Ursula von der Leyen was elected by the European Parliament as the new President of the European Commission on 16 July 2019. Ms von der Leyen grew up in Brussels in the 1960s, her father having been a German diplomat and later a high-ranking Commission official in DG COMP.
She is an economist and medical doctor by training with a long ministerial career in Germany under Chancellor Angela Merkel. She belongs to the CDU party and continues a long line of German Christian Democrats in favor of a strong European Union. This began with Konrad Adenauer, who helped create the EU, followed by Helmut Kohl, who introduced the Economic and Monetary Union and the EU enlargement to Central Europe, and Angela Merkel, who has dominated EU politics for the last 16 years. Their policies are characterized by a mix of budgetary rigor, economic pragmatism and due attention paid to social and environmental issues.
The majority of MEPs supporting her was narrow – 383 out of 647 voted in her favor, where she needed at least 374 to pass. Although formally supported by three major political groups – her own EPP, the Socialists & Democrats and the Renew Europe group, composed of liberals and supporters of French president Macron – not all MEPs from these groups voted for her. The Greens voted against her and she didn’t solicit the votes of the extreme right and left. The fact that the political Groups of the centre did not overwhelmingly support her candidacy, for many different reasons, indicates the increased volatility of a more unpredictable European Parliament and forebodes that majorities will likely be composed of different political Groups in the future, depending on the issues at hand.
In her impressive speech to win over MEPs’ support, Ms von der Leyen outlined her political priorities, taking into account demographic movement, the globalized economy, the digital revolution and climate change. She highlighted her intentions considering political preferences from the Parliament’s major political Groups of the center. She repeated the EU’s strong commitment to a multilateral, rules-based order for fair global trade. She announced that within the first 100 days of her Commission, she will propose legislation on climate change, reducing CO2 emissions by 50-55% by 2030 – whereas the agreed level until now was 35%. She announced a climate bank for investment in the transition to a zero-carbon emission economy, an emissions tax on aviation and maritime transport, and a carbon border tax to prevent the import of CO2 and the carbon leakage of industry moving abroad to escape EU rules.
She wants to complete the Capital Market Union (CMU), granting better access for investment into SMEs. She emphasized the need for a fair taxation system at EU level for multinational companies that now avoid paying taxes – aiming at big tech in particular. On social policy, she announced her support to introduce the obligation for a minimum wage and unemployment reinsurance scheme in Europe. On top of that, she committed to combating gender violence and vowed to ensure gender equality in her new Commission.
She wants to further reform migration policies based on humanitarian values for refugees, strong border controls with Frontex at the EU’s external borders, and solidarity between EU Member States to cope with immigration. As Germany’s former Minister of Defense, she pleaded for a European Defense Union within the NATO framework.
On Brexit, she surprisingly declared that she would support a further extension of the Brexit deadline of 31 October 2019 for ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement concluded between the Commission and the UK government if there were good reasons for it. As an accolade for Parliament, she committed to take on board legislative initiatives that the Parliament would propose.
With her passionate pleading, the new Commission President won over a narrow majority of MEPs, although she had been put forward almost unanimously by the 28 government leaders of the EU Member States. Her election was not a given, and she had to commit to a long list of European Parliament demands in her electoral speech to just get over the parliamentary hurdle. This indicates that the European Parliament will be equally tough when scrutinizing the 26 fellow Commissioners that are to be proposed by the Member States in the coming weeks. The Commissioner for Foreign Affairs and Security, Spain’s Josep Borrell, has already been put forward by the EU Council.
Indeed, by October, the Parliament will have to vote on the full Commission team but may well reject one or more candidates after hearings by parliamentary committees in September. Equally, it is clear from this debate that Parliament will fight for the priorities it wishes to see the Commission put forward. Anticipating what the Parliament really wants will not be easy, though. As demonstrated by the vote on von der Leyen, just adding up policy desires will not suffice to get the disciplined support of majority coalitions. The new Commission President awaits the difficult task to build trust and to forge reliable support for her ambitions. There will be more politics, more scrutiny, and more accountability for the Commission to live up to. This being said, Ursula von der Leyen generally impressed the house with prudent passion and strong conviction in her presentation. Some MEPs who voted against her because they would have preferred a Commission President from their own ranks, nevertheless declared afterwards that they want to work closely together with the newly elected President. So the challenge is hers to turn her policy goals for Europe into results. Above all, Ursula von der Leyen is the first woman in history to become President of the Commission.