Europeans know who their European Commission president is, but they don’t feel sufficiently informed about her political work. There is a very fundamental problem behind this.

European voters are set to elect a new European Parliament between June 6 and 9, 2024. The elections are happening at time when commentators are once again pointing to the EU‘s fragility, with mounting tensions on the world stage, inadequacies in foreign policy, backlash against climate policy, and weakening economic fundamentals fuelling political polarisation within member states.

This polarisation could significantly impact the composition of the incoming European Parliament. Recent projections for the European Parliament elections suggest that the grand coalition between the centre-left Social Democrats (Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, S&D), Christian Democrats/Centre Right (European People’s Party, EPP), and liberals (Renew Europe, RE) may still hold a majority of seats.

However, the two far-right groups, the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and Identity and Democracy (ID), are likely to make substantial gains. If these two groups were to form a single parliamentary group, they could become the largest, occupying about a quarter of the 720 seats. While these projections are uncertain, they indicate a challenging road ahead for European policymakers.

The composition of the European Parliament not only matters when it comes to electing the Commission president but also raises concerns about the future of signature EU projects like the Green Deal. Crafting policy solutions to address the EU’s persistent challenges is already difficult, and creating a popular mandate for such policies is likely to be even more complex. Furthermore, it may become more challenging to overcome popular disagreements about policies and prevent gridlock within and between the EU’s institutions.

Against this backdrop, the question of who will be the next European Commission president is crucial. After all, the president is a central figure in the EU, tasked with shaping day-to-day leadership in Brussels.

Raised Profile

Ursula von der Leyen has led the European Commission for the past five years. Her candidacy was initially marked by controversy as she was not one of the “lead candidates” ahead of the 2019 elections. However, she belonged to the EPP, the party group that won the most seats, and has gained support throughout her term while raising the profile of the European Commission president internationally. Her coordination of Europe’s responses to key challenges, such as vaccine procurement during the COVID-19 pandemic and the EU’s aid to Ukraine following Russia’s full invasion, and her effective team management and communication increased the visibility of the EU on the world stage.

But how do Europe’s citizens view their Commission president? Has Ursula von der Leyen also increased the Commission’s profile and visibility among European citizens? How do Europeans evaluate her leadership? And what do they see as the EU’s most urgent tasks in the near future? These questions are particularly urgent ahead of the upcoming European Parliament elections, as Ursula von der Leyen is seeking a second term in office.

Limited Judgement

To answer these questions, eupinions, the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s platform for European opinion research, surveyed over 13,200 EU citizens in December 2023 together with the Institute for European Policymaking at Bocconi University.

First, we asked respondents if they knew who their Commission president was, while prompting with a list of names. Second, we asked respondents if they thought they had enough knowledge to evaluate European Commission President von der Leyen, and if so, how they would rate her achievements and which of them they thought was most important. Third, we asked respondents if they were planning to vote in the upcoming European Parliament elections, and if the selection of a new European Commission would be a consideration in their decision to vote. Finally, we asked them to choose the most important tasks the EU should tackle in the years to come.

The survey provides insights in two ways: First, through a sample capturing public opinion in all 27 member states, and second, through taking a closer look at the responses from participants in seven member states: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and Spain. Our data is representative for the EU as a whole as well as for these seven member states.

Our findings suggest that in contrast to previous presidents, a large majority of Europeans (75 percent) are able to correctly identify Ursula von der Leyen as the European Commission president. The name recognition of President von der Leyen is the highest in Poland (86 percent) and the lowest in France (54 percent).

Our results, however, also suggest that Europeans overall do not feel informed enough to evaluate Ursula von der Leyen’s record, with 70 percent of Europeans claiming not to know enough. This number is lowest in Germany (60 percent) and highest in Spain (79 percent).

The respondents who feel they have sufficient knowledge to evaluate the performance of President von der Leyen rate her performance quite favourably, and view the coordination of the EU’s response to the war in Ukraine as her biggest achievement (35 percent) – ahead of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, climate policy or migration policy.

