The 60-year-old conservative was nominated to become the first woman to hold Brussels' top job last month by the leaders of the bloc's 28 member states, but to the annoyance of MEPs.
The European Parliament would have preferred a candidate chosen by one of its political groups, but in the end 383 members of the 751-member assembly
voted for her.
She will now replace Jean-Claude Juncker as head of the EU executive on November 1st, one day after Britain is due to leave the union, and serve a five-year term as head of the bloc's executive.
“The task ahead of us humbles me. It's a big responsibility and my work starts now,” the polyglot mother-of-seven told lawmakers, thanking all members “who decided to vote for me today.”
“My message to all of you is let us work together constructively, because the endeavour is a united and strong Europe,” she said, urging capitals to nominate an equal number of men and women to her commission.
If von der Leyen had lost, Brussels faced a summer of infighting instead of preparing for Brexit, battling Italy over its debt and confronting Hungary and Poland over their alleged threats to European law and values.
Instead, she won, but only narrowly.
And Poland's governing PiS party — which is facing EU action over rule of law issues and is reluctant to adopt rapid cuts in carbon emissions — was quick to remind her that her majority relied on their support.
In Brussels, officials privately admitted that the numbers were weaker than hoped, but said they had pushed on with the vote to seal the deal before the nominee was forced to make more concessions.
'A majority is a majority'
At a news conference after the vote, von der Leyen played down the narrowness of her win, noting that a “majority is a majority” and acknowledging that some had opposed the nomination process.
“Two weeks ago I didn't have a majority because no one knew me. There was a lot of resentment because I wasn't a lead candidate,” she admitted, adding that she was happy to have built a majority so quickly.
“It's a good base to start with,” she said. The veteran minister will head briefly to Berlin on Wednesday to say farewell to her government and the German armed forces, then return to work on building an administration.
In Berlin, Chancellor Angela Merkel praised her long-time ally as a “committed and convincing European” who would “tackle with great vigour the challenges facing us as the European Union”.
President Emmanuel Macron tweeted that France would be by von der Leyen's
side: “Today, Europe bears your face. The face of engagement, ambition and
Félicitations @vonderleyen ! Aujourd’hui l’Europe a votre visage. Celui de l’engagement, de l’ambition et du progrès. Nous pouvons être fiers de l’Europe. Nous serons à vos côtés pour la faire avancer.
— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) July 16, 2019
The president of the European Council of EU leaders, Donald Tusk, also congratulated her, declaring her, “a passionate fighter for Europe's unity.”
From the left, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez also offered his congratulations, but said von der Leyen must push for “a more social, fair, sustainable and feminist Europe.”
Von der Leyen has had only a short time since the 28 EU leaders nominated her to win over the main centre-right EPP, socialist S&D and liberal Renew Europe blocs she hoped would get her the necessary 374 votes.
In the hours between her speech and the start of voting, party officials suggested she could count on the centre-right, almost all of the liberals and maybe two-thirds of the left.
The election was by secret ballot, but the tight margin suggested that many MEPs from both her own conservatives and the rival socialist group abstained or opposed her.
On the eve of the vote, the long-time ally of Merkel and member of her centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU) vowed that she was hoping “to serve Europe with all my strength”.
Merkel praised von der Leyen as a “committed and convincing European”who would “tackle with great vigour the challenges facing us as the European Union”.
She would be “the fist female President of the European Commission and the first German in more than 50 years at the head of the European executive”, Merkel said in a statement.
“Even if I lose a long-standing minister today, I win a new partner in Brussels. I am therefore looking forward to good cooperation.”
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas of the Social Democrats, reacting on Twitter, praised the fact von der Leyen had “promoted a united & strong EU, on which we now want to work together with her”.
“Time to look ahead, because the world is not waiting for Europe.”
Gratulation an @vonderleyen zur Wahl als Präsidentin der @EU_Commission! Sie hat in ihrer Rede für eine vereinte & starke EU geworben, an der wir nun gemeinsam arbeiten wollen. Zeit, den Blick nach vorne zu richten, denn die Welt wartet nicht auf Europa. #EuropeUnited pic.twitter.com/pFXnaRfBcE
— Heiko Maas ?? (@HeikoMaas) July 16, 2019
Top-selling Bild daily's website cheered her appointment with the simple and enthusiastic headline “Ja! Ja! Ja! Ursula!”
Von der Leyen, a Brussels-born political blueblood and London School of Economics graduate, is the only minister to have served with Merkel since the beginning of her marathon reign in 2005 and previously ran the family affairs and labour ministries.
A life-long high achiever, von der Leyen has at times drawn envy and animosity for her best-in-class style, the persona of a super-mum with iron discipline and a perfect hairdo that some voters find unnerving.
She was once dubbed “the soloist” for her go-it-alone style, and a recent poll by Bild am Sonntag newspaper rated her as the second-least popular member of Merkel's cabinet.
A fluent English and French speaker, she has however built a solid network of allies across Europe, crucially including French President Emmanuel Macron, and launched a strong charm offensive in recent days.
Nonetheless, her success is far from assured given widespread anger that EU leaders, after days of backroom wrangling, chose von der Leyen rather than a European parliamentarian who had campaigned for votes.
Von der Leyen faces strong opposition from Social Democrats, Greens and other leftist politicians — especially SPD politicians from her own country.
In a hard-hitting paper handed out in Brussels, the SPD listed reasons they deemed von der Leyen “an inadequate and unsuitable candidate”, among them Germany's poor military preparedness and past accusations of plagiarism in her doctoral dissertation.
Others praise the candidate highly, including the SPD's former interior minister Otto Schily, who labelled her “a highly competent, intelligent, experienced politician who really has all the qualities that are critical for a commission president”.