Former German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has been narrowly confirmed as the next President of the European Commission, the powerful administrative arm of the European Union.
In a secret ballot in the European Parliament on July 16, von der Leyen, a close ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, received 383 votes, only nine more than the 374 required — the lowest margin since the position of President was established in 1958. She will take over from Jean-Claude Junker in November 2019 for a five-year term.
Before the vote, von der Leyen promised an ambitious left-leaning policy program on climate change, taxes, migration and the rule of law. Many of her pledges — which would require transferring yet more national sovereignty to unelected bureaucrats in Brussels — appeared aimed at enticing support for her candidacy from Greens and Socialists in the European Parliament.
In the final vote, however, the Socialists were divided in their support for von der Leyen and the Greens formally opposed her. Interestingly, von der Leyen won with the support of eurosceptics in Central and Eastern Europe after she publicly criticized the way the EU has treated them due to their opposition to mass migration.
In the past, von der Leyen has called for the creation of a European superstate: "My aim is the United States of Europe, on the model of federal states such as Switzerland, Germany or the United States," she said in an August 2011 interview with the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel. More recently, however, she appeared to scale back her ambitions: she said that her dream of a federalized EU had become "more mature and more realistic." In comments apparently aimed at appeasing Central and Eastern Europe, she added: "In the European Union, there is unity in diversity. That is different from federalism. I think that is the right way."
An examination of von der Leyen's policy proposals, however, reveals that she is calling for a massive expansion of top-down powers of the European Commission. Her proposals would substantially increase the role of Brussels in virtually all aspects of economic and social life in Europe — all at the expense of national sovereignty.
Following is a brief summary of von der Leyen's main proposals for the next five years, as outlined in a 24-page document titled, "My Agenda for Europe":
Von der Leyen called for the European Union to be "carbon neutral" by 2050. She pledged to propose a "European Green Deal" during her first 100 days in office. The deal would include the first "European Climate Law" to enshrine the 2050 climate neutrality target into law: "Carbon emissions must have a price. Every person and every sector will have to contribute."
She also pledged to introduce a "Carbon Border Tax" that would apply to non-European companies, to ensure that European companies "can compete on a level playing field." In addition, a "European Climate Pact" would "commit to a set of pledges to bring about a change in behavior, from the individual to the largest multinational."
Von der Leyen's social reengineering scheme would be paid for by European taxpayers: A "Sustainable Europe Investment Plan" would "support €1 trillion of climate investment over the next decade in every corner of the EU." She also vowed that the EU "will lead international negotiations to increase the level of ambition of other major emitters by 2021."
Economy, Society and Taxation
Von der Leyen vowed to prioritize the further deepening of the Economic and Monetary Union. She pledged to introduce a "Budgetary Instrument for Convergence and Competitiveness," a "European Deposit Insurance Scheme" and complete a "Banking Union." She also vowed to strengthen the international role of the euro.
She pledged to integrate European economic governance with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Von der Leyen proposed a legal instrument to ensure a minimum wage for workers in all 28 EU member states. She also proposed a "European Unemployment Benefit Reinsurance Scheme," a "European Child Guarantee," and a "Work-Life Balance Directive," to "encourage better sharing of responsibilities between women and men."
Von der Leyen also proposed a "European Gender Strategy" to ensure "equal pay for equal work," and pledged to introduce "binding pay-transparency measures." She vowed to set quotas for gender balance on company boards. She also promised a fully gender-equal European Commission: "By the end of my mandate, I will ensure we have full equality at all levels of Commission management. I will accept nothing less."
Von der Leyen vowed to overhaul the European taxation system: "One of the key foundations of our social market economy is that everybody pays their fair share. There can be no exceptions." She promised to prioritize taxation of big tech companies: "If by the end of 2020 there is still no global solution for a fair digital tax, the EU should act alone." She pledged to impose a common consolidated corporate tax base: "Differences in tax rules can be an obstacle to the deeper integration of the single market. It can hamper growth, particularly in the euro area where the economic ties are stronger. We need to be able to act." She warned that Brussels would overrule EU member states opposed to her tax overhaul: "I will make use of the clauses in the Treaties that allow proposals on taxation to be adopted by co-decision and decided by qualified majority voting in the Council. This will make us more efficient and better able to act fast when needed."
Von der Leyen pledged to develop joint EU standards for 5G networks, and to achieve "technological sovereignty" in critical technology areas: "We will jointly define standards for this new generation of technologies that will become the global norm." She added: "In my first 100 days in office, I will put forward legislation for a coordinated European approach on the human and ethical implications of Artificial Intelligence."
Meanwhile, a new EU "Digital Services Act" would "upgrade our liability and safety rules for digital platforms, services and products, and complete our 'Digital Single Market.'" A joint "Cyber Unit" would "speed up information sharing and better protect ourselves."
