17 July 2019

Following days of discussions with political groups in the European Parliament (EP), former German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen was approved as the next European Commission President by a majority of MEPs on 16 July. 383 voted in favour, 327 were against and 22 abstained. She needed a majority of 374 to become the first female Commission President.

EU leaders – who nominated von der Leyen at a European Council summit on 2 July – welcomed the vote’s result. French President Emmanuel Macron wrote, “Today Europe has your face. The face of engagement, ambition and progress. We can be proud of Europe. We will be by your side to make it advance.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has worked with von der Leyen in the German Cabinet for many years, said she would “tackle with great vigour the challenges facing us as the European Union.”

The leadership of the three main groups in the EP, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and liberal Renew Europe, all said they would vote for von der Leyen, but as it was a secret ballot, we cannot know for sure who followed their group’s line. Individual parties within these groups, including the German Social Democrats and the Dutch Labour Party (both S&D), said they would vote against her – though the same secret ballot caveat applies.

The fourth largest group, the Greens, announced they would vote against, but reacting to the vote the group hinted they would be willing to work with the new President going forward if she remains committed to their demands. Co-President Philippe Lamberts said, “If Ursula von der Leyen wants to govern with a pro-European majority over the next five years and wants to get serious on climate protection, then she will need to build consensus with the pro-European groups in this house and for that our door will remain open.”

The nationalist Identity and Democracy (ID) group was dissatisfied with the result and suggested that it would continue to express its opposition. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French Rassemblement National, the second largest party in the group, commented that “Europeanist power is only hanging by a thread” after von der Leyen got approved with a majority of only 9 votes and “many days of intense and feverish lobbying.” However, with only 73 MEPs, ID does not have enough numbers to block  legislation if the mainstream groups remain united.

Finally, the Eurosceptic European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group also stated its disappointment but added, “Going forward the ECR will continue work pragmatically as we have always have – from issue to issue, supporting those areas where the EU genuinely adds value and calling for more autonomy for Member States where they are best placed to act.” Although the ECR as a whole opposed von der Leyen, the group’s largest single party – Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) – supported her, following instructions from Warsaw.

European press reactions

The European press was more critical of von der Leyen’s ability to deliver on the plethora of commitments she made to different groups in the EP.

Across Europe, newspapers have noted that her narrow majority of 9 votes leaves her with a difficult mandate and a challenge to prove herself to MEPs and citizens. Below is an overview of how  commentators responded to the EP’s vote.

Germany

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung calls von der Leyen “a pragmatic solution,” as “the European Parliament… has avoided a power struggle with the European Council,” adding that this “also ensures the survival of the big coalition” of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Social Democrats (SPD) in Germany, “for now.”

German daily Die Welt comments, “It remains to be seen whether she will manage to overcome old hurdles,” warning,

The EU is under increased pressure to justify its existence. A gathering of sovereign states only offers added value when it responds to the challenges of its time.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung warns that with her narrow majority, she will face difficulties trying to reunite a divided Europe, while Die Zeit runs with the headline “This is a scandal,” referring to the procedure used to nominate von der Leyen. The paper notes that her speech to MEPs was full of “pathos and emotions,” that she made many promises which are “not only one Herculian task: there are many at once.”

France

Le Figaro notes that von der Leyen’s victory “is so short that it sounds like a major failure for the EU heads of state and government which have forced through her nomination despite the warnings from many political groups’ leaders.” The paper quotes an EP expert asking whether the Commission could rely on a stable majority during moments of crises, and notes that the answer is ‘no.’ It adds,

This solid majority, the new Commission President must try to build it with urgency.

An opinion piece on the libertarian Contrepoints website is critical of von der Leyen’s “empty phrases, embellished here and there with emotional anecdotes.” Summing up her proposals, the author warns about “five years of socialism and ecologism,” and that the next Commission risks assembling “27 super-bureaucrats entirely dedicated to one vision: to be the most illiberal Commission in history.”

