Ursula von der Leyen: Baptism of fire

European Commission President-designate, Ursula von der Leyen, went on a charm offensive in Parliament this week. But, as Lorna Hutchinson reports, the mission did not go quite as planned.

Ursula von der Leyen  | Photo credit: European Parliament Audiovisual

By Lorna Hutchinson

Lorna Hutchinson is Deputy Editor of The Parliament Magazine

12 Jul 2019

Arriving at her second parliamentary hearing on Wednesday, Ursula von der Leyen was the epitome of self-assured composure.

Having already spent several hours in a closed-door meeting with the Socialists, she arrived at her livestreamed Renew Europe hearing and introduced herself to the Liberals.

“I was born here, in Brussels. For the first thirteen years of my life I lived in Tervuren. I went to the European School and from the outset I really lived and breathed the spirit of Europe.”


The ‘get-to-know-you’ segment of the hearing gave many MEPs an insight into von der Leyen, having been blindsided by her eleventh-hour nomination by the European Council as a compromise candidate.

Cutting to the chase, she went straight to one of Renew Europe’s main concerns - her climate change stance.

“We all know, here in the room, that we’re running out of time and we have to act. I fully commit to the goal to be climate neutral by 2050. I want us, as the European Union, to be the first continent that is climate neutral.”

“And for that we will have to be more ambitious when it comes to our 2030 climate goals. I think we have to widen the system of emission trade, the ETS, on aviation, on the maritime sector, we have to look closely at how we accompany the transition in our industries towards climate neutrality, because this will need a lot of investment.”

“Greens co-leader Philippe Lamberts’ expression alternated between a look of bemusement to just plain underwhelmed”

“On the other hand, there is a huge opportunity in the economic development of climate neutrality, so if we go first on topics like green financing, green bonds, if we invest heavily in the research and associated technologies. If we are the frontrunner here, if we transform our European Investment Bank into the European Climate Bank, a green bank, we will be role models worldwide.”

She added, “Yes, climate change is an issue that has to be tackled, but there are many opportunities within it.”

In the ensuing two-hour grilling by Renew Europe, von der Leyen showed her political skills. A skilled tactician, she deftly avoided being drawn into straight ‘yes/no’ answers, something not always appreciated.

Nevertheless, she did score points on a few issues. First was her commitment to deliver a gender-balanced European Commission.

“I want a Commission that is 50 percent women and 50 percent men. So I will ask the heads of state and government to present two people, a man and a woman - this is what we are looking for.”

Second, von der Leyen’s firm support for Remain on Brexit appeared to go down well.

“Brexit is not the end of something - Brexit is the beginning of future relations and it’s of absolute importance that we will have good cooperation and good relations. I still hope that you remain, and it is in our interest to have you sort things out,” she said, adding with a cautionary note that the “tone and attitude” with which Brexit happens would be “crucial.”

“A skilled tactician, she deftly avoided being drawn into straight ‘yes/no’ answers, something not always appreciated”

On the backstop, she said it was, “of utmost importance. Having the backstop in the Brexit deal is precious, important and has to be defended.”

Arriving at her third group meeting of the day, this time a livestreamed hearing with the Greens, the reception was palpably cooler.

During her introductory remarks and subsequent question and answer session, Greens co-leader Philippe Lamberts’ expression alternated between a look of bemusement to just plain underwhelmed.

Voices rose and tempers frayed as von der Leyen continued her tactic of ‘answering, but not really answering’, and it became crystal-clear that the Greens were not on board.

There was some light relief when UK MEP Molly Scott Cato quizzed her on Brexit and seemed satisfied with the response - a rare occurrence in this hearing.

Scott Cato said that although not all of von der Leyen’s answers had been received “very warmly” during the hearing, she was “delighted to hear” her express her hope that Brexit would never happen, adding, “because I agree with you about that.”

In response to the question “what are you going to do to help the majority of Brits who now want to stay in the EU to succeed in stopping Brexit?” von der Leyen said “If the UK needs more time we should give it to them.”

Scottish MEP Alyn Smith followed up by asking if she would confirm whether the UK can unilaterally revoke Article 50 “up to the very last minute, without political consequences.”

Von der Leyen replied, “Yes, the door is open because we want you in. The political consequences are way harder when it comes to the other way around.”

Despite this, the Greens emerged thoroughly disappointed, tweeting afterwards: “We’ll vote against Commission President nominee von der Leyen. We didn’t hear any concrete proposal, be it on rule of law or on climate. We’ve been elected on a mandate for change and don’t see how change will be possible with this candidate.”

A further livestreamed meeting with the GUE/NGL group on Thursday went equally badly, with the group tweeting: “After listening to von der Leyen this morning, our group has decided that we will not support her candidacy. Her responses were insufficient to satisfy the basic aspirations of EU citizens.”

Nevertheless, with no such words of condemnation from the Socialists, the Liberals, the ECR, or, of course, von der Leyen’s own EPP, her nomination still has a fighting chance at the key Parliament vote, scheduled for 16 July - so perhaps still all to play for.

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