Von der Leyen also called for a "European Education Area" to "change the culture of education" and a "Digital Education Action Plan" to "rethink education."
Rule of Law, Migration and Internal Security
Von der Leyen called for a comprehensive "European Rule of Law Mechanism" to ensure the primacy of EU law over the national laws of EU member states. She warned that there would be financial consequences for member states that refuse to comply: "I intend to focus on tighter enforcement, using recent judgements of the Court of Justice showing the impact of rule-of-law breaches on EU law as a basis. I stand by the proposal to make the rule of law an integral part of the next Multiannual Financial Framework." She added: "The Commission will always be an independent guardian of the Treaties. Lady Justice is blind – she will defend the rule of law wherever and by whomever it is attacked."
Von der Leyen also called for a "New Pact on Migration and Asylum" in which a reinforced European Border and Coast Guard Agency would take over border control responsibilities from EU member states: "I want to see these [EU] border guards with the ability to act at the EU's external borders in place by 2024."
Meanwhile, a new "Common European Asylum System" would require all EU member states to offer asylum to migrants who request it: "We all need to help each other and contribute." In addition, the European Public Prosecutor's Office "should have more muscle and authority" and "be able to investigate and prosecute cross-border terrorism."
European Defense and Trade
Von der Leyen, who previously called for the creation of a European Army, pledged to take "further bold steps in the next five years towards a genuine European Defense Union." She added: "We need an integrated and comprehensive approach to our security."
She also said: "I believe Europe should have a stronger and more united voice in the world." She called for a change in rules so that the EU could act even without the unanimous consent of EU member states: "To be a global leader, the EU needs to be able to act fast: I will push for qualified majority voting to become the rule in this area. I will work closely with the High Representative/Vice-President to ensure a coordinated approach to all of our external action, from development aid to our Common Foreign and Security Policy."
In the area of trade, von der Leyen said that she would appoint a "Chief Trade Enforcement Officer" to improve compliance and enforcement of EU trade agreements. She also said that she would lead efforts to update and reform the World Trade Organization: "We must ensure that we can enforce our rights, including through the use of sanctions, if others block the resolution of a trade conflict."
Von der Leyen's paper-thin endorsement by the European Parliament showed that she has as many detractors as supporters. Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage may be her biggest critic. Addressing the European Parliament, he said:
"What you've seen from Ursula von der Leyen today is an attempt by the EU to take control of every single aspect of our lives. She wants to build a centralized, undemocratic, updated form of Communism that will render [obsolete] nation state parliaments, where the state controls everything, where nation state parliaments will cease to have any relevance at all.
"I have to say from our perspective, in some ways, I'm really rather pleased, because you've just made Brexit a lot more popular in the United Kingdom. Thank God we're leaving!
"But it is in the aspect of defense that I think people's minds should be focused. She's a fanatic for building a European Army, but she's not alone. When it's completed, NATO will cease to exist or will not have any relevance in Europe at all."
Brexit Party MEP Matthew Patten, in an opinion article — "Fanatical Von der Leyen is the Final Nail in the Coffin for Shambolic EU 'Democracy'" — published by The Telegraph, wrote:
"Ursula von der Leyen, the controversial Defense Minister of the Bundeswehr, got the approval of the EU Parliament to become President of the EU Commission by just nine votes.... Here in the EU Parliament, where most deals are stitched up way before any vote, that's as close as it gets....
"It comes after days of intense wheeler-dealing, with Mrs. von der Leyen walking the corridors of Strasbourg and Brussels to lobby for the Presidency....
"Starting with 'we have to do it the European way' and 'the world needs more Europe' her proposals included an EU minimum wage, a capital markets union, a European unemployment insurance scheme, and most controversially, the abandonment of the national veto on foreign policy, another step towards a European Army and handing over the decision to go to war to the EU.
"She also promised the deepening of Europe's economic and monetary union, a common consolidated corporate tax base, to be sympathetic towards an approach from Britain for further delay of Brexit.
"Von der Leyen concluded saying, 'We need to move towards full co-decision power for the European Parliament and away from unanimity for climate, energy, social and taxation policies. She finished with a rallying cry 'Long Live Europe!' — underlining her support for a United States of Europe."
In Italy, von der Leyen's confirmation led to a crisis in the coalition government. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte backed von der Leyen, as did Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement. Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini from the League party opposed her. He tweeted that support for von der Leyen "betrayed" the vote of Italians who wanted change in the European Union.
US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland called on von der Leyen to revive transatlantic trade talks — but warned that the United States was ready to impose tariffs with "immediate financial consequences for the EU" if there is no progress in negotiations. "I'm very optimistic about her leadership and about her willingness to engage constructively with the United States," Sondland said in an interview with Politico.