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The European Commission President appeared in a video, alongside other figures from the EU’s centre-right European People’s Party, promoting the Christian Democratic Union ahead of the weekend ballot. The HDZ social media post also featured former Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar, ex-European Council President Donald Tusk and Austria chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who are members of the EPP, all saying the words “safe Croatia”. Mrs von der Leyen sparked controversy because the German made her statement from inside the EU Commission’s Berlaymont headquarters.
According to the EU executive’s own rulebook, commissioners are banned from “making public statements or interventions” in national elections.
However, the EU’s top officials are allowed to voice “personal opinions” but questions were raised after Mrs von der Leyen’s intervention came from outside her official office.
Alberto Alemanno, an EU law professor at HEC Paris, said: “Unprecedented and deeply troubling.
“What if a EU Commission President interferes into national political elections?
“Isn’t there a manifest conflict of interest insofar as she supposedly acts as guardian of the Treaties. Ursula von der Leyen is crossing a red line.”
Andrew Duff, president of the federalist Spinelli group, described the Commission President’s appearance as an “astonishing blunder”.
He added: “The Commission President should exercise restraint as leader of a cross-party college whose purpose is to promote the general interest of the EU states and citizens.”
Mrs von der Leyen said it was “regrettable” it wasn’t made clear in the video that she was speaking in a personal capacity.
Her chief spokesman said: “The President recorded a short sound bite for use in a video involving a number of EPP politicians.
“It was meant as a contribution in her personal capacity. Regrettably, this was not made clear in the final version of the video.”
But Swedish MEP Even Incir hit back, saying: “Personal capacity? Ursula von der Leyen is president of the EU Commission, not the EPP.
“The next step is to support Viktor Orban because he is EPP? If I had known von der Leyen would use her position to engage in national elections, I would have thought twice before pressing yes to her as president.”
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The governing HDZ, led by Croatian premier Mr Plenkovic, have a convincing leader over their centre-left rival in the parliamentary elections, according to the first partial vote count.
Turnout was reported as low because of the recent spike in coronavirus cases.
The centre-right party has a projected 68 seats in the 151-seat parliament, its best result in recent times but still failed to secure a genuine majority.
Parliament speaker Gordan Jandrokovic said: “This is one of the biggest victories in the history of the Croatian Democratic Union.”
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Tena Prelec, a research at the department of politics and international relations at the University of Oxford, said: “This is a much better result than expected for the HDZ.”
Mr Plenkovic recently led Croatia’s presidency of the EU, its first time since joining the bloc in 2013.
He has pledged to join the EU’s Eurozone single currency bloc and the Schengen free movement area.
Ms Prelec said: “Many people have felt represented on the European stage properly.”
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