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Explainer: Von der Leyen's rocky path to confirmation as EU Commission chief

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union lawmakers are likely to confirm Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen as president of the bloc’s executive Commission in a secret ballot next Tuesday, but there is a risk she could fall short of the absolute majority she needs.

FILE PHOTO: German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, who has been nominated as European Commission President, briefs the media after the Conference of Presidents of European Parliament's party blocs in Brussels, Belgium, July 10, 2019. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

Many members of the European Parliament are angry that EU leaders, horse-trading over top posts at a bruising summit last week, brushed aside the so-called “Spitzenkandidaten”, the main parliamentary groups’ candidates for the job.

If the 60-year-old conservative German defense minister scrapes through with a slim majority she could face a shaky start to her five-year term, especially if she has to rely on the far right and nationalists from eastern Europe to get her across the line.

Worse, if it emerges that British members of the European Parliament swung the vote for von der Leyen, there may be questions about her legitimacy after the United Kingdom leaves the EU on Oct. 31, the current deadline for Brexit.

Von der Leyen would be the first woman to lead the powerful European Commission, which oversees trade negotiations, antitrust rulings and broad policy for 500 million Europeans.

If lawmakers reject von der Leyen, who was nominated by EU leaders on July 2 in what some branded a backroom deal, it would be another reputational blow for the bloc, rocked in the last decade by the euro zone debt crisis, Britain’s decision to leave and the rise of far-right and far-left eurosceptic parties.


Von der Leyen will address the 751-member European Parliament in Strasbourg on Tuesday, and then lawmakers will hold a debate and proceed to vote for or against her in a secret ballot at 6 p.m. (1600 GMT).

She needs the backing of an absolute majority, which would normally be 376. The assembly is currently four members short, however, which means she may need 374 votes from a total of 747.

Cobbling together that number has been complicated by May’s elections to the parliament, which delivered a more fragmented assembly with a bigger far-right contingent.

The vote could be postponed if lawmakers needed more time to make up their mind about von der Leyen, a diplomat said.

A second diplomat said it was very hard to see someone taking the responsibility for striking her down, but that the secret ballot made things more complicated.

“Things for now are not looking great, there will be many last-minute calls to be made,” the diplomat added.

Von der Leyen, who hails from the center-right wing of European politics led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, can count on the votes of lawmakers from the conservative European People’s Party (EPP), which has 182 seats.

The Greens, who have 74 seats, and the European United Left–Nordic Green Left (GUE-NGL), with 41, decided this week not to back von der Leyen, making support from the center-left crucial.

It is unclear how much backing she has from the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), who have 153 seats, and the Renew Europe liberals, who have 108. Diplomats said lawmakers from these groups have come under pressure from their countries’ governments to vote for von der Leyen.

Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD), junior partners in the ruling coalition in which von der Leyen has served, oppose her nomination, describing her to their S&D allies as “inadequate and inappropriate” for the role.

Merkel said on Thursday their stance was “not an easy situation” for her coalition. She was the only EU leader to abstain in a vote last week on the top jobs package after she consulted the SPD, which rejected the deal.

The right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), will decide just ahead of the vote whether to support von der Leyen, but officials say the group is divided over the issue.

“The most awkward thing would be a slight majority based on support from the extremes,” said Maria Demertzis, deputy director of Brussels-based think tank Bruegel.

“But at the same time, a slim majority in the parliament is less of a problem when she already has the support of the ... EU member states that have chosen her.”

If von der Leyen is rejected by the European Parliament, the ball would be back in the court of the Council of EU leaders, who would have one month to come up with another candidate.

Additional reporting by Daphne Psaledakis, Robin Emmott and Peter Maushagen; Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Catherine Evans