The European Parliament gave the green light to Ursula von der Leyen’s college of Commissioners “for a fresh start for Europe” on Wednesday (27 November) with a comfortable 461 votes in favour, 151 against and 89 abstentions.
The first woman ever to lead the Commission secured a strong majority in favour of her “outstanding” and “almost” gender-balanced team, the first without a UK member, after delivering a speech in a semi-vacant hemicycle in Strasbourg, traditionally full for the big occasions.
Von der Leyen embraced the spirit of the Czech Velvet Revolution and said that for her, Europe “is not about parties or politics, rules or regulations, markets or currencies,” but it is “ultimately and above all else – about people and their aspirations.”
“Work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed,” the Commission president said, quoting Vaclav Havel.
“Over the next five years, our Union will embark together on a transformation, which will touch every part of our society and economy. And we will do it because it is the right thing to do. Not because it will be easy,” von der Leyen said.
A little bit more at ease than in July, when she was nominated by the European Council to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker at the head of the Commission, von der Leyen largely stuck to the script, with one exception – Brexit.
Although she did not pronounce ‘the B-word’, she did mention that “one member of our family intends to leave our Union,” to sound applause from the few Brexit Party MEPs present in the room, and added:
“A vast majority of this house seem to be happy to see that a very, very small group in this house will not be able to clap as loudly anymore,” she said as MEPs rejoiced.
Von der Leyen presented few details of her programme but vowed the EU will be leading the fight against climate change, with the Green Deal as a pillar, and will become more innovative, a digital power with a strong social market economy.
The need to find a common response to common challenges such as migration and to strengthen the EU’s role on the global scene also marked her speech.
A greener, more innovative EU
As the European Parliament debates whether to declare a ‘climate emergency’ in Europe, von der Leyen described climate change as “an existential issue” for Europe and for the world and said European Green Deal “is a must.”
Although she revealed few details, she said it would help to cut emissions while creating jobs. “It is a generational transition towards climate neutrality by mid-century. But this transition must be just and inclusive or it will not happen at all,” von der Leyen stressed.
She admitted that such economic shift would require “massive” public and private investment, also for innovation and the digital revolution, and would rely on the European Investment Bank to trigger that investment.
“For years, we have invested less in innovation than our competitors do. This is a huge handicap to our competitiveness and our ability to lead this transformation,” she added.
The president-elect called for working towards the completion of the Capital Market Union, to “improve access to finance for small businesses and start-ups to let them grow, innovate and take the risks they need.”
Von der Leyen argued the next seven-year budget should be “significantly modernised,” as the world seven years ago looks nothing like the world in seven years time.”
The proposal for a new long-term EU blueprint was tabled back in 2018 by the outgoing Commission. Von der Leyen did not clarify in her speech whether she indeed intends to modify that proposal.
EU in the global scene
Von der Leyen, who has described her own executive as a ‘geopolitical commission’ highlighted again Europe’s role in the global scene. “The world needs our leadership more than ever,” she argued and called the EU to be “a force for peace and positive change.”
“We can be the shapers of a better global order,” she added.
“My Commission will not be afraid to speak the language of confidence and assertiveness. But we will do it our way, the European way,” von der Leyen insisted, hinting at China, Russia or the US. “This is the geopolitical Commission that I have in mind and that Europe urgently needs.”
Only weeks after the Council failed to open the accession process with North Macedonia and Albania, von der Leyen said the EU “must demonstrate” the Western Balkans “will share the same destiny too. “Our door remains open,” she added.
Von der Leyen regretted that in the past few years, the EU had to focus on “managing crises after an emergency.” One of the crises that exposed the most the differences between member states was the miss-management of the migration flow in 2015 and onwards.
The Commission president-elect vowed to find a “solutions that work for all” and said that while “Europe will always provide shelter to those who are in need of international protection,” it also needs to ensure that “those who have no right to stay return home.”
Reforming the EU asylum system, reinforcing the border controls “to allow us to return to a fully functional Schengen,” and strengthening cooperation with third countries are among von der Leyen’s priorities to tackle migration.
“A Europe that is so proud of its values and the rule of law has to be able to come up with an answer that is both humane and effective,” she said.
“We are ready. But most importantly, Europe is ready. My message is simple: Let’s get to work,” said von der Leyen.
The work starts on Monday (1 December).
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]