After prolonged negotiations, the European Commission has its first ever female president. Ursula von der Leyen, of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union and the European People’s Party (EPP), will assume office in November 2019 after the reign of her European party colleague Jean-Claude Juncker’s Commission comes to an end.
Von der Leyen is not only the first female to be elected to the Commission’s top job; she is also the first ever German President. The German defence minister was narrowly approved by the European Parliament, gaining the votes of 383 MEPs, just nine over the minimum threshold required to be approved. This figure leaves von der Leyen beneath the 400 votes required to make a majority that would have made her five-year tenure much smoother.
The German was selected by the European Council and proposed to the European Parliament after three days of negotiations between leaders of member states in a move that attracted criticism by MEPs because it had ignored the Spitzenkandidat system. The Spitzenkandidat – German for ‘lead candidate’ – process is the method of linking Parliament elections by having each political group in Parliament nominate their candidate for Commission President prior to the elections. The Spitzenkandidat of the largest party would then have a mandate to assume the Commission Presidency. This was the means by which
Jean-Claude Juncker was selected as Commission President, the first time the process had been used, although the Council had attempted to contest its legitimacy. Had this process been kept to, then Manfred Weber, the EPP’s Spitzenkandidat would have been the Commission President in place of von der Leyen. The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, an EPP ally in the unofficial de facto coalition ruling the European Parliament, officially opposes the system and instead put forward their “Team Europe” approach, which nominated several high profile European politicians for the position had they become the Parliament’s largest party.
The Council’s proposal for a von der Leyen presidency was put to the Parliament on 16 July and she gathered 383 votes. With conservative Polish party Law and Justice’s 24 MEPs declaring their support for her along with the Italian Five Stars Movement’s 14 MEPs, the figure of 383 suggests that almost 100 MEPs from the unofficial grand coalition of von der Leyen and Weber’s EPP, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and Renew Europe did not vote for von der Leyen. The vast majority of this internal opposition is believed to have come from S&D, who cited von der Leyen’s work as German defence minister as the reason they did not back her candidacy during debates on the matter.
Following her election, von der Leyen was asked by European Council President Donald Tusk to approve of Josep Borrell, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party member and Minister of Foreign Affairs, European Union and Cooperation of the Government, as the EU’s next High Representative. With von der Leyen’s consent, Borrell was named High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy on 26 July. Borrell will still need to be officially nominated by the Spanish Government and pass through a vote by the Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs in order for the appointment to be finalised.
Before her candidature had been approved, von der Leyen had already detailed her plan to name the Party of European Socialists’ Spitzenkandidat Frans Timmermans as her First Vice President, with Magrethe Vestager of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party, now sitting as members of the Renew Europe group, also named as Vice President and Timmermans’s de facto equal.
The von der Leyen Commission will have 26 commissioners, one for every current member state, excluding the President’s native Germany and the United Kingdom, who will not nominate a commissioner due to Brexit. In January of this year, Irish commissioner Phil Hogan confirmed that he would be open to a second term within the Commission.
The President-elect requested that member states nominate two candidates for the Commission, one male and one female, in order to achieve gender balance. All member states have not honoured this request and of the 21 commissioners officially nominated at this point, 12 are male and nine are female.
Exactly 40 years ago, the first president of the European parliament, Simone Veil, was elected and presented her vision of a united Europe. It is thanks to you, and to all the other European icons, that I present to you today my vision of Europe. And 40 years later, it is with great pride that it is finally a woman who is the presidential candidate of the European Commission.
— Ursula von der Leyen
Von der Leyen leaned into her ideals of gender equality and also sought to ease tensions with S&D in her 30-minute acceptance speech after being approved as President, telling the European Parliament: “Exactly 40 years ago, the first President of the European Parliament, Simone Veil, was elected and presented her vision of a united Europe. It is thanks to you, and to all the other European icons, that I present to you today my vision of Europe. And 40 years later, it is with great pride that it is finally a woman who is the presidential candidate of the European Commission.
“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 per cent.”
Her outreach to the socialists and leftists of the S&D included a pledge to establish an EU-wide minimum wage, a fund for national welfare systems during economic crises, and ensuring flexibility in the tax and spend restraints on Eurozone countries.
Von der Leyen committed herself to a “green deal” also, which will offer billions of euro in investment and a new EU carbon border tax, with the aim of achieving EU-wide carbon neutrality by 2050.
Given that her first day on the job will be the day after the UK is scheduled to leave the EU, possible ruptures within Europe are bound to be on von der Leyen’s agenda and she addressed those of a similar mind in her speech: “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.”
Speaking before the Conservative Party had elected Boris Johnson as their new leader, von der Leyen was asked about the possibility of negotiating Brexit with either of the party’s leading candidates, Johnson or Jeremy Hunt. She replied: “I do not know [either] of them personally and there is a golden rule which I respect that I will work in a very constructive way with every head of state and government.” With the now-Prime Minister Johnson’s repeated protestations that the EU will not eradicate the backstop, it would appear that von der Leyen’s hope for constructive talks have fallen on deaf ears.