Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen said she no longer advocates for the European Union to become a federal state after previously calling for the bloc to turn into “the United States of Europe.”
In an interview with a group of European newspapers published Thursday, she said her dream of a federalized EU had become “more mature and more realistic.”
“In the European Union, there is unity in diversity,” she added. “That’s different from federalism. I think that’s the right way.”
Von der Leyen, who served as Germany’s defense minister until this week, was confirmed as the EU’s next Commission president on Tuesday by a narrow majority of MEPs.
Her critics have pointed out that after the Greens and the European Left decided to oppose her, von der Leyen’s victory depended on the votes of Euroskeptic MEPs from parties such as Poland’s governing Law and Justice (PiS) party and Italy’s populist 5Star Movement.
In the interview, she underscored the pro-European stance she took in the speech she gave to Parliament before Tuesday’s vote, but also extended an olive branch to Central and Eastern European countries.
Regarding the debate about redistributing asylum seekers and migrants evenly across the bloc, for instance, she said that the EU cannot “ignore” the arguments of countries refusing to take in migrants.
“I think one has to listen to the arguments,” she said. “For example, Poland argues that it has taken in 1.5 million Ukrainians — from a country where for years a hybrid war has taken place, in which people continue to die.”
On rule of law, von der Leyen described linking EU funds to rule-of-law standards — a measure proposed by some to combat democratic backsliding in EU countries — as a last resort.
“We first need to seek dialogue,” she said, adding: “Seeking dialogue does not begin with the most severe of threats.”
Asked if her strategy on rule of law was to hope that Poland and Hungary — the two countries facing EU disciplinary procedures over concerns about democratic backsliding — would eventually come to their senses, she said: “We must all learn that complete rule of law is our goal, but no one is perfect.”
The current debate on rule of law in Europe has added to the rift between Western Europe and Eastern and Central countries, von der Leyen said.
“In Central and Eastern European countries, there’s a feeling of not being completely accepted,” she added. “If we conduct debates as bitterly as we do now, it contributes to countries and people feeling that any criticism of specific shortcomings is directed at them as a whole. It’s important to make the debates more objective.”
In the same vein, von der Leyen indicated that she would not start her term by taking a harsh stance on Italy’s overspending, saying that while countries had to comply with EU rules, the bloc’s regulations contained “a lot of flexibility.”
“Here, too, we have to take strong emotions out of the debates,” she added.
Nor did von der Leyen say that she would automatically reject a far-right commissioner nominee proposed by Italy’s League, the party of Matteo Salvini, although she noted that she had the right to turn down a candidate “for good reasons.”
Her only condition regarding nominations, she said, was to eventually have gender parity in her Commission.
In a separate interview with a second group of European newspapers, she said she would add a stronger geopolitical focus to the Commission under her leadership, saying: “The EU has to assert its leadership ambitions, to play a global role and act in a strong and unified manner. The world demands more Europe.”