Germany’s von der Leyen elected as first woman to lead European Commission

German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen was narrowly elected president of the European Commission on Tuesday after winning over sceptical lawmakers.

Germany's von der Leyen elected as first woman to lead European Commission
von der Leyen after her election as EU head. Photo: DPA

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

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”.

SEE ALSO: Germany's von der Leyen steps down as defence minister to run for EU's top job

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.”

Top-selling Bild daily's website cheered her appointment with the simple and enthusiastic headline “Ja! Ja! Ja! Ursula!”

The 'soloist'

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”.

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Merkel’s favoured successor AKK to become German Defence Minister

Chancellor Angela Merkel's favoured successor and the head of her CDU party will become the country's next Defence Minister in a surprise move, after Ursula von der Leyen was elected European Commission president.

Merkel's favoured successor AKK to become German Defence Minister
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Angela Merkel and Ursula von der Leyen in 2017. Photo: DPA

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, best known to Germans as “AKK”, will be appointed on Wednesday during a handover in Berlin with her predecessor von der Leyen and the first vice president of the Bundesrat upper house, which confirmed the news in a statement.

Von der Leyen, who had served as Defence Minister since 2013, is stepping down to become the first woman to hold the EU's top job after MEPs narrowly backed her in a Tuesday vote.

The surprise announcement for her replacement came after various media reports stated that Health Minister Jens Spahn was to take the Defence Minister position.

The news about Spahn, who was seen as a favourite to snap up the job, had been confirmed by the Bundeswehr (German army) and government circles – but a short while later, there was a shock change.

Some media reported Wednesday morning that Spahn did not want to take up the job, which is considered a tough gig.

READ ALSO: Germany's von der Leyen elected as first woman to lead European Commission

'Fast replacement'

The move has been welcomed in political circles. Thomas Strobl, Kramp-Karrenbauer's deputy in the centre-right party called it a “good surprise”.

Before Kramp-Karrenbauer, who is widely seen as the chancellor's chosen heir, was announced as the new minister, Merkel had said there would be a “very fast replacement”.

“The defence ministry, the defence minister, hold command and military authority. We cannot leave this post empty for long,” she said.

According to DPA, there are no other changes planned for the federal cabinet. Kramp-Karrenbauer is expected to take up the appointment around 11am on Wednesday. That means Merkel will welcome her favoured successor into the government team on her 65th birthday.

It will be the first ministerial post for Kramp-Karrenbauer, who was born in Saarland near the French border, and has become a leading figure in German politics – but not without controversy.

Sometimes called “mini-Merkel”, she has been poised to take over as chancellor since becoming CDU chief in December after Merkel announced she would not seek another term when her current one ends in 2021.

However the 56-year-old's appointment to the difficult post on Tuesday evening has come as a surprise to many, after she faced strong criticism for the CDU's poor results in May's European Parliament election.

It was also previously thought that Kramp-Karrenbauer would not go into Merkel's cabinet and instead concentrate on her task as CDU leader.