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The Makings of a “Geopolitical” European Commission

As if incoming European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was not already inheriting a full plate of major challenges, she has also promised to reshape the EU into a "geopolitical" force to be reckoned with. To succeed, she will need to pass seven tests, in areas ranging from climate change to cybersecurity and competition policy.

BERLIN – On December 1, Ursula von der Leyen will finally take office as president of the European Commission. She has promised to lead a commission that will avoid a scenario in which, as French President Emmanuel Macron recently warned, Europe might “disappear geopolitically” amid an escalating Sino-American rivalry.

To be sure, the European Union has the largest market in the world, the second-highest defense spending (after the United States), 55,000 diplomats, and the world’s largest development-assistance budget. But these strengths are constrained by the fragmentation of European power both between and within member states and EU institutions. While China and the US are both adept at integrating geopolitics with their economic interests, the EU stubbornly acts as if these were separate agendas.

If von der Leyen is to succeed in building an effective “geopolitical commission,” she will need to pass seven big tests. The first will be to build unity behind her proposed European Green Deal, which she has made one of her central priorities. The question is not just whether she can direct an effective European response to climate change, but whether she can prevent the issue from becoming another front in the culture war between the EU’s western member states and the cohort in Central and Eastern Europe.