European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen (front, centre) poses with her team at the European Parliament after Wednesday’s vote.
Photo: European Union 2019
Following the European Parliament vote to confirm the new European Commission under the presidency of Ursula von der Leyen, action on its promises is urgent, argues Duncan Roberts.
The king is dead, long live the queen. This Sunday Ursula von der Leyen will officially take over from Jean-Claude Juncker as the president of the European Commission, which already has its own “vdL commission” hashtag.
In her speech to the European Parliament on Wednesday, von der Leyen was full of praise for her predecessor, whom she acknowledged as a “a great European” who “has devoted his heart, his soul and his life” to the EU. But at the same time, she was promising MEPs “a fresh start for Europe”.
In a speech long on broad policy outline, von der Leyen said she believed that the European Union is “ultimately--and above all else--about people and their aspirations.” She spoke of a “geopolitical commission”, of being bold, showing global leadership and speaking “the language of confidence”. In a world that has already shifted the balance of power away from the EU this is may be a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. But von der Leyen, at least on Wednesday, was showing steely determination and even seemed to channel Margaret Thatcher quoting St. Francis Assisi (“where there is discord, may we bring harmony”) in her 1979 election victory speech when she said: “We were bold when we sought peace where there was pain.”
The new president has said that the world needs EU leadership on climate protection. “The European Green Deal is a must for the health of our planet and our people--and for our economy,” she said. “It will help us cut emissions while creating jobs.” She said that the EU will not only mainstream climate financing throughout its budget, “but also throughout capital markets and the entire investment chain.” It is, however, wishful thinking to hope von der Leyen and the EU institutions would also show leadership by putting to a halt the costly and environmentally damaging monthly move of the European Parliament from Brussels to Strasbourg, which is estimated to have an impact of “between 11,000 and 19,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions” a year, according to an EP budget plenary.
Gender balance stumble
It is a positive step to have a first female president of the commission (though I argued in the June edition of Delano that Margrethe Vestager would have been a more powerful choice). Although she fell short of the pledge to have a gender balanced commission team, von der Leyen said real progress had been made in being “only one woman away from gender balance”--or “gender-balance-minus-one” as she had rather disengeniously described it in October. It is perhaps unfair to blame the new president for this failure, as her insistence that each country nominate one man and one woman fell on deaf ears in some members states, including Luxembourg, which refused to compromise on its nomination of Nicolas Schmit. Then again, it was the European Parliament that rejected France’s female nominee, Sylvie Goulard, who has been replaced by Thierry Breton for the industry portfolio. But von der Leyen has insisted that every commissioner will, for the first time, have a gender-balanced cabinet.
She also had a clear message for Emmanuel Macron, who has been determined in his stance on slowing down the accession process of new members, by saying that the EU must “demonstrate to our friends in the Western Balkans that we share the same continent, we share the same history, we share the same culture--and we will share the same destiny too. Our door remains open.”
But in an attempt, perhaps, to appeal to conservatives the former members of Angela Merkel’s cabinet insisted that the door is not open to “those who have no right to stay” in the EU. She wants to reform the asylum system and strengthen the EU’s external borders “to allow us to return to a fully functioning Schengen”, while also aiming to “break the cruel business model of smugglers”. She believes the EU can find an answer to migration “that is both humane and effective”, but whether it can appeal across the board on this most divisive of policy dilemmas is questionable.
Von der Leyen rounded off her speech with a list of platitudes, saying people care about “the future of our children and our society”, “fairness and equality in every sense of the word” and “their rights, values and freedoms”. Yes, they do. But what they need above all is a sense of purpose, a means to make ends meet in an increasingly competitive world in which the middle class is feeling squeezed out. And what the EU needs is to connect to those people, to show them that this European project is speaking directly to them. If the vdL commission can do that, then von der Leyen’s hope that “in 30 years’ time…we can say: Vive l'Europe, es lebe Europa, long live Europe!” may come true.