Moreover, while a majority of respondents (60 percent) indicate that they plan to vote in the 2024 European Parliament elections, their ability to influence who becomes the next Commission president seems to not be the key driver when deciding whether to vote or not – only 38 percent of respondents put this point first. According to them, it is more important to support a political party (51 percent) or to help shape the future of the European Union (45 percent, multiple answers were possible).

Finally, 46 percent of Europeans consider securing peace to be the most important task of the Commission, followed by migration management (41 percent) and the protection of citizens’ rights (38 percent; multiple answers were also possible here).

Democratic Bond

Overall, these findings support the idea that Ursula von der Leyen has raised the profile of the role of the European Commission president among European citizens. However, this “von der Leyen effect” does not imply that European respondents feel they have sufficient knowledge to judge her performance in office. They also do not intend to vote in European Parliament elections to influence whether she will be given a second term in office.

While previous presidents of the European Commission were largely unknown among the European public, a large majority of Europeans today know that Ursula von der Leyen is the president of the European Commission. This is quite an achievement as media reporting is strongly embedded in the national politics of member states.

That said, this “von der Leyen effect” has not translated into concrete knowledge about EU policymaking. Only less than a third of European respondents feel that they possess enough knowledge to evaluate President von der Leyen’s performance in office. Those that feel that they have enough information, view her performance positively and view the coordination of the Ukraine war effort as her biggest achievement.

While we find that a majority of European respondents aim to vote in the upcoming European Parliamentary elections, influencing who will become the next president of the European Commission is not the main driver in deciding to vote or not. The main motivating reasons for voting in the elections are to support one’s preferred party or to shape the future policy direction of the EU.

These findings suggest while President von der Leyen laid the foundation for more visible leadership in the EU, the link between executive office and a policy mandate remains weak in the EU.

Unlike national elections that decide the political composition of the government, the results of European Parliament elections do not automatically determine the executive leadership in the EU. The selection of the Commission president is an interplay between the European Council and the European Parliament. The European Council proposes a candidate by qualified majority who needs to gain majority support in the European Parliament before taking office.

In 2019, European Parliamentary groups announced their “lead candidates,” but EU governments chose a Commission president who was not one of the lead candidates, although President von der Leyen was from the political family that won the most seats in the elections. The choice for President von der Leyen, as we have shown, made a difference because she increased the profile of the Commission president, but the link to policy still remains opaque in the eyes of voters.

This matters because democratic elections are supposed to create an electoral connection between voters and their leaders. The European elections should allow voters to mandate European leaders as to which policies to develop, and in turn should allow European voters to determine how well their leaders did by holding them accountable after a term in office. For this electoral connection to work, voters should not only know their leaders but also be able to judge their policy record. These prerequisites for democratic elections to work are only partially met at the EU level.

Vulnerable Politicians

This is relevant because it makes EU leaders vulnerable. We have recently witnessed this in the context of farmer protests against the EU Green Deal. President Ursula von der Leyen and her Commission had to cave into farmers’ demands very quickly because they could not counter farmers’ demands by stating that the Commission had received the backing of citizens for their actions. This means that special interests can wield significant influence on EU policymaking when they voice their concerns loudly enough.

What can be done to strengthen the electoral connection in European Parliamentary elections? A key way to do this is to allow for more open competition for office of president of the Commission. There are two options to do this: either beefing up the indirect election of the Commission president by the European Parliament or the direct election of the Commission president by European Union citizens.

This text is based on a study published by eupinions (Bertelsmann Stiftung) and the Institute for European Policymaking at Bocconi University (IEP@BU) on under the title “The Von der Leyen Effect: High Visibility, Low Accountability”                

About the authors

Catherine E. De Vries is the Generali Endowed Chair in European Policies and Professor of Political Science at Bocconi University, Milan.

Isabell Hoffmann is Senior Expert European Integration in the Europe’s Future program and project lead of eupinions, the European opinion research project of the Bertelsmann Stiftung.

Simon Hix is the Stein Rokkan Chair in Comparative Politics at the European University Institute, Florence.

Read more articles on our 2024 European Elections page.