Von der Leyen Calls for a Tectonic Shift in the EU: More Members, More Power, More Prosperity

Von der Leyen's own capacity to act as President will test her State of the Union address

13 September 2023

Wojciech Przybylski


On Wednesday, 13 September, the EU woke up to a speech by the most powerful EU Commission President in history.

In the 2023 State of the Union address, von der Leyen painted the EU’s achievements and bold ambitions. Without clarity about her own political leadership role as of 2024, the important messages may be lost.

Under the theme of “Answering the Call of History”, von der Leyen urged to fulfil the destiny and complete Europe –  a nearly biblical reference – that would see more capacity to act by the block in agricultural, economic and geostrategic terms. Size and weight matter – she underlined – so in order to deliver more prosperity and justice inside the Union, it needs to see through an enlargement from the current 27 to 30 plus members – even without a treaty change.

As expected, the bureaucrat-in-chief touted the block’s wins under her watch. And there were many – also beyond what von der Leyen has mentioned in the speech.

The EU managed to reduce energy dependence from its top global rivals while moving toward a new Green agenda. The NexGeneration EU – a new financing mechanism – opened up an avenue for more European sovereignty while successfully bringing a stick with the carrot. The rule of law mechanism for the time being defies claims that the EU lost the ability to act on principles because conditionality was possible only while enlarging.

Finally, the Global Gateway strategy established in 2021 and later echoed in Jake Sullivan’s April 2023 Brookings address showed that in global terms, the EU not only stops at vocal ambitions but indeed influences the agenda of the West.

A Union of 30-plus members

Building on those achievements and pledging a number of further steps, von der Leyen eventually concluded her statement with the most ambitious proposal of many – that is of a pledge of an enlarged Union with more than 30 members on board even before any treaty change would take place.

Her pledge builds upon many other political statements from the EU leaders and institutions that set the enlargement agenda in the heart of the future of the EU.

The enlargement vision, painted by President von der Leyen, entails consolidating the ongoing efforts and pushing through with key objectives while at the same time conducting an internal review – an audit of necessary changes in the functioning of the European institutions, budgets and political decision-making that will need an adaptation to the future enlarged Europe.

In other words, von der Leyen does not only want the member states to change and adopt the EU standards – like the inter-EU rule of law review, which she proposed to include advanced candidate countries – but anticipates a tectonic shifts in the self-organisation of the European Union as we know it today.

Rightly so – as history has proven – the EU was never prepared for any of the past enlargements, and each has changed it in a profound way.

Von der Leyen’s future to determine the EU’s

In light of these plans, it would be self-contradictory of her to reject the possibility of running for the second term. The priorities and trajectories established today will be mastered by the next Commission and its president with alterations, depending on who the key people in the leadership will be.

If the most ambitious goal uttered by the current leader becomes her farewell testimony, then the risk of diverting from the call of history would become grave.

Either von der Leyen stands by her achievements to consolidate her legacy with an open bid for her future role or seriously undermines her own words, or the prospects of Europe losing grip over its destiny will become only greater. Ahead of the European elections in June 2024, such a call would paint a target on her back.

To be sure, her bid will be challenged from the far right by the likes of Poland’s PiS or Viktor Orbán, who backed her bid for the office hoping to make a good deal (it did not work out for them as much as it worked for her) and the rising albeit controversial Italian PM Meloni. Expanding the EU’s powers and stepping over the line in defence of the rule of law conditionality inside the EU are, at the same time, clearly the biggest achievements of this term.

Social democrats will also pick at von der Leyen for not pushing through the Green Deal and other progressive agenda and, perhaps above all, for not committing in full to the utopian idea of rewriting the EU Treaty immediately.

And yet, to defend her vision for the complete and welcoming Union of 30 plus, von der Leyen needs to say that she wants to stay and make sure the next steps at least begin on her watch.

Before, only three out of 14 presidents had served two terms: Walter-Hallstein, Jacques Delors, and José Manuel Barroso. In the speech, von der Leyen referred only to one of them – Jacques Delor’s legacy of building a social market economy and dialogue.

It is high time that von der Leyen stands up to her own call of history and puts the weight of her political career behind the vision she just painted.



Wojciech Przybylski


Political analyst heading Visegrad Insight's policy foresight on European affairs. His expertise includes foreign policy and political culture. Editor-in-Chief of Visegrad Insight and President of the Res Publica Foundation. Europe's Future Fellow at IWM - Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna and Erste Foundation. Wojciech also co-authored a book 'Understanding Central Europe’, Routledge 2017. He has been published in Foreign Policy, Politico Europe, Journal of Democracy, EUObserver, Project Syndicate, VoxEurop, Hospodarske noviny, Internazionale, Zeit, Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, Onet, Gazeta Wyborcza and regularly appears in BBC, Al Jazeera Europe, Euronews, TRT World, TVN24, TOK FM, Swedish Radio and others.

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