German nominee for Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, continued her charm offensive with European political families on Wednesday (10 July), as MEPs tried hard to pin her down on climate protection, rule of law and reform of the bloc’s institutional structures.
Concluding meetings with Socialist, Liberal and Greens MEPs in Brussels, the German defence minister delivered a left-friendly pitch, touching upon all broad issues that will dominate the EU’s agenda in the coming term, but MEPs criticised her for lacking specifics.
“I am a European of heart and conviction,” von der Leyen said, addressing the press for the first time since she was nominated to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker at the head of the EU executive. But her pro-European stance is unlikely to be enough to convince MEPs of her credentials.
After a two-hour hearing, the Greens/EFA announced they were not ready to support her candidacy and they might not be the only group to oppose it.
“The statements of Ursula von der Leyen were disappointing. We did not hear any concrete proposal, be it on rule of law or on climate. We have been elected on a mandate for change and we don’t see how change will be possible with this candidate,” co-chair of the Greens/EFA Ska Keller said in a statement.
“Ms von der Leyen is simply not a Commission president that the Greens/EFA group can support,” Philippe Lamberts concluded.
Socialists, with whom she met in the morning, were also left wanting. “We did not have enough answers so we will write down our demands and will assess her on the basis of the responses we receive,” Iratxe Garcia Perez, S&D president, said after the meeting.
Von der Leyen’s Socialist coalition partners back home were also critical. German Social Democrat MEP Katarina Barley, former justice minister and newly appointed European Parliament vice-president, told reporters she knew the nominee “very well personally, but I don’t know her ideas about Europe.”
“Leichtere Hand” in Rechtsstaatsfragen? Keine solidarische Verteilung von Flüchtlingen? Längere Übergangsfristen zu nachhaltiger Energieversorgung? Aussprache mit Frau @vonderleyen konnte Widersprüche in unserer Fraktion nicht klären.#vonderLeyen
— Udo Bullmann (@UdoBullmann) July 10, 2019
Dacian Cioloş, the centrist Renew Europe leader, called the exchange a “very good debate” as his party MEPs appeared more open to supporting von der Leyen’s nomination.
But he said his group’s blessing would depend on whether von der Leyen is willing to respond to their demands: holding a conference on the future of Europe, allowing trans-national candidate lists in future EU elections, supporting a new rule of law mechanism, and installing their candidate Margrethe Vestager as Commission vice president equal in rank to Socialist Frans Timmermans, a promise which von der Leyen has offered to keep.
A positive vote, Ciolos warned, “cannot be taken for granted.”
On Tuesday (9 July), von der Leyen met with ECR co-chairs Raffaele Fitto and Ryszard Legutko and a party source told EURACTIV “Von der Leyen’s performance was incredibly weak”.
Von der Leyen’s right-wing support seems firm and a positive vote from most of the EPP, including 13 MEPs from Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz, and ECR groups seems likely.
A charm offensive
Aware of the unease among the political families about her appointment, von der Leyen vowed to anchor the Spitzenkandidaten process, which the EU leaders cast aside this time and nominated her for the top job.
In a bid to show her commitment to a stronger EU democracy, von der Leyen announced she would concede some legislative initiative – exclusive to the Commission under the treaties – to the Parliament.
She committed to taking to the College of Commissioners any legislative resolution of the Parliament that is backed by an absolute majority, and see how it can be translated into political or legislative action.
Beyond these two concrete initiatives, von der Leyen called for a more ambitious climate agenda (“climate neutrality by 2050 is a must”), said she would fight for a minimum wage in Europe and called for a stronger role for the EU in the world.
She failed to present a clear programme for the next five years but that is hardly surprising as von Der Leyen did not run for the European elections and, until last week, she was Germany’s defence minister.
Although von der Leyen pointed out that personnel questions will have to wait until after her confirmation, she promised to ask all EU leaders to present two persons – male and female – as potential Commissioners in a drive to achieve gender balance in her Commission team.
“I work on a majority, then I will decide on the structure, with two exceptions: Frans Timmermans and Margrethe Vestager,” Von der Leyen told the liberals.
