Von der Leyens in — now the hard work begins
STRASBOURG — Ursula von der Leyen will take office Sunday as the first woman president of the European Commission — and on Monday, her first official work day, she will head to the U.N. climate conference in Madrid.
It will be a fitting and symbolic victory lap for the 61-year-old conservative former German defense minister and close confidante of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Von der Leyen has promised to make fighting climate change a centerpiece of her presidency by putting forward an ambitious Green Deal that will reshape all aspects of European life in a bid to preserve the planet.
The European Parliament on Wednesday voted to approve von der Leyen and her team of 15 men and 11 women — the closest the EU has ever come to a gender-balanced College of Commissioners.
They officially take office on December 1 — one month later than expected — after the Parliament, flexing newfound institutional muscle, rejected three of von der Leyens initial nominees — the Romanian, the Hungarian and, most dramatically, the handpicked choice of French President Emmanuel Macron.
The vote in Parliament on Wednesday was 461 votes in favor, 157 against and 89 abstentions. The tally illustrated the more diverse and divided makeup of the assembly that will likely complicate EU legislative work across von der Leyens five-year term.
For the first time, the Commission can no longer rely on a majority coalition of just two groups, the center-right European Peoples Party and the center-left Socialists & Democrats, but now also needs votes from Macrons liberal-centrist Renew Europe group, or by cobbling together support from an array of parties further to the right or left, including the Greens, who abstained in the vote on the new College.
But von der Leyen is likely to face more immediate political challenges as she seeks, during her first 100 days in office, to fulfill an array of policy promises that she made in order to win her own confirmation vote last July — not just the Green Deal, but also a legal instrument on a fair minimum wage; binding pay transparency measures to promote gender equity; and legislation aimed at ensuring the ethical use of artificial intelligence.
Berlin and Paris, the EUs richest and most influential capitals, are increasingly at each others throats, with Macron and Merkel making contradictory statements in public, and their aides working furiously to paper over serious disagreements on major issues, including EU expansion into the western Balkans, NATO and EU security policy, and the future of the eurozone.
Add in other divisions among EU countries, especially over the contentious issues of migration and asylum policy and rule-of-law, as well as the looming complications of Brexit and tensions in relations with the U.S., and von der Leyen seems to have little chance any time soon of escaping from the crisis and emergency-response mode that outgoing President Jean-Claude Juncker has been in for much of the last five years.
Still, in a plenary debate prior to the vote, von der Leyen reiterated her main policy priorities, including an aggressive focus on digitalization and tech issues, and fresh drives to strengthen EU cooperation on economic and financial policies, and to step up foreign policy initiatives.
“Climate change is about all of us,” von der Leyen said, in a line that was emblematic of the aspirations and resolve she expressed throughout her speech. “We have the duty to act and the power to lead.”
And she said she hoped to emulate those moments in history when the EU made its greatest advances by thinking big.
“We sometimes forget that our greatest achievements have always come when we are bold,” she declared.
She also thanked Juncker for steering the ship through the stormy weather.
“In the last years, we had to focus on the here-and-now, managing crises after emergency, fighting to keep our unity and solidarity intact,” she said. “If we have emerged stronger in that time, and I believe we have, it is in great part thanks to the leadership and the conviction of my predecessor.”
Much of the agenda, however, could end up out of her control.
For instance, the outcome of a U.K. national election on December 12 will largely determine how Brexit will play out. If Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party win a majority, the U.K. will presumably leave on January 31 and von der Leyen and her team will shift focus to the inevitably difficult negotiations on a future trade relationship. But if the situation in Westminster remains deadlocked, it is impossible to predict the EUs next steps.
On Wednesday, the Parliament voted to install the Commission without a British representative after the U.K. government refused to send a nominee, citing Brexit and a general practice of not making international appointments during a general election campaign.
The absence of a British commissioner has raised the possibility that some Commission decisions could face legal challenges. But EU lawyers have expressed confidence that they have taken all necessary steps to avoid such challenges succeeding, including by initiating a disciplinary procedure against the U.K. for violating EU law.
Some British MEPs used the debate about the new Commission to take jabs in the continuing Brexit battle.
But when it came time to vote, many of the abstentions on Wednesday were from the Greens group, which declared it would not support the new Commission or align with mainstream parties, and intended to continue functioning as an insurgent force despite the new executives focus on climate change.
Ska Keller, a co-leader of the Greens, said her group was simply not convinced von der Leyen would be aggressive enough in fighting climate change, or that her Commission would move quickly and compassionately to protect refugees.
There was fair reason for the leftist skepticism.
In her opening speech asking the Parliament to approve her Commission, von der Leyen made clear that, like her mentor Merkel, she stands firmly in the tradition of conservative German Christian Democrats.
Von der Leyen noted that it was the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, and quoted Czech statesman Václav Havel, saying: “Work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”
She also insisted that the EU could be a bulwark of stability in an increasingly turbulent era.
“This is an unsettled world, where too many powers only speak the language of confrontation and unilateralism,” she said. “But it is also a world where millions of people are taking to the streets — to protest against corruption or to demand democratic change. The world needs our leadership more than ever. To keep engaging with the world as a responsible power. To be a force for peace and for positive change. We must show our partners at the United Nations they can rely on us, as a champion of multilateralism.”
But some issues are proving so difficult that von der Leyen seemed to be trying to sidestep them in her speech. While she mentioned the EUs obligation to reach consensus on the issue of migration, she did not specifically reiterate her previous commitment to overhauling the EUs rules on relocating asylum seekers (known as the Dublin regulation).
At a news conference following the vote, von der Leyen said that she meant it to be included in her broader remarks.
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