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EU nominee von der Leyen faces sceptical parliament

Update: July, 16/2019 - 10:10

 

 German Federal Minister of Defense Ursula von der Leyen has announced her resignation as she prepares her future role in European Commission, according to a note presented to the German armed forces by her on Monday. Von der Leyen was proposed earlier this month to head the European Commission, replacing the current president Jean-Claude Juncker for the next five years. — XINHUA/VNA Photo

STRASBOURG — Was an intense two-week political operation to woo European lawmakers long enough to win German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen the top job in Brussels?

The 60-year-old conservative will replace Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission if she secures a majority in the Strasbourg assembly. If she fails - and Tuesday's secret ballot could be close - then Europe faces a summer of institutional infighting between parliament and the 28 EU leaders.

And if her victory is secured only thanks to eurosceptic members, her position will be weakened even before she takes over as the commission's first female leader in November.

She has had barely two weeks to make her case since the leaders declared her the nominee after a tense three-day summit, casting aside candidates backed by parliament.

But von der Leyen has responded with a series of written promises to the main centre-right, socialist and liberal blocs that she hopes will get her the necessary 374 votes.

And she announced on Monday that she would step down from Angela Merkel's German government this week whatever happens in the vote, underlining her European ambitions.

The three main mainstream groups are expected to back her, but the Greens and the far-left will not, and the vote is a secret ballot that could contain surprises.

"It will be a small 'yes'," one well-placed European source predicted.

"She'll be elected with fewer votes than Juncker was five years ago."

The former Luxembourg premier received 422 endorsements, and anything less than 400 would be seen as disappointing for the German veteran minister and mother-of-seven.

The vote is scheduled to begin in the Strasbourg assembly at 6:00pm (1600 GMT) and the result announced around one-and-a-half to two hours later.

It will be keenly followed in the Brussels EU institutions and in the 28 European capitals.

The new head of the European Commission is due to take power on November 1, immediately after the latest deadline for Britain's departure from the bloc.

He or she will have to manage the Brexit aftermath, Italy shirking its debt targets and efforts by Poland and Hungary to flout the EU-mandated rules of liberal democracy.

For that, the commission president will need a reliable majority in Strasbourg, but May's elections threw up a more fragmented EU parliament than ever.

Frenetic horse-trading

At the same time, the pan-European political groups that came together after the vote are frustrated by the way von der Leyen's candidacy was foisted on them.

Under the EU Treaty, the head of the commission is nominated by member state leaders, if necessary by a qualified majority vote.

But many in parliament and in the Brussels EU institutions wanted the 28 heads of government to choose one of the parliamentary groups' lead candidates.

Instead, they cast aside those names and - after intense closed-door negotiations - chose to call on von der Leyen.

France's President Emmanuel Macron had insisted on the leaders' prerogative to choose, and Germany's Angela Merkel was happy to find a role for an ally.

The biggest single group, her and Merkel's conservative European People's Party (EPP), will back her, despite seeing their parliamentary leader Manfred Weber cast aside.

But the centre-right's 182 votes will not be enough by themselves, and the socialist S&D with 154 members and the liberal Renew Europe's 108 are unconvinced.

The Greens, meanwhile, say she will not get their 74 votes, and the hard-left GUE/NGL will also withhold their 41.

The far-right Identity and Democracy, which includes Italy's League, France's National Rally and Germany's AFD, says it is "unlikely" they will back Merkel's ally.

Which leaves the right-wing eurosceptic ECR, weakened by the loss of many British Tories but still 62-strong thanks mainly to Poland's PiS governing party.

The ECR has promised to be "pragmatic" and concerned officials admit it might be members hostile to closer EU integration that get von der Leyen over the line. — AFP

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