Von der Leyen clinches the EU top job, but the hard work has just begun

Ursula von der Leyen won her job by a margin of nine votes: 383 MEPs backed her on July 16 in Strasbourg, just a shade above the 374 absolute majority needed. But it was enough. The European Parliament formally confirmed the outgoing German Defence Minister as the European Commission’s first ever woman President. She has made history. Now, however, her real work begins.

Ms von der Leyen, 60, a close ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, inherits the heaviest in-tray of any Commission chief. She said as much in the morning, before her confirmation vote, when she delivered an impassioned defence of her European ideals in the Parliament’s plenary.

It was the speech of her life. Addressing MEPs in English, German and French, she reeled off a series of challenges facing the European Union, from the climate crisis and economic regeneration to reconnecting with disgruntled European citizens. Ms von der Leyen is a trained doctor, and at times it seemed like she was giving a diagnosis – and a prescription. Her pledges included new action on climate change, boosting gender equality, confronting unruly EU members, scrapping the national veto on EU foreign policy and possibly extending the Brexit process.

Charm offensive

Her half-hour charm offensive outlined her agenda for the next five years, acknowledging that the many crises over the past few years, “left people with a feeling of losing control.” Her response is to embrace multilateralism, fair trade, and the rules-based order. “We have to do it the European way,” she said.

The centrepiece of her speech was a plan for a ‘Green Deal for Europe’ – echoing calls in the US for a ‘Green New Deal’. “Our most pressing challenge is keeping our planet healthy,” she said. “This is the greatest responsibility and opportunity of our times. I want Europe to become the first climate-neutral continent in the world by 2050.”

Her flagship proposal is to cut carbon emissions by 50%, if not 55% by 2030, significantly above the current 40% target. It remains to be seen whether such ambitious proposals can make it through not only EU governments, but also the Commission services themselves. Even if these proposals were partly designed to appeal to Greens and socialist MEPs, they are bold: there were probably a number of raised eyebrows amongst Ms von der Leyen’s colleagues in the centre right EPP group.

Welfare push 

Ms von der Leyen’s social welfare push involved new efforts to fight poverty, calling for a European Unemployment Benefit Reinsurance Scheme, a Youth Guarantee to address youth unemployment, and she backed the European Parliament’s proposal to triple the Erasmus+ budget. She was particularly bold on insisting on full gender equality among the 28 EU Commissioners that she will lead. “If member states do not propose enough female commissioners, I will not hesitate to ask for new names,” she said. “

In a sign that she will take a tough stance on tax avoidance, she sent a warning shot to tech giants operating in Europe, saying, “it is not acceptable that they make profits, but they are barely paying any taxes because they play our tax system.”

She set up a potential collision course with some increasingly authoritarian governments in the EU promising to enforce the rule of law. Ms von der Leyen also addressed migration, still a sensitive topic in the EU four years after the crisis that brought one million people to the bloc in a single summer: she called for more humane borders, a modernised asylum system, and reinforced European Border and Coast Guard Agency.

Foreign policy change

She proposed to end the consensus system used for foreign policy decisions, arguing instead for qualified majority voting (QMV). This proposal may face obstacles, however: it will require a treaty change, and it has long been opposed by smaller member states who worry they would be outvoted on issues they disagree with the majority.

When it came to Brexit, she indicated the UK could delay its October 30 departure. “I stand ready for a further extension of the withdrawal date, should more time be required for a good reason,” she said. “In any case, the United Kingdom will remain our ally, our partner and our friend.”

Who voted for her?

Ms von der Leyen was backed by most of the centre-right EPP, the centrist liberal Renew Europe and the centre-left S&D in the secret ballot. However, 327 MEPs voted against her: not just the Greens, far-right nationalists, and the far-left, but also a minority of S&D members who were still smarting because their candidate for the post, Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans, was rejected, and potentially free-riders within the Renew Europe or even her own party, the EPP.

The narrowness of her majority raised speculation about who voted for her. It is also possible that she won some votes when it emerged that her controversial compatriot Martin Selmayr would leave his post as Commission Secretary-General, quelling concerns about a German-dominated EU executive. He is a polarising figure, and the Parliament has already adopted a resolution calling on him to resign.

The task ahead

Nonetheless, a win is a win. Ms von der Leyen is now set to succeed current Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on November 1, the day after the current deadline for Britain’s departure from the EU. Before she takes office, her commissioners will be chosen, their portfolios will be allocated, and they will all have confirmation hearings at the European Parliament. “I will now work on my work programme for the next month and, of course, I want to form a team,” she said after the vote.

Even with a bigger majority, Ms von der Leyen would have faced an increasingly fragmented political system, not just within the Parliament, but among the member state governments. She did so by appealing to sceptics in the socialist and green camps, with an ambitious policy programme heavy on climate change and social policy. Intriguingly, there were many politically sensitive issues that she did not address, including relations with the US and China, how to modernise the EU’s industrial and competition policy, and what the priorities of the long-term budget should be. That is all to come.

Her challenge is to build bridges, forge deals and craft compromises. She has already shown she can adapt to the pressure: listening to the different political groups, creating a five-year agenda, and delivering it in a high-pressure arena.

After the vote, she expressed her gratitude and acknowledged what lies ahead. “The trust you placed in me is confidence you placed in Europe. Your confidence in a united and strong Europe, from east to west, from south to north,” she said. “The task ahead of us humbles me: it is a big responsibility and our work starts now.”


Authors: Roger Pallares-Sastre in Brussels, Pietro Bertaggia in Strasbourg


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