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European Commission female president-elect vows to boost economy

By CHEN WEIHUA | China Daily | Updated: 2019-07-18 01:01
Ursula von der Leyen, president-elect of the European Commission, delivers a speech at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on Tuesday. [Photo/Agencies]

German politician Ursula von der Leyen was elected by the European Parliament on Tuesday to become the first female president of the European Commission, but her narrow win signals a tough job ahead.

Von der Leyen got 383 of the 733 votes cast on Tuesday, only nine more than the required 374. There were 327 votes against her and 22 abstentions in the secret ballot. The result was lower than the 420 obtained in 2014 by Jean-Claude Juncker, who will step down on Oct 31.

"The trust you placed in me is confidence you placed in Europe," von der Leyen said after winning the vote.

"Anyone who wishes to help Europe will find in me a passionate fighter by their side. Anyone seeking to split and destroy our values will find a fierce opponent," she said in a speech before the vote.

In a news conference after the vote, von der Leyen said she wants to "move Europe forward in the next five years to a climate-friendly Europe, a climate-friendly continent, a Europe that serves people, an economically strong and digital Europe and a Europe that is based on rule of law with vivid democracy".

She pledged to ensure gender equality among the 28 commissioners under her leadership. "If member states do not propose enough female commissioners, I will not hesitate to ask for new names," she said.

Brexit, which is expected to happen as she takes office on Nov 1, will be a big challenge. Von der Leyen expressed her regret over Brexit but said she respected the referendum vote and is open to extending the United Kingdom's departure date beyond Oct 31.

The 60-year-old von der Leyen is from the center-right European People's Party, the largest political party in the European Parliament. She served as German defense minister but announced on Monday that she would step down from the position on Wednesday, regardless of Tuesday's election results.

European Commission president-elect Ursula von der Leyen (center) and incoming Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (left) attend a ceremony at Berlin's Bellevue Palace on Wednesday with Chancellor Angela Merkel. [Photo/Agencies]

With Tuesday's victory, von der Leyen has become the first German commission president since Walter Hallstein served in that post from 1958 to 1967.

Juncker, also from the EPP, offered his congratulations on Twitter, saying: "This job is a huge responsibility and a challenge. I am sure you will make a great President."

European Council President Donald Tusk said in a tweet: "Congratulations Ursula@vonderleyen. Congratulations Europe."

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, who will succeed Tusk on Dec 1, said on Twitter that he looked forward to cooperating closely with the institutions for the future of Europe. "Let's work together in the interest of all Europeans," Michel said. The post included a photo of him shaking hands with von der Leyen.

Von der Leyen, a mother of seven, had the backing of her own EPP as well as the center-left Socialists and Democrats and the liberal Renew Europe party, the three major political forces in the European Parliament. But many of the members also vowed to vote against her.

The Greens and some left-wing and right-wing parties were the most vocal in opposing her nomination.

Ska Keller, co-leader of the Greens, offered her congratulations after the announcement of the vote result. But in a tweet after von der Leyen's opening speech in the morning, Keller said: "Nice speech by @vonderleyen. But beyond nice words, nothing concrete on #climate, #searescue, #ruleoflaw, #leadcandidates. How exactly is she planning to put the words into action? Concrete proposals would have been good."

During the morning speeches, many members of the European Parliament delivered scathing remarks about von der Leyen, challenging her in everything from climate change and defense to Brexit and the divide between Eastern and Western Europe.

Monika Vana, an Austrian MEP of the Greens, blasted von der Leyen's argument for more military spending. "A majority of the EU citizens do not see defense as a priority; they see health, environmental issues and education as a priority. That's what this majority of citizens wants," she said.

Marton Gyongyosi, a Hungarian MEP, complained that there was a lack of transparency and democratic decision-making in EU institutions. He said von der Leyen's argument to strengthen the lead candidate, or spitzenkandidat, system, was "somewhat ironic if not cynical".

"This is the system that was ditched in order to nominate you here," Gyongyosi said.

Manfred Weber, who was the EPP's lead candidate for commission president, and Frans Timmermans, the lead candidate for the Socialists and Democrats, both expressed their support for von der Leyen.

Under existing rules, a lead candidate from the party bloc that won the most seats in the European Parliament is favored to take the top EU job.

Von der Leyen was not a lead candidate. Her name was never mentioned until EU leaders picked her about two weeks ago during a three-day crisis summit to identify new EU leaders.

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