Meanwhile, Le Parisien daily says the new “chief of Europe” will now have to tackle a number of important issues including “the composition of the College of Commissioners and the inextricable Brexit folder.”

Belgium

The French-language Le Soir paper says von der Leyen must “show that she will learn fast” and that she is “capable of fast progress.”

A leader in Belgian daily Het Nieuwsblad argues that “under the new Commission President, tensions between East and West threaten to increase.”

However, according to De Morgen daily, in her speech to MEPs Von der Leyen made people “forget her predecessor [Jean-Claude Juncker] in 5 minutes.” The paper calls her a “woman with a vision.”

Netherlands

Dutch NOS TV comments that “with such a narrow mandate, [von der Leyen will] really need to scramble for votes in the European Parliament and with member states” to realise her plans.

De Volkskrant daily, meanwhile, calls this a setback for von der Leyen given her narrow majority, possibly acquired “with the help of Eurosceptics and soon-to-be-dismissed UK MEPs,” which weakens her position. It adds that the promises made by von der Leyen to the EP in the last few days have “dismantled the political time bomb” of a possible extra EU summit organised before the summer holiday in case she would not get approved.

Italy

An editorial in Corriere della Sera says that while von der Leyen was nominated with the “same old method” by EU leaders, this could actually become her strength and give her more authority than we expect. It adds that the political divisions within the groups “have obliged [von der Leyen] to work on a concrete programme,” while the “fractures and recompositions in the traditional political families, caused by her nomination, can be a positive element in the plastered dialectics which we are used to.”

Elsewhere, a blog on the Italian Huffington Post argues that her “profile of an independent, ambitious and polyglot woman has not always made her political career in Germany, and particularly in the CDU, smooth,” but it makes her a perfect EU Commission President.

La Stampa, meanwhile, explores the meaning of the vote for the Italian coalition government, as the far-right Lega MEPs voted against von der Leyen, while the Five Star Movement, which sits independently in the EP, supported her. It writes that the Five Stars’ vote has sparked a “hurricane in the government,” and tensions are running high. The paper’s director argues that both parties in government have interpreted the choice of independent Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to support von der Leyen at the Council summit in different ways.

Poland

According to reports, the Polish ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party played a key role in securing von der Leyen’s approval, and Polish officials and press were keen on pointing this out.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki commented, ‘This vote showed that the voices of [the ruling] Law and Justice [party] tipped the balance. I would like to thank all [Polish MEPs] who voted in this way,”adding however, that he remains “cautiously optimistic” about von der Leyen’s presidency.

An opinion piece in Rzeczpospolita newspaper argues that von der Leyen “will defend the most important Polish interests in the Union,” especially given her attachment to transatlantic ties and to NATO. According to the author, Donald Tusk’s European Council presidency did not provide “particularly visible” benefits to Poland, but von der Leyen’s Commission presidency represents “Poland’s maturation in the Union” and

The ability to distinguish between apparent honours and attempts to influence the real development of the Community, so that it suits us best.

Spain

El Pais daily writes, “The result shows more the displeasure with the European Council, for having ignored the candidates appointed by the groups, rather than a rejection of von der Leyen,” adding that it will mean “difficulties for the future President and for the formation of a new Commission in which each new member must submit to the scrutiny and vote of an angry Parliament.” It also notes that she “has set only 100 days to try to prove that her arrival in office has not been an error of the Council,” and has “100 days and few votes” to bring in the Green, feminist democracy that she promised.

Ireland

Exploring the meaning of the vote for Ireland, the Irish Independent notes that “Von der Leyen has already reaffirmed her intention to continue EU solidarity with Ireland in the Brexit process. She is due to take office on November 1 – the day after Brexit is due to take place – so her views on perhaps the biggest challenge facing Ireland are being watched closely in Dublin,” adding, “There will also be attention paid to her policies on tax, as she has promised to continue Commission efforts to reform the area – a move that will increase pressure on Ireland over its corporation tax levels.”

Martyn Turner for the Irish Times