After much controversy, Ursula von der Leyen was voted in as the new EU Commission President. She achieved a majority only by a narrow margin.
Ursula von der Leyen applied for the post of Commission President with a committed speech on Tuesday Photo: dpa
She had to fear and fight, but at the end of a long day she made it: The European Parliament has elected the German CDU politician Ursula von der Leyen as the next president of the EU Commission with 383 to 327 votes. She received nine votes more than necessary. 23 parliamentarians abstained, there was one invalid vote. The MEPs thus confirmed the controversial nomination by the Council. The EU heads of state and government had overruled the will of the Parliament and did not nominate any of the top candidates for the European elections.
The election was preceded by hours of hectic deliberations. The Social Democrats in particular struggled to find a common position – but in the end they were unable to do so. Most of the German Social Democrats dropped out and voted no. The Greens and the Left also refused to vote for von der Leyen. In the morning, von der Leyen had campaigned for herself and her program with great fervor. The 60-year-old promised to make the EU more social, greener and more female.
The courtship of the Greens was particularly pronounced. For example, von der Leyen promised a climate-neutral economy by 2050. The former labor minister met the Social Democrats halfway with minimum wages and unemployment reinsurance, which German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) has long been demanding in vain. She also promised to make the Stability Pact for the euro as flexible as possible, to massively promote investment and to set up a European climate bank.
And then there was the feminist offensive: If she is elected Commission President, she will insist on parity between women and men in her team, von der Leyen stressed. If necessary, she would ask those EU countries that only wanted to send men to Brussels to nominate a woman.
There were comparatively few "sweeteners" for conservatives and liberals. The European People’s Party, which also includes the CDU and CSU, enticed von der Leyen with the promise of preserving the top candidate system and making it "more visible." In addition, the European Parliament is to be given the right of initiative, as demanded by the failed top candidate Manfred Weber (CSU). She promised the liberals a two-year citizens’ dialogue that would result in a major EU reform. The idea goes back to France’s head of state Emmanuel Macron; it could even lead to treaty changes.
And then there was the commitment – unusual in the EU Parliament – to NATO and the transatlantic alliance. "We want to remain transatlantic, but become more European," emphasized the still defense minister. This is likely to please the Eastern Europeans in particular. For Poles and Balts, von der Leyen is above all the woman who has moved the Bundeswehr far east and kept the "Russian bear" in check.
But the candidate went one better – invoking her father Ernst Albrecht, who served as a senior EU official in Brussels in the 1960s. "I was European before I learned I was German and from Lower Saxony," she explained, referring to her birthplace of Brussels. "Those who want to divide Europe will find in me a fierce opponent." For this, she earned a lot of applause, right across all the parliamentary groups. But whether that would translate into yes votes in the evening’s election remained unclear at first.
After all, conservatives and liberals assured her of support. "This is the day of new beginnings – we want to tackle and shape things together with von der Leyen," said Weber, who leads the EPP group. "We are ready to support you if you can promise the renewal of Europe," Liberal group leader Dacian Cioloș also said. Liberal Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager also signaled approval.
Philippe Lamberts of the Greens spoke of "clear progress" compared with the first hearings. Nevertheless, the eco party wanted to vote against the candidate. The speech had a "green headline, but little green content," criticized MEP Sven Giegold. She said nothing about the extinction of species.
The left also stood by its no. Von der Leyen stood for a "militarization of foreign policy," said Martin Schirdewan (Die Linke). The EU does not need a defense union, but disarmament.
Jorg Meuthen of the AfD took a confrontational stance. He accused von der Leyen of a "socialist pandering performance." The candidate responded confidently: "If I’ve listened to you, then I’m downright relieved that I won’t get a vote from them." It was the clearest signal yet that the CDU politician did not want to be elected with the votes of nationalists and EU opponents.
Happened anyway. The deputies of the Fidesz party of Hungary’s "illiberal" head of government, Viktor Orban, voted unanimously for von der Leyen. She is also likely to have received a number of votes from the radical right-wing Lega in Italy.