Von der Leyen spells out priorities in effort to secure top EU job

Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen made her case to EU lawmakers on Wednesday in a charm offensive aimed at securing the European Parliament’s approval for her nomination as president of the European Commission.

Von der Leyen – currently Germany’s defence minister – flexed her European credentials, speaking French, German and English, while stressing an emphasis on rule of law, climate change and citizens’ involvement in shaping the future of the European Union.

During a hearing with the liberal Renew Europe group in parliament, von der Leyen pledged to work on introducing mechanisms to scrutinize the implementation of rule of law in each member state.

In her first detailed statements on her plans for the commission, she showed support for proposals to hold a Europe-wide citizens’ dialogue to consult on the future of the bloc. “This is a brilliant idea,” she said.

Von der Leyen, whose nomination by EU leaders came as a surprise last week, must garner an absolute majority in parliament to secure the presidency. The vote could take place as early as Tuesday, but she faces an uphill struggle to get parliamentarians on board.

Many EU lawmakers, especially from the centre-left camp, are upset that leaders did not nominate one of the so-called Spitzenkandidaten (lead candidates) representing the parliament’s major political blocs in EU-wide elections in May.

Most parliamentary groups had vowed that they would only approve a lead candidate who campaigned in the elections, a requirement that the long-serving German minister does not meet.

Von der Leyen’s name was put forward after none of the top candidates could muster a majority among EU leaders or lawmakers.

She extended an olive branch to the parliament on Wednesday, acknowledging they had got off to a “bumpy start.”

“I cannot heal the past, it is a fact,” she said, before praising the socialist lead candidate Frans Timmermanns and liberal candidate Margrethe Vestager, pledging to give both major portfolios in her commission.

She also committed herself to reforming the Spitzenkandidat process to strengthen the role of parliament and thus further democratize the bloc before the next European elections.

Despite these overtures, the socialist bloc has yet to decide on whether it will back her to take over at the helm of the EU’s executive branch.

“We will take a decision next week,” said Iratxe Garcia, the head of the Socialists and Democrats group, after a closed-door meeting earlier Wednesday with the German candidate, whose nomination she had previously described as “deeply disappointing.”

Von der Leyen herself belongs to the centre-right European People’s Party, the EU’s largest group by parliamentary seats.

Von der Leyen also said she would want to see the EU achieve net climate neutrality by 2050, an issue that brought EU leaders to loggerheads in June.

Later on Wednesday, von der Leyen is due to appear before the Greens, who netted a massive surge in votes in May and are likely to be more critical of her bid. The group described her nomination as “a backroom stich-up.”

The presidential nominee also touched on Brexit, saying that a backstop provision aimed at guaranteeing an open Irish border is “precious, important and has to be defended.”

The backstop, a controversial clause in the withdrawal deal negotiated between Brussels and London, is deemed crucial to preserving peace On the island of Ireland.

However, it has been a key stumbling block to Britain’s ratification of the withdrawal deal, as many fear that it could keep the country locked in to close ties to the EU.