. A German concept that points to ‘homeland’ or ‘home’, but is much more than both. A state of belonging. Europe as a home, as a “continent dedicated to the dignity of the human being, that respects and fulfills the rule of law, which has the deepest experience of what freedom means. In other places the market is the dominant force, or the government is the dominant force. The world needs the European style, with the people at the center”, she says.

To achieve this in a hostile environment full of threats, Von der Leyen has three main priorities and has been reiterating them for months: a European Green Pact, focused on climate change and the environment; the absolute commitment to digitalization; and a stronger Europe in the world. She says it over and over again during the interview because she understands that the only way to change defeatist narratives and to cut fuel to populism is to comply, show results and be effective in actions rather than words.

That is why she prefers not to talk about politics and focus on policies. That is why she dodges at all costs to take a risk  in almost everything, except, perhaps, on one theme: “Nationalism is something that, ultimately, intends to divide and destroy the EU. We pro-Europeans have to unify and reconcile an agenda. Nationalists are often defined by the enemies they have; we, the pro-Europeans, have friends, from Prague to Athens, from Gothenburg to Lisbon”.

One of its variants, that of the Catalan pro-independence movement, has made noise this week, on the eve of the interview and the vote in the Eurochamber to the European Commission. Forty MEPs of different formations have sent a letter to the German requesting to get involved, to mediate between the Generalidad and Moncloa or to encourage external mediation. Von der Leyen says she is not aware of the letter, and makes it clear that she has no intention of doing so. Its position is and will be the same as the Juncker Commission: it is an internal question of Spain, which is a rule of law country and, therefore, its laws must be respected. The Commission only talks to the Member States, they are the only valid interlocutor and from their team they see no reason for a change of course or language.

My father, who was German, saw the war as a teenager; and had a hope: Europe as a future

“I will follow the tradition of the Juncker Commission, which was absolutely right: laws must be respected and Spanish constitutional matters must be respected. I am on the same line as Juncker. It is not the role of the European Commission to mediate between regional and a national government”, she says.

Precisely, the president’s first official trip will be to Madrid, next Monday, to intervene in the Climate Summit. “We have to act now so that the effects are visible to the new generation. You have to keep in mind that not acting would cost us a huge amount of money and quality of life. It is the right thing to do”, she says about the great environmental package she has promised in her first 100 days. “If we do it well, it will be a great driver of growth, through the export of technology that the world will demand. Don’t let China be the first. I want Europe to set the standards, not other continents. If we do not act, the alternatives will be much more expensive for us”, she insists.

Von der Leyen receives the press on Thursday a day after the plenary session of the European Parliament approves a resolution declaring the “climate emergence” in the EU by a very large majority. Her Popular Party preferred the word “urgency” and voted against it, and she herself refuses to speak of an emergency or climate crisis, but insists in the relevance of the problem and the time constraint. “I am convinced that we have no time to lose, it is in our own interest and that of our children. Europe is responsible for 9 or 10% of emissions and, therefore, I want us to be the ones who set the trend, the right direction, setting an example that we can have economic success and be sustainable. We can be competitive and move towards neutrality and others follow us”.

Europe is not something distant. It is alive and in the center of our hearts

The German will become president of the Commission tomorrow and will have to be, in many forums, the face of the EU. And deal with personalities like Donald Trump. Juncker used the carrot more than the stick with him to try to avoid tariffs and, although she does not want to reveal her cards, the ex-minister’s speech is rather moderate, prudent, along the same lines. She controls each word a lot, avoids thorny issues and has no intention of making headlines or provoking reactions. “We will always be on the same side of the table as our American friends”, she says. “The transatlantic friendship is built on personal relationships, cultural exchanges, business contacts, common projects. They are very solid bases that go back decades in time. Of course there are thorny issues on which we discuss with the White House. But knowing how close we are, the strength of the ties that bind us and that we share a common cause, allow us to be frank and negotiate hard”, she says.

For the other great superpower, there are words that seek to relax as well. “China challenges us in many ways. There are issues in which we must be very clear, such as human rights or security. But there are also other issues on which to build a positive agenda. The fight against climate change, trade systems of emissions. About Huawei, for example, the Commission has compiled the information and position of the Member States and we will make a recommendation on how to deal with the matter by the end of the year. We will be very clear about the safety standards. We hope they will be complied with. And that should be a common practice across the EU”, she warns.

NATO is the strongest alliance in the world. Europe will never be a military alliance.

In her great specialty, Defense, the president has more to say. She will not participate in the NATO meeting next week in London, but she has it very present, as well as the debate that has opened in the last month. “NATO will always be a collective defense, Article 5, as it is the strongest alliance in the world. Europe will never be a military alliance, but there are fields where I do not see NATO but the EU, yes, thanks to that broad range of unique instruments, from development cooperation to neighborhood funds, through very strong diplomacy Instruments that can do a lot in a crisis or to prevent them. The EU has to have functional structures and procedures. In the last three years we have took impressive steps forward in defense matters, in order to be able – if there is political will – to act. Five years ago, the EU wanted to do something in Mali and could not. That is why we need the structures. But, yes, a European Union of Defense will always be complementary to NATO, the smart thing is to be complementary and not redundant”, she emphasizes.

In many respects, Von der Leyen’s speech seems innocent, too innocent, as when she says that she does not give greater importance to being the first German president of the Commission in decades. Or completely oblivious to what happened in the streets and parliaments of so many countries in the last five years or the last decade. Expression of a desire more than reality. “Europe is not something distant, it is at the center of our hearts. It is alive depending on what we do with it”, she says.

We all know that we are better together, if we are 500 million, if we are 28, we are a super-power

When she points to the rise of skepticism in countries like Italy, she responds with Roman law and mentions of beauty as well. “You cannot reduce Europe to a mechanism or an economic fund. The EU is like democracy: of course there are debates, of course it is sometimes slow, but there is the beauty of including everyone in the process of shaping”. Look at the great challenges, from migration to climate change. From digitalization to geopolitical challenges. We all know that we are better together, if we are 500 million, if we are 28, we are a superpower”, she explains.

“I know it is not easy, but people want a better European Union and they demand it, with all the reason. In recent years those destructive, divisive, negative forces, those who want to divide, populist parties that want to leave the EU, have been silenced”, she says, pointing out that Brexit has shaken and changed those who had a too frivolous discourse about ruptures and separation. “Our duty, that of convinced pro-Europeans, is to put into words beauty, strength, inheritance and common aspirations. It’s complicated, but that’s what we’re here for”, she concludes.



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