For the first time in its history, the Commission will have a female President: on 17th July 2019, the European Parliament approved the proposal of the European Council to install Ursula von der Leyen as holder of the EU’s most important position from 1st November 2019. However, with just nine more votes than the required absolute majority, it was a wafer-thin win.
In the run-up to the vote by the EU Parliament on Ursula von der Leyen as new Commission President, the days in Brussels and Strasbourg were definitely exciting. Many MEPs were not only sceptical concerning her key priorities, but also hostile regarding the approach of the Council to eclipse the Spitzenkandidat principle by nominating her. According to this principle, only the Spitzenkandidat nominated by party families prior to the EU election (notably Manfred Weber for the EPP, Frans Timmermans for the Social Democrats and Margrethe Vestager for the Liberals) would have been able to become Commission President. This was added by not entirely successful hearings by Ursula von der Leyen before the Social Democrats, Liberals and Greens ahead of the vote, which even increased the scepticism of many MEPs towards her. Hence, many observers expected a narrow result in Parliament, in particular as MEPs voted in a secret ballot. Thus, the result was no surprise: 374 votes were required for confirmation; und Ursula von der Leyen received 383 votes, 327 voted against and 23 MEPs abstained.
Fighting climate change
However, Ursula von der Leyen probably gained the decisive votes only a few hours before the decision was made - thanks to her in parts emotive speech in the European Parliament plenary session, in which the addressed numerous points, which had been demanded by the Social Democrat, the Liberal and the Greens groups. For example, she announced - in case she was elected - to present a Climate Law within her first 100 days in office, which would increase the current EU targets to reduce emissions. Hence, CO2 emissions shall be reduced by 50 to 55 % by 2030. Currently, only 40 % were the set target. Each sector had to contribute to climate change, said von der Leyen, whereby she especially mentioned air traffic, which currently benefits from substantial exemptions. “Emissions must have a price that changes our behaviour”, commented the new Commission President.
Taxing big companies
The statements by Ursula von der Leyen regarding the economic development of the Union were also clear: “It's not people that serve the economy. It's the economy that serves our people.” Hence, she put on record that she thought it not acceptable that big companies generate large profits, hardly pay any taxes but at the same time benefit from the EU’s education system, the infrastructure and the social systems: “If they want to benefit, they have to share the burden”.
Collective bargaining the best option
In order to win the support of Social Democrat MEPs, von der Leyen, by addressing the issue of minimum wages in Europe, concentrated on one of this group’s key demands. In a social market economy, each person, who is in full employment, should be paid a wage that pays for a decent living. She therefore wants to create a framework for minimum wages, whereby she expressively calls collective bargaining by employers' unions and trade unions as the best option. She intends to strengthen the European Pillar of Social Rights and proposes a Child Guarantee to help ensure that every child in Europe has access to the most basic of rights like healthcare and education. She also announced to add violence against women on the list of EU crimes defined in the Treaty.
The same number of women and men in the new Commission
Von der Leyen also wants to ensure full gender equality in the Commission: If Member States did not propose enough female Commissioners she would not hesitate to ask for new names. Of the 183 Commissioners since 1958, fewer than 20 % were women. However, Austria does not contribute to increasing the proportion of women in the Commission; on 11th July 2019 already, Chancellor Brigitte Bierlein announced her intention to nominate the current Austrian Commissioner Johannes Hahn again. This nomination was unanimously approved on 18th July 2019 by all parliamentary factions in the Main Committee of the Austrian Parliament.
No compromise on Rule of Law
She spoke out clearly on the Rule of Law in the Member States: For centuries, Europeans fought so hard for their liberty and independence. This is why there can be no compromise when it comes to respecting the Rule of Law. The Commission will always be an independent guardian of the Treaties: “Anyone that wants to weaken or divide Europe or rob it of its values will find in me a bitter opponent”. Regarding Great Britain, she is ready for a further extension of the withdrawal date, should more time be required for a good reason.
To strengthen the role of Parliament she announced to adopt resolutions by Parliament for new laws and to respond with concrete legislative acts. She also promised to improve the SpitzenkandidatInnen system at EU elections and to address the issue of transnational lists.
What happens next?
Once Ursula von der Leyen has been elected the new Commission President, she will be measured by her actions. Almost all her proposals require at least a qualified majority in the Council, hence the Member States, which in the past had only been possible by making far-reaching compromises. However, the first acid test of her announcements is imminent, as it concerns a gender-balanced composition of the Commission: over the next weeks, the Member States will submit their proposals for Commissioners. However, it is unlikely that a sufficient number of female Commissioners will be nominated. The hearings of the nominees will take place in the European Parliament September and October.