Sunday 18 August 2019

Explainer: Who is Ursula von der Leyen and what would her EU presidency mean for Ireland?

Ursula von der Leyen (AP)
Ursula von der Leyen (AP)
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

MEPs will vote tonight on whether or not to appoint a woman as European Commission President for the first time. But who is Ursula von der Leyen and what could her presidency mean for Ireland?

Q: Who is Ursula von der Leyen?

The outgoing German Defence Minister is the choice of European leaders to be the next Commission President. Along with her native German, Ms Von der Leyen (60) speaks French and English and she is a doctor by profession. She has seven children and has also served as German Family Minister.

She faces what is expected to be a close vote in the European Parliament this evening on whether or not her appointment as Commission President will be ratified. She will be the first woman to secure the role if she gets over the line tonight.

Q: Why does it matter who serves as Commission President?

The European Commission is the EU’s executive branch. It takes decisions on the EU’s political and strategic direction and proposes new laws. The Commission President leads this work and has a five year-term. If she is elected Ms Von der Leyen will be at the heart of decision making for the bloc of around 500m people for half a decade.

Q: What are her plans?

Ms Von der Leyen wrote to two of the European Parliaments main parties yesterday in a bid to shore up her support. She has promised her main priority as Commission President will be to make Europe the first climate neutral continent by 2050. She pledges to be more ambitious when it comes to 2030 targets to reduce carbon emissions as part of the fight against climate change.

On other issues Ms Von der Leyen will propose a gender equality strategy and says she wants to “break the glass ceiling” by setting gender balance quotas for corporate boards. She has also promised a 50:50 gender balance among EU Commissioners. She has also said she will ensure that taxation of big tech companies is a priority.

Q: What will a Von der Leyen presidency mean for Ireland?

Ms Von der Leyen has already reaffirmed her intention to continue EU solidarity with Ireland in the Brexit process. She would be due to take office on November 1 - the day after Brexit is due to take place – so her views on perhaps the biggest challenge facing Ireland are being watched closely in Dublin.

There will also be attention paid to her policies on tax as she has promised to continue Commission efforts to reform the area, a move that will continue pressure on Ireland over its corporation tax regime.

Q: What are her views on Brexit?

She told MEPs this morning that her view on Brexit is that it was a “serious decision” of the British people and “we regret it but we respect it.” She said the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement – which includes the backstop to avoid a hard border -  “provides certainty” for peace in Ireland.

She said: “I stand ready for further extension of the withdrawal date should more time be required for a good reason”. This is similar to remarks that have previously been made by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar who suggested that an extension would only be considered in the case of a general election in the UK or a second Brexit referendum.

Q: When will we know if she will be ratified as Commission President?

There is a vote by secret ballot in the European Parliament in Strasbourg this evening. It is expected to be close. She needs at least 374 votes to get over the line but more than 400 would be preferable to show she has broad support. She will get the backing of the vast majority of the 182 MEPs from her own grouping, the European People’s Party (EEP), but it’s unclear how much support she has among the Socialists & Democrats, who have 153 seats and Renew Europe – who have 108. The Greens with 75 seats and the left-wing Gue/NGL group with 41 are opposing her election. The results are due around 7pm Irish time.

Read more: EU chief frontrunner Ursula von der Leyen ‘ready’ for Brexit extension and clashes with Nigel Farage

Read more: Cormac McQuinn: 'An olive branch to the next British PM, but will he accept?'

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