Speaking to the Greens, Von der Leyen later also stated she wants Timmermans to keep a portfolio on rule of law in her Commission, “if he wishes to do so”.
The Commission candidate has put the fight against climate change at the core of her agenda when addressing the members of the European Parliament, saying she will back a 50% greenhouse gas emission cuts by 2030 and support a 2050 net-zero emissions target for the EU. “I want Europe to be the first continent that is climate neutral,” she told MEPs.
She said she wanted to have a ‘council of scientists’ to monitor and report on the progress of European member states in efforts to reduce emissions.
“CO2 has to have a price,” the German politician told the press. She would later stress the need for an open debate on a carbon tax in the EU that, however, requires unanimity among EU leaders, “I know that it is not an easy part, but it is something that we have to take on,” Von der Leyen told MEPs.
Regarding the EU Emissions trading system (EU ETS), von der Leyen said the scheme was working well but should be broadened to aviation and shipping, and possibly also to include buildings and traffic.
She aligned with French President Emmanuel Macron in supporting the idea of a European Climate Bank to support the low-carbon economy.
The Commission nominee also recognised the need to step up the use of EU funds to help those countries lagging behind in their work towards a green transition and to make sure this is fair both for companies and citizens.
“I believe It is possible to reconcile climate consciousness and strong prosperous economy,” she told the press.
Rule of law
MEPs tried to pin her down on how she would defend the rule of law, in particular with regard to Poland and Hungary, two countries that are currently under Article 7 procedures launched by the Commission for persistently breaching the EU’s core values.
Dutch liberal MEP Sophie in ’t Veld complained that von der Leyen had not offered “a lot that was very precise and concrete on rule of law”.
Coming from a defence background, Von der Leyen scored easy points on this topic, calling for more integration in security and defence to live up to the promise of a European Defence Union. “As European, we have to become more assertive, more engaged in our neighbourhood,” she told the Liberals.
“An “army of the Europeans” is not the “European army,” she said, citing Dutch-German cooperation as a role model.
“It is always the backing of the national parliaments you need when sending forces,” she said.
She added that foreign policy decisions are still far too long in the making. “In the very end, when we have crises, it has to be a fast response that Europe can give,” she said.
“If we want an effective HR/VP, if we want him or her to be listened to, we need majority voting.”
Asked whether it is time for a new era of relations with Russia, she replied: “Russia is our neighbour and will be our neighbour, period. The Kremlin does not forgive weakness. Out of a position of strength, and we built it in the past years, we can always go into dialogue.”
On migration, von der Leyen struggled to specify her plans to revamp the bloc’s approach to migrant rescue in the Mediterranean, which was strongly criticised by Green MEPs.
The UK’s departure from the bloc, due after 31 October, will be one of the first major issues von der Leyen will have to deal with if confirmed in her post, and she was quick to defend the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by Michel Barnier.
Asked by the British Liberal Democrats about future relations, she argued that “Brexit is not the end of something but it is the beginning of future cooperation.” Even so, von der Leyen, like many other EU leaders before her, shared her wish for the UK to stay in the EU.
“I am a strong believer in Remain,” she said.
Von der Leyen also defended a possible further extension of Article 50 beyond October, although the decision is still in the hands of the member states.
“If the UK needs more time, we think it would be a good idea to have an extension, because not just the economic consequences but also the relations between our countries would be affected in such a catastrophic way by a No Deal Brexit,” the candidate stressed.
Next week vote
Von der Leyen also met Parliament’s political group leaders, known as the Conference of Presidents. On Thursday (11 July), they will decide on when to hold the vote on her candidature.
Newly elected Parliament President, Socialist David Sassoli, described the meeting as “useful, constructive and cordial” and stressed the need for good cooperation between the European Commission and the Parliament, which is “inevitable”.
Sassoli welcomed von Der Leyen’s commitment to meet with all political families that had requested it. “However, it is not my moment or my place to get to political conclusions on this dialogue,” Sassoli said on the possible impact of the discussion on next week’s vote.
“I think that there is still some work to be done,” the European Parliament president said.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]
***Claire Stam contributed to this article.