Ursula von der Leyen becomes first female European Commission President

MEPs have elected, by a slim majority, Ursula von der Leyen to the EU’s top executive post.

Ursula von der Leyen  | Photo credit: European Parliament Audiovisual

By Brian Johnson

Brian Johnson is Managing Editor of The Parliament Magazine

16 Jul 2019

Von der Leyen managed to turn around a potential defeat to win a tight overall majority of 383, nine over the absolute majority required.

In a short acceptance speech, Von der Leyen said she felt “honoured and overwhelmed” and thanked MEPs for “putting their trust” in her.

“It’s trust in a Europe ready to fight for the future rather than each other. The task ahead humbles me. It’s a big responsibility and the work starts today. My message is, let us work constructively for a united, strong Europe.”


The result was closer than many EU watchers expected despite last-minute support from Parliament’s socialist group.

In a statement just before voting began, Socialist group leader in the European Parliament, Iratxe García, said that Von der Leyen’s written commitments - outlined in two eleventh-hour letters on Monday - to reforms demanded by García’s group as well as the German’s responses to questions raised during a plenary debate on Tuesday morning, meant that the majority of S&D MEPs would support her candidacy.

“We were very sceptical when the candidate came to our group last week, but over the past few days we have to admit that she embraced our group’s core demands, with specific proposals for legislation,” said García.

Talking to journalists at a press conference immediately after the vote, a relieved looking Von der Leyen said the last two weeks had been the most intense in her political life.

"The task ahead humbles me. It’s a big responsibility and the work starts today. My message is, let us work constructively for a united, strong Europe" Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission President-elect

She thanked her transition team, “Without whom I’d never have made it through the last two weeks.”

She said her election was a “good starting point” and that she intended to further win the trust and confidence of MEPs.

She added that she wanted to take Europe forward over the next five years towards a climate-friendly continent, a Europe that serves people, an economically-strong and digital Europe and a Europe based on the rule of law and democracy.

The new Commission President also reiterated that she wanted to see as may women as men put forward by EU Member States to fill the new Commission college and said that she was looking forward to “spending her summer in Brussels” as she prepares her work programme and works through appointing her new team.

Asked whether she was concerned about her slim margin of victory, Von der Leyen said, “a majority is a majority” and that she was happy that after an exhausting two weeks “we’ve managed to forge a pro-European majority.”

She described herself as pragmatic, transparent and open and willing to work with all the pro-European parties including the Greens - who had not supported her election - and that becoming Commission President “was like coming home.”

“I’ve always wanted to get back to my Brussels roots. I’m happy to be back home.”

Parliament’s Liberal-focused Renew Europe group had also already confirmed that the majority of its members would be supporting von der Leyen before the vote took place.

In a press conference just ahead of the vote, Renew Europe group leader Dacian Cioloș said, “Our group will support von der Leyen in a very “large way”.

His group’s backing came thanks in part to the German’s commitment to put in place, by the end of the current mandate, an improved Spitzenkandidaten process incorporating transnational lists.