Ursula von der Leyen: First woman to hold EU’s top job

Former German defence minister is the new EU Commission president, after narrowly winning a parliament vote.

Ursula von der Leyen - reuters
Von der Leyen faced the European Parliament in Strasbourg ahead of a vote on her nomination [Vincent Kessler/Reuters]

Ursula von der Leyen has been elected into the EU’s top job by a narrow margin after vowing to address climate change.

The 60-year-old former defence minister of Germany secured a majority in the Strasbourg-based assembly by just nine votes during Tuesday’s secret ballot to replace Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission.

“The trust you placed in me is confidence you placed in Europe. Your confidence in a united and strong Europe, from east to west, from south to north,” von der Leyen said in a brief speech following the vote. “It’s a big responsibility and my work starts now… Let us work together constructively because the endeavour is a united and strong Europe.” 

The German conservative’s nomination gained ground after Europe’s liberal bloc announced on Tuesday afternoon that it would back her.

EU leaders agree on choices for top jobs after days of disputes

“My group will support Ms von der Leyen today,” said Dacian Ciolos, head of Renew Europe. “We are looking forward to work intensively with her to move Europe forward. There is a lot of work ahead of us. Let’s renew Europe together.”

That move brought her closer to securing the necessary 374 votes. She ended up scraping through with 383 votes. Her predecessor, Jean-Claude Juncker, had received 422 votes.

“Liberals led by Emmanuel Macron’s En March! party have swung behind von der Leyen, largely reflecting the Franco-German axis among heads of state in the EU Council that selected her over the parliamentary election process,” said Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull, reporting from Strasbourg.

“Of course, sweeping promises made during her morning address to MEPs helped: parliamentary and electoral reform, no compromise on the rule of law, boosting gender equality and the climate change agenda.

“But as senior European People’s Party and von der Leyen ally David MacAllister told me: ‘She has united France and Germany at the Council level and, while France and Germany are not everything in the EU, nothing happens without them.'”


Von der Leyen’s victory should avert a summer of institutional infighting. But with such a narrow win, her position will be weakened even before she takes over as the commission’s first female leader in November.

Von der Leyen had barely two weeks to make her case since European leaders declared her the nominee after a tense three-day summit, casting aside candidates backed by parliament.

On Tuesday, she was broadly well received by sceptical MEPs when she tried to reassure them of her environmental credentials and that she would build an inclusive five-year programme.

“I will put forward a green deal for Europe in my first 100 days in office. I will put forward the first-ever European climate law which will set the 2050 target in law,” she said.

Her promise received applause, but Green leaders said it still lacked specifics.

The centre-right European People’s Party and liberal Renew Europe backed her, as did the majority of Social Democrats – but the Greens and the far-left have said they did not.


Outgoing Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel is set to become head of the European Council of EU leaders.

Former IMF chief Christine Lagarde’s appointment to the European Central Bank is also on course.

Lagarde resigned as managing director of the International Monetary Fund on Tuesday afternoon, as her nomination to lead the ECB appeared more secure.

Meanwhile, Martin Selmayr, the European Commission’s secretary-general, whose sudden promotion last year angered MEPs and earned a rebuke from the European ombudsman, will step down from his post next week, a spokeswoman for the EU executive said on Tuesday.

Selmayr, a German lawyer, was Juncker’s chief aide before his abrupt promotion.

The new head of the European Commission is due to take power on November 1, immediately after the latest deadline for Britain’s departure from the bloc.

She will have to manage the Brexit aftermath, Italy shirking its debt targets and efforts by Poland and Hungary to flout the EU-mandated rules of liberal democracy.

For that, the commission president will need a reliable majority in Strasbourg, but this year’s elections threw up a more fragmented EU Parliament than ever.

Who is Ursula von der Leyen? 

“At the first look, Ursula von der Leyen has a strong international profile and having served in different German governments knows politics and policies in Brussels very well,” Miriam Hartlapp-Zugehor, professor of political science at the Free University of Berlin, told Al Jazeera in a recent interview.

“Her expertise in defence and security issues make her an appealing candidate for France, which is advocating a deepening of integration in this area, as well as many Eastern European governments. And she is a woman – the first ever to take the commission’s top job. This makes her a suitable candidate to solve the conflicts in the Brussels negotiations.

“However, this does not render her a suitable candidate to carry out the job itself. In Germany, her stewardship of the defence ministry is widely regarded as a failure and she currently faces a parliamentary investigation on consultancy scandals – nothing that qualifies her for leading an administration of 33,000 people.

“Last, but not least, in an increasingly polarised Europe, the commission president will need a vision for the future and have ideas how to reform the integration project in a way that responds to its citizens’ problems and interests. Here, Ursula von der Leyen is blank.”

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies