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19th Jan 2020

Von der Leyen struggles to gain EU parliament support

  • Ursula von der Leyen spent Wednesday meeting with MEPs to try to get their approval as commission president (Photo: European Parliament)

The EU Commission president nominee Ursula von der Leyen was grilled by MEPs on Wednesday (10 July) in the European Parliament as she sought to secure a majority for her approval in the assembly.

The German defence minister made her pitch to the liberals of Renew Europe, the Socialists and Democrats and the Greens on Wednesday, but - in both groups - she faced scepticism about her responses, that some MEPs described as "vague".

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The 60-year-old Christian Democrat failed to change the minds of most MEPs in the groups in her latest campaign stop in Brussels, where she needs to secure at least 376 votes in the 751-member European parliament to be approved next week in Strasbourg.

Von der Leyen can count on fellow Christian Democrats from the centre-right EPP, who are the biggest group with 182 seats, a part of the 153-strong Socialists, and votes from liberals, who have 108 seats.

But German Social Democrats have been critical of the centre-right German minister. MEP Birgit Sippel said that von der Leyen avoided clear answers on asylum reform, rule of law, and social issues.

Many among the socialists, particularly the German, Belgian, Dutch, British and Greek MEPs, were "disappointed" by von der Leyen's performance.

"Concrete ideas or proposals are unfortunately lacking," German MEP Tiemo Wolken tweeted.

"We did not have enough answers, so we will write down our demands and we will assess her on the basis of the responses we receive," socialist group leader, Spain's Iratxe Garcia, said after the meeting.

MEPs are upset that EU leaders did not respect the so-called Spitzenkandidaten process, whereby the European elections' winner in the parliament produces the EU commission president, when nominating von der Leyen, and lawmakers are also upset about how abstract von der Leyen was in her responses.

The liberals of Renew Europe named conditions for their votes. Group leader Dacian Ciolos told reporters the liberals asked for von der Leyen's support for transnational lists at the next European elections, to underpin the lead candidate process of selecting the EU commission president.

They also want the commission president nominee to back a European mechanism for the rule of law covering all member states including sanctions, and to make sure that Danish commissioner Margrethe Vestager will be as strong a commission vice-president as Social Democrat Frans Timmermans.

During the hearing, von der Leyen only confirmed that Timmermans will be vice-president and Vestager will have a "strong position".

Ciolos said the attitude of the liberals was "positive", but that Renew Europe's support for the German candidate was not a given.

"Our vote cannot taken for granted yet!," he said.

Some liberal MEPs are reluctant to support a candidate who was not a lead candidate, and have been unhappy with von der Leyen's stance on defending rule of law.

"I cannot heal the past, it is a fact. I am convinced, this opens a door for a mature process," von der Leyen said of the lead candidate process, adding that she wants to make the best out of the idea.

Answering a question from Hungarian MEP Katalin Cseh, von der Leyen said she would lean on the decisions by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to defend the rule of law in the EU.

"EU does have the instrument to uphold these values, precisely because we had these debates, […] we must be using the tools more consistently," von der Leyen responded.

The German nominee was supported by the Hungarian and Polish governments, which have, among other countries, rejected the candidacy of the Dutch Timmermans, who had taken on Warsaw and Budapest as commission vice-president over the independence of the judiciary and rule of law.

"Will you be tougher than previous commissions against violation of rule of law and of fundamental rights?," Dutch MEP Sophie In't Veld asked the German candidate, with von der Leyen responding with a concise "yes" - without going into details.

"The EU is based on principles, this is the foundation, respect for the rule of law," she said.

Von der Leyen added that she supported the EU going carbon neutral by 2050 and the EU needed to advance single market reforms, move to majority decision on foreign affairs issues, and "become more assertive" vis-a-vis the US.

Making a decision

The parliamentary groups will decide early next week on their positions, but it is likely that the liberals, the socialists and the conservative European Reformist and Conservatives (ECR) will still be divided over the new commission president.

The parliament's leadership, including the group leaders, will decide on Thursday (10 July) whether to postpone the vote on the German defence minister from next Tuesday to Wednesday to give the groups more time to discuss the German ministers' speech, which is planned for Tuesday.

Von der Leyen might have to rely on votes from the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), which has 62 seats and is home - for example - to Poland's ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), which has supported the German candidate.

However, PiS MEPs might still vote against von der Leyen, after fellow lawmakers rejected former Polish prime minister, and PiS MEP, Beata Szydlo to head the employment committee in the European parliament, also on Wednesday.

Von der Leyen visited the conservatives on Tuesday, where her performance was described as "weak". "If she is performing this way in other groups, she will have a difficult time," said one source.

Coalition down

The program for the next five years negotiated for weeks by the four largest parties in the parliament has been put on hold at a meeting of group leaders on Tuesday, a source told EUobserver.

MEPs from the groups have been negotiating in five working groups on issues such as climate and environment, social and economic issues including taxation and trade, rule of law, migration and terrorism, foreign affairs, defence, multilateralism, and digitalisation, single market and innovation.

However, with EU leaders naming a candidate last week other than a parliaments' lead candidates, and the centre-right EPP, the socialists and liberals tacitly backing the deal, the Greens are feeling left out, and negotiations have now been suspended.

At a meeting with Green co-chairs, Ska Keller and Philippe Lamberts earlier this week, von der Leyen did not commit to the planned parliament coalition agreement, according to a source, making the deal weightless. "Then what's the point?," said one Green source.

Who are the EU's new leaders?

Three out of the four people to lead the EU institutions in Brussels for the next five years were selected Tuesday, but none are well-known outside their own countries. The fourth, the European Parliament president, is to be chosen Wednesday.

Feature

Greens yet to be convinced by von der Leyen nomination

After a inconclusive meeting with Ursula von der Leyen at the European Parliament on Monday, all Green MEPs will now get to meet her on Wednesday - ahead of the key vote on her nomination as EU Commission president.

Greens eye 'kingmaker' role among MEPs for von der Leyen

Ursula von der Leyen immediately visited the European Parliament on Wednesday in order to gather support for her nomination to replace Jean-Claude Juncker as EU Commission president. The Greens will now be key for her to secure the job.

German minister presidency plan upsets MEPs

While EU leaders seem to converge around German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen as Commission president, the European Parliament is not happy with the emerging agreement on top jobs.

Greens reject von der Leyen's EU commission bid

The fourth largest group in the parliament does not back EU leaders' nominee for the commission top job, pushing Ursula von der Leyen's possible base further to the right.

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