Von der Leyen seeks to secure EU top job at parliament

Outgoing German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen is seeking to woo enough legislators at the European Parliament to secure the job of European Commission President in a secret vote late Tuesday.

The Christian Democrat of the European People’s Party is promising the parliamentarians she will put climate and social issues at the heart of her program over the next five years as she seeks to gather the requisite 374 votes out of 747.

Von der Leyen was a last-minute candidate to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker that the EU leaders agreed on as part of a package of top jobs that were decided on early this month.

Under the package, the free-market liberal Renew Europe group got Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel as Council President and the Socialists won the top parliament job.

If the parliament rejects her candidature, though, the whole package of political appointments could fall apart like a house of cards and throw the European Union into a constitutional crisis.

The parliamentarians have not so much objected to von der Leyen personally as voiced their anger that they were sidelined in the appointment process: their candidates for the Commission post, arguably the most important of all the jobs, were all rejected by the EU leaders.

Officials in the von der Leyen camp acknowledge that the vote will be a cliffhanger but say that she will scrape by. She should get the majority of votes from the EPP Christian Democrats, the S&D socialists and the RE liberals. However, the Greens and German socialists have said they will reject her.

“This is about much more than a personnel issue,” senior Social Democrat European lawmaker Katarina Barley told ZDF television Tuesday. “In the election campaign, we called for the EU to become more democratic — including with the ‘lead candidate’ principle. We think it is very important that the Council cannot simply throw that in the trash with loud applause from right-wing populists.”

Von der Leyen would become the first woman to lead the EU’s executive. “Finally a woman is candidate for the European Commissioin,” she said at the start of her speech to the parliament Tuesday, earning applause.

She then immediately addressed what she sees as the biggest challenge — climate change.

“I want Europe to become the first climate-neutral continent in the world by 2050,” she said, adding she would work out a “a green deal for Europe in the first 100 days” of her office.

“It will need investment on a major scale,” and funds would be available for nations, mainly in eastern Europe, still depending on polluting fossil fuels, she said.


Geir Moulson contributed from Berlin

The secret ballot at 6 p.m. will make it impossible to see who exactly voted for her, but she will hope to avoid the perception that she won the nomination by having to rely on populist and extreme right votes.