New EU chief Ursula von der Leyen makes first trip to Brussels

The EU's new president-elect Ursula von der Leyen with EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels on July 4, 2019.
The EU's new president-elect Ursula von der Leyen with EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels on July 4, 2019.PHOTO: REUTERS

BRUSSELS  (AFP) – EU president-elect Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday (July 4) made her first trip to Brussels since being nominated as senior officials sought to shore up support for her appointment in the European Parliament.

After talks with Jean-Claude Juncker, the man she is to replace as European Commission president, current German defence minister von der Leyen tweeted she had come to seek “smart advice” as she prepares her plan for the next five years.

She must win the approval of the highly fragmented European Parliament, where there have been grumblings about the deal to appoint her, which was cooked up by EU national leaders over three days of tortuous summit wrangling.

“My priorities will be to seek smart advice, listen to all parliamentary groups and together work out the best plan for the future of Europe,” von der Leyen tweeted, a day after talks with MEPs at the Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France.

The multilingual von der Leyen – the first woman to be named to lead the EU’s executive arm – sent out the same message in Englsh, French and German after a warm welcome from Juncker at commission headquarters in Brussels.

Juncker, whose five-year term has been marked by Brexit and the migrant crisis – two of the biggest upheavals ever to hit the EU – tweeted that he was “delighted” to receive von der Leyen.

“A true European, we are on the same page when it comes to speaking up for EU interests,” he wrote.

 
 
 
 

Juncker’s spokesman Margaritis Schinas described it as a “friendly meeting between two true Europeans who have known each other for years”.

The Parliament vote on von der Leyen is scheduled for mid-July, and she would take over on Nov 1 – the day after Britain is currently due to leave the bloc, meaning she could be facing a chaotic “no deal” Brexit on her first day in office.

Aside from Brexit, she will face challenges ranging from a simmering trade row with US President Donald Trump, the Iranian nuclear crisis, the challenge of an increasingly assertive Russia and China – not to mention trying to pep up Europe’s sluggish economy.

CHARM OFFENSIVE 

But all of this will have to wait for her approval by the Parliament – which is by no means a given.

Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council of member states, appeared in Strasbourg to try to cement von der Leyen’s candidature, urging MEPs to unite and support her and avoid a messy tussle between EU institutions.

“We must respect each other and cooperate with each other, because only then can we build trust and change Europe for the better,” Tusk told the Parliament, sitting this week in Strasbourg.

Tusk – who led the summit talks that eventually installed von der Leyen – will meet the 60-year-old, who has served in the German cabinet since 2005, for separate talks on Thursday afternoon.

Von der Leyen herself wasted no time in her campaign to court MEPs, travelling to Strasbourg on Wednesday, less than 24 hours after winning the leaders’ nod, for talks with her centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) bloc.

European parliament elections in May left the EPP – long the dominant force in EU politics – weakened, and while it remains the biggest single bloc in the assembly, von der Leyen will need the backing of other groups as well, such as the socialists and the liberals.

After a major electoral breakthrough by environmental parties, Tusk also called for the Greens bloc to be fully involved in the nomination process.

“I am fully confident that cooperation with the Greens and their presence in the EU decision-making bodies will benefit not only the governing coalition, but Europe as a whole,” Tusk said.