The Irish Times view on Ursula von der Leyen: a new leader takes the helm

A fragmented parliament could make it difficult for the new commission president to pursue her policy agenda

Ursula von der Leyen will become the first woman – and the first German in half a century – to lead the European Commission after her intensive two-week campaign to win over MEPs produced a narrow parliamentary majority in Strasbourg on Tuesday. Photograph: Patrick Seeger/EPA

Ursula von der Leyen will become the first woman – and the first German in half a century – to lead the European Commission after her intensive two-week campaign to win over MEPs produced a narrow parliamentary majority in Strasbourg on Tuesday. Photograph: Patrick Seeger/EPA

 

Ursula von der Leyen will become the first woman – and the first German in half a century – to lead the European Commission after her intensive two-week campaign to win over MEPs produced a narrow parliamentary majority in Strasbourg on Tuesday. And it was narrow: the German defence minister won just 383 votes, only nine more than the 374 she needed to scrape over the line. That’s the closest any commission president has come to defeat since the parliament was given the power to reject nominees under the 2008 Lisbon Treaty.

In itself, that won’t weaken von der Leyen. The majorities of her predecessors, José-Manuel Barroso and Jean-Claude Juncker, were only slightly bigger. A more important question is whether the manner of her appointment will affect her ability to pursue her policy agenda. Von der Leyen’s nomination was the result of a rejection by EU leaders of the spitzenkandidat system, in which parliamentary groups nominated “lead candidates” for the presidency.

That rejection irked many MEPs. Unable to count on total support from any grouping, even the European People’s Party, of which she is a member, and facing the most fragmented parliament since direct elections began in 1979, von der Leyen had to rely on votes from across the chamber. That forced her to cobble together a policy platform at short notice. Some of the results are encouraging: she promised an EU carbon border tax, carbon neutrality by 2050 and a green deal on investment within her first 100 days in office. Von der Leyen also criticised global tech giants who “play” the European tax system and proposed a gender-equal college of commissioners.

She also made some astute moves. Her defenestration of Martin Selmayr, the commission secretary general unloved by many MEPs, went down well. And by putting her nomination to a vote now instead of waiting until September, she limited the policy concessions she would be forced to make to different parliamentary factions.

But the incoming president did need votes from far-right and populist MEPs from Italy, Poland and Hungary, and her critics say that will leave her compromised. It didn’t go unnoticed this week that von der Leyen did not mention “article 7” – the rule of law enforcement mechanism that has caused such friction with Hungary and Poland. Some worry that she will take a softer line towards those illiberal regimes.

The more long-term problem suggested by von der Leyen’s struggle for votes is that she could find it difficult to form a working majority for her policy plans. Not only is the parliament more fragmented than ever but, as Tuesday’s vote suggests, the big groups cannot count on all their members falling into line. The result of a more splintered, independent-minded parliament would be a weaker commission.

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