STRASBOURG (Reuters) – Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen on Tuesday took a step closer to becoming the first female European Commission head after her vision of a greener, fairer and rule-based Europe won over liberal lawmakers.
Securing their support and those of the socialists on top of backing from conservatives would ensure her legitimacy and help her to tackle controversial issues such as climate change, trade and maintaining democratic norms in the 28-country bloc.
If European Parliament lawmakers reject von der Leyen, it will be a serious blow for the bloc, beset by challenges ranging from trade to Brexit and erosion of democratic norms.
It would also create a headache for EU leaders who would have to come up with another candidate in a month.
“My group will support Ms von der Leyen today. We are looking forward to work intensively with her to move Europe forward. There is a lot of work ahead of us. Let’s renew Europe together!” said Dacian Ciolos, head of liberal group Renew Europe.
Von der Leyen, who this week resigned as German defense minister, regardless of the EU lawmakers’ decision, needs 374 votes for an absolute majority.
The 60-year-old conservative can count on 182 votes from the conservative European People’s Party and needs to win over the 153 members of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats and the 108 from the Renew Europe liberals. Lawmakers will vote in secret at 1600 GMT.
However, her nomination as a compromise candidate as part of horse-trading between EU leaders has angered some lawmakers who had put forward their own candidates.
Von der Leyen set out her climate goals, going further than current targets, a move likely to please both socialists and liberals.
She had already pledged the ambitious targets in letters to the two groups the previous day.
“Our most pressing challenge is keeping our planet healthy. This is the greatest responsibility and opportunity of our times. I want Europe to become the first climate-neutral continent in the world by 2050,” von der Leyen told the parliament.
She said she would put forward a Green Deal for Europe in her first 100 days in office, turn parts of the European Investment Bank into a Climate Bank and introduce a Carbon Border Tax.
She pledged to complete the bloc’s capital market union to provide funding to small- and medium-sized enterprises, embrace a more growth-friendly fiscal policy and guarantee a minimum wage to European workers.
Von der Leyen promised to defend the rule of law, took aim at U.S. tech giants’ low tax bill in Europe and said she would update EU-wide norms for tackling the migrant issue.
“We need to address the legitimate concerns of many and look at how we can overcome our differences,” she said.
In her biggest cross-party promise, von der Leyen offered to help allow the chamber the right to propose new legislation – currently the Commission’s prerogative.
She called for unity, trying to win over the fragmented parliament, where eurosceptics made big gains in May elections and Britain’s Brexit party emerged as the biggest in the legislature.
“Whoever wants to see Europe strengthen, grow and flourish will have me as a passionate fighter on their side. But whoever wants Europe to weaken, divide and abandon its values will have me as a bitter opponent,” von der Leyen said.
“If we are united on the inside, nobody will divide us on the outside,” added von der Leyen, who grew up in Brussels and switched fluently between German, French and English in her speech.
In a sign that her pledges may be acceptable, Iratxe Garcia, the leader of the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), said that the German conservative was moving in the right direction but socialists want binding objectives.
Europe’s liberal Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager in a tweet described von der Leyen’s speech as “strong, warm and balanced”, suggesting that the liberals may be leaning towards a yes vote.
The kind of support von der Leyen gets could complicate her job as head of the EU executive in charge of trade negotiations, economic and climate policy for 500 million Europeans and antitrust rulings involving powerful tech giants.
Backing from the far-right European Conservatives and Reformists, nationalists from eastern Europe, and British members of the European Parliament, however, could cast doubts on her legitimacy and weaken efforts to maintain democratic norms.
Additional reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel, Philip Blenkinsop and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels and Alexandra Regida in Strasbourg; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, William Maclean