Ursula von der Leyen survives tight vote to win EU top job
Ursula von der Leyen secured narrow parliamentary backing for her appointment as European Commission president on Tuesday as deep scepticism from pro-EU parties forced her to rely on votes from far-right and populist MEPs.
After a final appeal to the European Parliament, the former German defence minister won just 383 votes in favour of giving her the top job in Brussels — only nine more than the needed 374 to secure a majority.
The margin is the narrowest backing ever received by a commission president since parliament was given the power to reject nominees under the 2008 Lisbon treaty.
The narrow approval of Ms von der Leyen’s five-year mandate marks a victory for the EU’s national leaders over parliamentarians. Driven by France’s Emmanuel Macron, they faced down MEPs’ demand that one of the so-called lead candidates in May’s EU elections should get Brussels’ top job.
But the push by national leaders turned many mainstream MEPs against the German candidate, and the extremely tight vote could carry a cost for the reputation of Ms von der Leyen’s administration, which is scheduled to take office in November. A total of 327 MEPs voted against her and 22 abstained.
“The task ahead of us humbles me. It is a big responsibility and my work starts now,” Ms von der Leyen said after the vote.
An ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Ms von der Leyen takes over the EU’s executive branch at a time when it has been growing in power, particularly in the eurozone.
Although the commission’s primary role is to propose EU legislation that must then be approved by the European Parliament and national governments, it has gradually gained other powers, including passing judgment annually on national budget plans within the eurozone.
Ms von der Leyen will also assume office amid persistent anti-EU sentiment across the continent, particularly in central and eastern Europe where overtly critical governments hold office in Warsaw and Budapest.
The declining appeal of mainstream pro-EU parties made it impossible for Ms von der Leyen to build a formal coalition from the three main centrist factions. Ms von der Leyen, a Christian Democrat, was forced to rely partly on votes from anti-establishment and nationalist MEPs from Italy, Poland and Hungary — support that her critics say may compromise her mandate.
The outcome of the vote also highlights the acute challenge Ms von der Leyen will face when her commission seeks to pass legislation. The parliament is more fragmented than at any point since direct elections began in 1979.
Ms von der Leyen peppered her pitch to MEPs with references to her upbringing in Brussels as “a European”, as well as social and environmental policy initiatives aimed at winning round centre-left MEPs.
Switching confidently between English, German and French, she pleaded with MEPs not to wreck a historic moment for the EU. “It’s with enormous pride that I can say there’s finally a woman candidate for commission president,” she said.
She also told the chamber: “Anyone who wishes to help Europe will find in me a passionate fighter by their side . . . Anyone seeking to split and destroy our values will find a fierce opponent.”
Some MEPs, nonetheless, fear that Ms von der Leyen will be too servile to the member states who nominated her, or too soft on populists undermining the rule of law. Dutch liberal MEP Sophie in ’t Veld asked whether she would be a “lapdog of the member state” or “the pit bull that I would like you to be?”
While light on detail, Ms von der Leyen’s policy agenda showed continuity with Mr Juncker’s outgoing commission, alongside some added emphasis on green and gender issues. She promised to propose an EU carbon border tax, carbon neutrality by 2050 and a green deal on investment within her first 100 days in office.
Ms von der Leyen also hit out at international tech giants who “play” the European tax system, backed an EU-wide unemployment insurance scheme and proposed a gender-equal college of commissioners.
In private she also jettisoned Martin Selmayr, the powerful commission secretary-general who has become a polarising figure in Brussels.
The incoming president will spend the summer selecting and divvying up portfolios to 27 commissioners, who are proposed by member states. Her team will need a further vote of approval from the parliament before it can take office as planned on November 1, the day after Britain is scheduled to leave the EU.
Ms von der Leyen said she stood ready “for a further extension” of the Brexit date “should more time be required for a good reason”.
Those voting against Ms von der Leyen included the EU parliament’s Greens, significant numbers of Socialists and some MEPs from the liberal Renew Europe group — MEPs who may be vital in building legislative majorities in future.
One of Ms von der Leyen’s most significant concessions to MEPs was a pledge to respond with a proposal for “a legislative act” if parliament votes in favour of a specific reform idea, a step that dents the commission’s near-monopoly on EU policy initiatives.
Alex Barker y Mehreen Khan