Ursula Von der Leyen’s Brussels team wins approval from MEPs

Via Financial Times

Ursula von der Leyen has secured strong backing from the European Parliament for her promise to lead a “geopolitical” EU executive that will take on US tech companies and tackle climate change.

The former German defence minister will lead the next European Commission from December 1 after MEPs overwhelmingly approved her team of 26 commissioners on Wednesday. Ms von der Leyen’s team won 461 votes in favour, with 157 against and 89 abstentions.

The cross-party support contrasts with the narrow nine-seat margin in favour of Ms von der Leyen when she was confirmed as the commission’s next president in July. “I am humbled by this overwhelming majority,” she said. “I consider this a vote of confidence for an agenda of change. For a better climate, digitalisation and a geopolitical commission.”

Brussels’ next executive will take over at a sensitive time for the EU, with the start of the global COP25 climate summit in Madrid on Monday and a UK general election on December 12 that could determine Britain’s expected exit from the bloc. Talks also loom over the next EU multiyear budget, which is due to take effect in 2021.

Ms von der Leyen will also be thrown into a tussle with the US over trade tariffs and divisions in Europe about dealing with foreign technology companies such as China’s Huawei. She will also have to mend divisions among EU capitals such as Paris and Berlin over Brussels enlargement policy and the role of Nato.

Speaking before her vote Ms von der Leyen said her commission would be a “champion of multilateralism”. She insisted that despite tensions with US president Donald Trump’s White House, Europe “shares the same destiny with our transatlantic partners”. 

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“Yes, we have issues, without any doubt. But our ties have lasted the test of time”, said Ms von der Leyen.

The president-elect reserved some of her harshest words for global tech companies, promising to protect the “digital identity” of European citizens against a backdrop of increasing use of artificial intelligence.

“The raw material of digitalisation is data. With every click we feed the algorithms that then influence our own behaviour. The protection of a person’s digital identity is the overriding priority”, she said. 

The commission is to take office a month later than planned, after delays caused by MEPs’ rejection of an unprecedented three candidates during more than six weeks of hearings.

In the final investiture vote, the commission won the backing of the parliament’s three biggest groups — the centre-right conservatives, social democrats and liberals — along with a number of MEPs from the Eurosceptic alliance that includes Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party.

Green MEPs abstained from the vote, while an anti-EU populist group that included Italy’s far-right League and France’s National Rally rejected the commission.

To win over her sceptics and build a clear majority in the parliament Ms von der Leyen was forced to find new nominees from Hungary, France and Romania after the original candidates were rejected by MEPs. 

Ms von der Leyen’s majority will face its first test on December 11 when Brussels unveils a “green deal” that will raise the EU’s emissions-cutting targets for 2030 and launch a transition fund for poorer member states. 

“The European Green Deal is a must for the health of our planet and our people — and for our economy,” Ms von der Leyen said before the vote. 

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MEPs said the positive vote was not a “blank cheque” for the incoming commission. 

Ska Keller, co-leader of the Greens, said her party had “clear concerns” about some of the new college but urged the president to “makes this commission the climate commission”.