Sunday

15th Dec 2019

Analysis

Von der Leyen team voted in by MEPs - amid warnings

  • New commission president Ursula von der Leyen is congratulated by European Parliament president David Sassoli (Photo: European Parliament)

EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, the first female head of the EU executive, and her team of commissioners was approved on Wednesday (27 November) by MEPs in Strasbourg.

Von der Leyen, who herself only narrowly secured the parliament's support to be president back in July by just nine votes, has now received more votes than Jean-Claude Juncker, her predecessor's 423 votes in 2014.

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  • Von der Leyen and her team of commissioners await voting in the parliament (Photo: European Parliament)

Out of the 707 MEP votes cast, the new commission received 461 votes, with 157 against and 89 abstentions.

Von der Leyen's centre-right European People's party (EPP), the largest group in the parliament, swung behind her with 182 MEPs.

A majority of the Socialists and Democrats group also rallied behind the German former defence minister and her team - despite earlier criticism over a lack of emphasis on social policy and a controversy over the initial name for the migration portfolio.

The liberal Renew Europe, with 108 MEPs, also supported the new executive. However, the Greens abstained, while the far-right and far-left rejected the new commission. The conservative European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group was split.

Nevertheless, the total was only 17 votes more than the combined number of MEPs of three largest political groups in the parliament (the EPP, S&D and Renew), who make up the political coalition behind her.

The new commission was voted in after a month's delay, after three commissioner candidates from France, Hungary and Romania were initially rejected by the parliament.

It also takes office without a British commissioner, after London said it would not nominate one before the general election on 12 December.

Green deal

In her speech in the European parliament in Strasbourg, the 61-year-old von der Leyen promised to focus on geopolitics over the next five years.

"This is an unsettled world where too many powers only speak the language of confrontation and unilateralism," she said, adding that "it's also a world where millions of people are taking to the streets to protest against corruption or to demand democratic change".

"My commission won't be afraid of speaking the language of confidence," von der Leyen said, in a nod to French president Emmanuel Macron, who has been vocal about a more assertive European foreign policy.

Her policy-heavy speech signalled that von der Leyen wants to move away from the self-described "political commission" of Juncker.

She also pledged legislative proposals to fight climate change, and set out a European digitalisation strategy, including leading the way on regulating artificial intelligence.

She reiterated her pledge to unveil a European Green Deal - likely as early as 11 December - aiming for zero net-carbon emissions by 2050.

Von der Leyen added that the green initiatives would have to be "inclusive", a gesture towards eastern and central European countries such as Poland that rely on coal for jobs, energy and growth.

She said a new fund, the just transition fund, should aid these regions, which should cut across EU financial instruments.

Von der Leyen said new EU trade deals would include clauses protecting the environment and that the European Investment Bank would become the EU's climate transition bank.

Talking about the need for European innovation to keep up globally, she said the EU's long-term budget should not only be a "simple accounting exercise".

The new commission president remained vague, however, on divisive issues such as migration and institutional reform.

That is part of the strategy of the German politician, a protege of chancellor Angela Merkel, who wants to focus on policies rather than politics, and make progress on issues which are seen as less politically-divisive, such as climate and digitalisation, rather than migration.

Parliament arithmetics

While von der Leyen and her team succeeded in securing the parliament's backing with a comfortable majority, and groups voted en bloc to support her, majorities will not be easy to find.

The German politician has been handpicked by EU leaders in July despite an election process where the parliament's political parties put forward different commission president candidates - Manfred Weber for the EPP and Frans Timmermans for the S&D.

Von der Leyen has been struggling to walk the delicate tightrope between the member states' governments, who saw her as being pushed around by the parliament during the confirmation hearings, and the MEPs - who want to make sure she is not an instrument for member states.

Wednesday's vote hints at difficulties ahead for von der Leyen to build a workable coalition in the fragmented parliament with political groups being more divided than before.

She had already made gestures to secure the socialists' and liberal support, by renaming the controversial migration portfolio from "protecting" the European way of life, to "promoting" it. The new commissioner for jobs, Nicolas Schmit also had "social rights" added to his portfolio's name.

"We will support you - but we will be demanding of this college of commissioners, be aware of this, let's not play around," socialist group leader Iratxe Garcia said in her speech, stressing that social issues should take centre stage.

Renew group leader, Dacian Ciolos told von der Leyen that the liberals' support is not a "blank cheque". He added that the EU executive "need to make sure in depth changes take place" in Europe.

Another liberal MEP, Dutch Sophie In 't Veld also warned about her group's doubts.

"Your stubborn refusal to withdraw the controversial title of the migration portfolio shows that you are more keen to placate Warsaw and Budapest than working with progressive forces in parliament, the cosmetic changes don't convince me," she said, referring to the Polish and Hungarian governments which are under scrutiny for breaking EU rules.

Green way

The Greens did not support the von der Leyen commission, after the German politician did not invite them to be part of her coalition.

The Greens argued the new commission does not go far enough on climate, social and democratic issues, while they demand a paradigm shift in Europe's climate and economic policy.

Ska Keller, co-chair of the greens in the parliament, told MEPs that deep reform in agriculture policy and an environmentally-sustainable trade policy are prerequisite to combatting climate change.

Without this, "any green policy remains half-hearted", the German MEP warned.

Keller also said that French commissioner Thierry Breton, the former head of an IT firm tasked with overseeing digitalisation, has an "inherent conflict of interest", and it is a "big, big problem" for her group. She insisted that digital issues should be removed from Breton's portfolio.

Keller also said it was "cynical" to give Hungary the enlargement portfolio, which has been "undermining and breaking EU rules", and whose commissioner is now expected to tell candidate countries to follow rule of law law and EU values.

"You will find in us a constructive partner but we will be critical," Keller said, adding: "Our voting behaviour is a sign of goodwill despite fundamental criticisms."

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