November 27, 2019 / 1:02 AM / 9 days ago

New EU chief vows to fight climate threat, boost growth

STRASBOURG (Reuters) - Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen vowed on Wednesday to step up the fight against climate change while expanding economic growth as EU lawmakers’ granted final approval for the bloc’s new executive she will lead from Dec. 1.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen gestures before the vote of Members of the European Parliament on her college of commissioners at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, November 27, 2019. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

EU lawmakers confirmed von der Leyen as European Commission president along with her new team of 26 commissioners, with 461 voting in favor and 157 against.

“We don’t have a moment to waste any more on fighting climate change,” von der Leyen told the assembly shortly before the vote in a speech delivered in English, French and German. “It will need massive investment.”

But she said green initiatives would have to be “inclusive” - a gesture to member states such as Poland that still rely on coal for jobs, energy and growth.

She said any new EU trade deals would include clauses protecting the environment, and that the European Investment Bank would become the bloc’s climate transition bank.

Von der Leyen will be the first woman to hold the EU’s top job. The 61-year-old former German defense minister, who is succeeding Jean-Claude Juncker, will face a full in-tray including economic reform and migration as well as climate change.

For a graphics on new EU leadership click, here

The Commission proposes laws for the EU on everything from budgets to energy, negotiates trade deals around the world on behalf of the EU’s 500 million citizens and acts as the bloc’s competition watchdog, approving company mergers and setting rules for global tech giants such as Facebook and Google.

BREXIT CHALLENGE

In her speech, she called for flexibility to be allowed under EU rules to help economies grow and promised to keep up pressure on upholding democratic standards - signaling no respite for the ex-communist states such as Poland and Hungary, that have locked horns with the bloc over the rule of law.

Von der Leyen, a close ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel, said the EU’s door remained open for Western Balkan countries hoping for membership. On Brexit, she said she would always be a staunch “Remainer” at heart.

She said that while the EU and the United States under President Donald Trump “have issues”, they were bound together.

She said she would start her five-year term on Sunday by contacting G7 and G20 countries, before heading for the U.N. climate conference in Madrid on Monday.

She expects to present her proposal for a revamp of the EU’s migration policies next spring. Building consensus among fractious member states on the politically sensitive issue of the EU’s next long-term budget from 2021 will be another major challenge for von der Leyen.

The new executive had been due to take office on Nov. 1 but the politically fragmented European Parliament rejected three of the nominees, forcing a delay. The executive normally comprises one commissioner from each EU state, though Britain, which is due to exit the bloc, has declined to name a representative.

FILE PHOTO: EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks at the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party congress in Leipzig, Germany, November 22, 2019. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

The new Commission may face legal challenges due to Brexit. Prime Minister Boris Johnson plans to finally take Britain out of the EU on January 31 if his Conservative Party wins a parliamentary majority in a Dec. 12 election.

As Britain currently remains an EU member after three delays to its departure, it is legally required to have a commissioner in Brussels. Its refusal to name one could expose the new Commission’s decisions to legal risks.

The team for the new Commission includes 12 women - the closest it has come to gender parity.

Additional reporting by Jan Strupczewski, Francesco Guarascio, Jonas Ekblom and Marine Strauss, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Alison Williams

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