The European Parliament in Strasbourg confirmed this evening the nomination of Ursula von der Leyen as President of the European Commission. She was elected by a narrow majority of 52 % of the 733 cast votes – 383 for, 327 against, 22 abstentions, and 1 invalid vote. The threshold was 374 votes.
As the voting was a secret paper ballot, no breakdown by political party group is possible, unless MEPs will make their voting public.
Apparently, von der Leyen received broad support from the centre-right and centre-left. An S&D MEP told The Brussels Times that the Social Democrats had hoped to vote for their candidate Frans Timmermans. But as he was not proposed by the Council, the party group decided to focus on the political message of von der Leyen and a majority voted for her.
The no-votes came mainly from the extreme right and some leftist and Green MEPs, but for different reasons. S&D had wished that von der Leyen had been clearer on climate change and the rule of the law issues. The party group says that it will continue to put demands on her to ensure that her promises will be fulfilled.
Von der Leyen was nominated on 2 July by the European Council as its candidate for the post and is the first woman to hold the office. She is a German politician, serving as Minister of Defence since 2013, and a member of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
The European Parliament President David-Maria Sassoli announced the results of the voting at around 19.30 (16 July), following her opening statement and the debate earlier during the day, and congratulated her to the post on behalf of the parliament.
A visibly happy Ursula von der Leyen said that she felt overwhelmed and honoured for the trust in her. “Let’s work together constructively,” she urged the Parliament.
She is set to take office on 1 November 2019 for a five-year term.
The Commission President-elect will now send official letters to the member states’ heads of state or government inviting them to propose their candidates for members of the Commission. Hearings of the nominees in Parliament’s competent committees are scheduled to take place from 30 September to 8 October.
In her opening statement, in French, German but mostly in English, Ursula von der Leyen recalled the first president of the parliament, Simone Veil, a French-Jewish woman who had survived the Nazi concentration camps. She promised to be guided by her spirit.
“It’s thanks to her, and all the other European icons, that I present my vision of Europe to you today. 40 years later, it’s with great pride that I can say that a woman finally is the candidate to European Commission president,” she started her speech.
When outlining her vision and ideas, she spoke sometimes emotionally and appealed for unity in EU. “We have to do it the European way. But if we are to go down the European path, we must first rediscover our unity. If we are united on the inside, nobody will divide us from the outside.”
Her speech covered all topical questions on the EU agenda and were targeted to all political party groups in the Parliament, including her political opponents who had preferred another president of the European Commission.
On climate change, she said that, “Our most pressing challenge is keeping our planet healthy. 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.”
She promised to put forward the first-ever European Climate Law which will set the 2050 target into law, to propose a Sustainable Europe Investment Plan and turn parts of the European Investment Bank into a Climate Bank. “This will unlock €1 trillion of investment over the next decade.”
“It’s the economy that serves our people. In our Social Market Economy, we must reconcile the market with the social. I will stand for fair taxes,“ she said and promised to make “the tech giants that are making huge profits in Europe” share the tax burden.
“We have come a long way since I was (German) minister for family affairs and had to fight to introduce parental pay or access to childcare for families,” she recalled.
“But the fight for fairness never stops. It is still too difficult for hard working families to make ends meet in Europe. I want to ensure that work pays. In a Social Market Economy, every person that is working full time should earn a minimum wage that pays for a decent living. Therefore, we will develop a framework, of course in respect of the different labour markets.”
She promised to work for a European Unemployment Benefit Reinsurance Scheme as complement to national schemes in times of external economic shocks and to make sure that the Youth Guarantee works in reducing unemployment among young people.
As part of her action plan in bringing EU’s Pillar of Social Rights to life, she plans to introduce a Child Guarantee to help ensure that “every child in Europe at risk of poverty and social exclusion has access to the most basic of rights like healthcare and education”.
On gender equality, she promised to start at home, the Commission. “I will ensure full gender equality in my College of Commissioners. If Member States do not propose enough female Commissioners, I will not hesitate to ask for new names. Since 1958 there have been 183 Commissioners. Only 35 were women. That is less than 20%. We represent half of our population. We want our fair share.”
In the fight against sexual harassment and violence against women, she will propose to add violence against women on the list of EU crimes defined in the Treaty.
She was outspoken in defending European values. “There can be no compromise when it comes to respecting the Rule of Law. There never will be. I will ensure that we use our full and comprehensive toolbox at European level. In addition, I fully support an EU-wide Rule of Law Mechanism.”
“The Commission will always be an independent guardian of the Treaties. Lady Justice is blind – she will defend the Rule of Law wherever it is attacked,” she said, indirectly referring to EU member states where the independence of the judiciary has been undermined.
She also addressed migration and will propose a New Pact on Migration and Asylum, including the relaunch of the Dublin reform. “This will allow us to return to a fully functioning Schengen Area of free movement, the key driver of our prosperity, security and freedoms.”
“The European Union needs humane borders. We must save, but saving alone is not enough. We must reduce irregular migration, we must fight smugglers and traffickers – it is an organised crime –, we must preserve the right to asylum and improve the situation of refugees.” She also told a personal story.
“Four years ago, I was lucky enough to welcome a 19-year old refugee from Syria into my home and my family. He spoke no German and was deeply scarred by his experience of civil war and flight. Today, 4 years later, he is fluent in German, English and Arabic. He is a community leader by day, in vocational training and a student for his high school degree by night. He is an inspiration for us all. One day, he wants to go home.”
On foreign policy, she recalled a visit to Iraq, whose former president has said that “We want to see more Europe here”.
“I believe Europe should have a stronger and more united voice in the world – and it needs to act fast. That is why we must have the courage to take foreign policy decisions by qualified majority. And to stand united behind them,” she said.
Brexit was also mentioned in her speech. “The Withdrawal Agreement concluded with the government of the United Kingdom provides certainty where Brexit created uncertainty: in preserving the rights of citizens and in preserving peace and stability on the island of Ireland. These two priorities are mine, too.”
“However, I stand ready for a further extension of the withdrawal date, should more time be required for a good reason. In any case, the United Kingdom will remain our ally, our partner and our friend.”
Last but not the least, she stretched out her hands to the European Parliament and promised to work together with the Parliament to improve the Spitzenkandidaten (Lead candidate) system, the very system that had been abandoned by the Council when it proposed her to candidate.
More importantly was her support of a right of legislative initiative for the European Parliament. “When this House, acting by majority of its Members, adopts Resolutions requesting the Commission to submit legislative proposals, I commit to responding with a legislative act in full respect of the proportionality, subsidiarity, and better law-making principles.”
She finished her speech in German, recalling her late father, who was 15 years old when WWII broke out. Her father used to talk about peace: “Europe is like a long marriage. Love becomes not bigger than it was the first time, but it becomes deeper.”
For Ursula von der Leyen, born in Brussels where her father was serving as Commission official, only one thing matters: “To unite and strengthen Europe”.
The Brussels Times