Sunday 18 August 2019

Ursula von der Leyen confirmed as EC president - but what does it mean for Ireland?

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

Cormac McQuinn

Former German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen has been elected as the next European Commission President.

MEPs backed her appointment by 383 votes to 327.

Ms Von der Leyen will be the first woman to lead the Commission, the EU's executive branch and is set to take office on November 1. 

Her election was by a narrow margin. She secured just nine votes more than the 374 votes she needed to have the backing of an absolute majority of MEPs.

Speaking after her election Ms Von der Leyen told reporters that Brexit will be the start of a new relationship between the UK and EU “so we should be very careful how we deal with each other”.

She said that Brexit is “very difficult” and that’s why she said that if there are good reasons, an extension to the October 31 deadline might be possible.

“We should do everything not to have a hard Brexit,” she said.

The withdrawal agreement between the UK and EU has been rejected by MPs in Westminster and was been described as "dead" during the Conservative leadership contest.

Ms Von der Leyen insisted it was was good deal “negotiated within the red lines the United Kingdom gave us”.

After Ms Von der Leyen's election Fine Gael MEP Frances Fitzgerald took to Twitter to congratulate her on becoming the first female Commission President, calling it an "historic moment".

However, Brexit Party MEP Nigel Farage - who clashed with the Commission President-elect earlier in the day - said "Ursula von der Leyen has scraped in by nine votes" claiming she has "power but no legitimacy".

Speaking to MEPs afterwards Ms Von der Leyen said she was "honoured and overwhelmed".

She added: "The trust you placed in me is confidence you placed in Europe; your confidence in an united and strong Europe from east to west, the south to north; your confidence in a Europe that is ready to fight for the future rather than fighting against each other."

Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage (Danny Lawson/PA)

During this morning’s debate Mr Farage had claimed that Ms Von der Leyen was pushing for a “centralised, undemocratic, updated form of communism” in the EU.

He added: “In some ways I’m really rather pleased, because you have just made Brexit a lot more popular in the UK.

“Thank God we’re leaving.”

Ms Von der Leyen replied speaking of the importance of the EU working with the UK but adding: “I think Mr Farage, we can probably do without what you have got to say here.”

Fine Gael MEP Sean Kelly (Julien Behal/PA)

During the debate Fine Gael MEP Seán Kelly told the European Parliament he was "very pleased" with Ms Von der Leyen's remarks on Brexit in relation to her support of the backstop, the Withdrawal Agreement and flexibility on an extension if necessary.

He added: "I would ask you to further underline your support for Ireland in the future as we had unwavering support from Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier."

He also referred to statements she made on prioritising the fight against climate change saying she was taking a "practical approach".

"One thing I would ask you is to ensure that as we more to low a carbon economy that nobody is left behind.

"We have to have a just transition for all - the turf cutter from Ireland, the steel worker from Germany, the dairy farmer from Italy and the coal miner from Poland."

Mr Kelly said he believes Ms Von der Leyen has shown she's a "woman of great talent competence, perspective, calmness and well-equipped to do the job of Commission President".

But what will 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 qualified doctor. She has seven children and has also served as German Family Minister.

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. Ms Von der Leyen will be at the heart of decision making for the bloc of around 500 million 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 is 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 increase pressure on Ireland over its corporation tax levels.

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.

“I stand ready for further extension of the withdrawal date should more time be required for a good reason,” she added. 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.

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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