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25th Jul 2021

EU commission has first-ever woman president

  • Ursula von der Leyen becomes the first ever woman president of the European Commission (Photo: European Parliament)

On Tuesday (16 July), the majority of MEPs at the Strasbourg plenary agreed to support Ursula von der Leyen, a long-standing German cabinet minister, for the presidency of the European Commission.

With 383 votes in favour, just over the minimum of 374 required, von der Leyen secured a narrow majority win and will now replace incumbent Jean-Claude Juncker at the start of November.

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Another 327 MEPs voted against her, from a total of 733 votes cast, with 22 absentions.

Speaking immediately afterwards, von der Leyen said: "I feel so honoured and I am overwhelmed. The task ahead humbles me".

The bulk of the votes in her favour came from the centre-right EPP, the socialists S&D, the Renew Europe and some stragglers. Among those were the Italian Five Star Movement in government coalition with the far-right League, as well as the populist Polish PiS party members.

Earlier in the day, von der Leyen had issued a wide array of policy promises in a speech ranging from climate change to youth job creation. It is unclear what she can deliver, given the decisions rely on support from the member states and the European Parliament.

But despite her promises for greater gender equality, von der Leyen did not mention abortion or LGBTi rights in her opening speech.

And although she promised to support rule of law, she also made no direct mention of the European Commission's article 7 procedure against Hungary and Poland.

Both countries had supported her nomination for the commission presidency, in a move that has overturned the European Parliament's preferred method of choosing a lead candidate (the 'Spitzenkandidaten' process) on the back of the European elections.

Despite that outcome, many will praise her for being the first ever female to lead the European Commission.

But the tightrope she will need to straddle to appease the member states and the European Parliament may lead to complications further down the line.

Those who voted against her, in a secret ballot on Tuesday, did so for a wide range of reasons.

Among the likely dissenters were the five French socialist MEPs who complained that her proposals, although sounding positive, were too vague and too undefined to be taken seriously.

French socialist and parliament vice-president Sylvie Guillaume had compared von der Leyen's promises to those of Jean-Claude Juncker when he stood in front of the assembly pleading for the same job five years ago.

"Concretely, it remains too vague," she told reporters in Strasbourg before the vote.

Raphael Glucksmann, another socialist French MEP, made similar observations, saying von der Leyen's speech earlier the same day at the European Parliament in Strasbourg was too lofty and too different from her presentation to the group last week.

"[That] was nothing like it was this morning," he noted. The French were not alone to turn against von der Leyen, herself a Christian Democrat, in the socialist camp amid speculation some 44 had voted her down.

Iratxe Garcia Perez, the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) group leader from Spain, had helped shaped the ambivalent tone during an earlier debate when she told Von der Leyen that more details are needed when it comes to fighting youth unemployment, among other proposals.

As the second largest political group after the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), the S&D represents 154 votes. The more Nordic socialists MEPs threw their support behind von der Leyen as did most of the group.

The vast majority of Renew Europe, previously known as the liberal Alde group, is also said to have backed von der Leyen following her speech.

The No Camp

But not everyone was happy. The Renew Europe dissenters are three MEPs from Austria's The New Austria, Germany's Free Voters, and Denmark's former defence minsiter Soeren Gade.

The conservative European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), representing 62 votes, were not impressed either although the Polish faction decided to support her despite a failed bid to get their former prime minister a chair on the employment committee.

The far-right Identity and Democracy group, with 73 voices, opposed as did the far-left GUE group with 41.

The biggest rejection of von der Leyen came from the Greens, the parliament's fourth largest group with 74 MEPs, whose leadership said her appointment process amounted to a backroom deal cobbled together to appease the far-right in central European countries.

"If she becomes president, it will be thanks to the votes of the far-right, rather than those of the strong pro-European majority," said the UK Greens, in a statement ahead of the vote.

Juncker, for comparison, had the support of 422 MEPs, out of the needed 376 votes, during his election to the same post on 15 July 2014.

Similar to von der Leyen, Juncker had made promises that echo some of the proposals she put forward on Tuesday ranging from gender balance to supporting small business owners.

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Von der Leyen faces gender battle for commission posts

The first-ever female president of the European Commission wants half of her team of commissioners to consist of women. But most of the commissioners put forward by EU member states so far have been male.

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Informal interviews with von der Leyen, hearings with parliamentary committees, and votes in the EU parliament and Council await the 26 candidates.

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