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Ursula von der Leyen to take helm of a divided EU

Ursula von der Leyen seated next to Angela Merkel
Ursula von der Leyen with Angela Merkel. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Newly confirmed European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, a former German defense minister and loyal lieutenant to Chancellor Angela Merkel, will be the first woman ever and the first German since 1967 to lead the European Union’s Executive Branch.

Why it matters: Von der Leyen’s confirmation is a victory for leaders of European member states — particularly France’s Emmanuel Macron — over the European Parliament, and for the Franco-German tandem over smaller states. But stark divisions in the Parliament will make it difficult to pass much of her policy agenda.

Details: Von der Leyen eked out a 382-vote victory in the European Parliament on Tuesday, a majority of only 9 votes.

  • The unusual coalition for Von der Leyen's candidacy included Merkel’s European People’s Party, most of Macron’s centrist Renew Europe and many center-left Social Democrats (mainly from Italy, Portugal and Spain).
  • Joining them were a mix of Euro-skeptic and anti-establishment parties like Poland’s Law and Justice Party and Italy’s 5-Star Movement.
  • Most Greens, Far Left and German Social Democrats refused to support her.

Between the lines: Von der Leyen’s nomination speech in Strasbourg wove a delicate web of policy proposals to secure support: a climate package, tech taxation, a bloc-wide minimum wage proposal and gender equality measures.

  • She also proposed a new rule of law mechanism that would allow for comparisons in areas like corruption and institutional independence across member states, an idea opposed by her government backers in Poland and Hungary.
  • In a concession, she proposed allowing the European Parliament to initiate legislation — until now, a closely guarded power of the Commission.

Where it stands: European Commission Secretary General Martin Selmayr will leave his position next week — ostensibly because he, like von der Leyen, is German and a Christian Democrat. He indicated his successor will likely be French, calling the Commission a “Franco-German project.”

  • Back in Berlin, von der Leyen’s appointment has raised new doubts about whether Merkel’s grand coalition will last through 2019. In a surprise move, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer — CDU chairwoman and Merkel’s presumptive successor — has been named defense minister.

What to watch: In coming months, Von der Leyen will assemble a team of 27 Commissioners, one nominated by each of the member states.

  • Her Commission will have hearings early in the fall, before her 5-year term formally begins on Nov. 1.
  • She has already indicated a willingness to delay the Brexit deadline, currently slated for Oct. 31.

The bottom line: The hasty stitch-up necessary to secure von der Leyen's mandate, combined with the European Parliament’s new fragmentation, could place her in a position of weakness when she takes office.

  • A disunited EU would be poorly positioned to tackle the collective challenges of rising populism and Euro-skepticism, deepening trade wars, the ongoing Mediterranean refugee crisis, Russian democratic and Chinese economic interference, and an erratic Trump administration.

Tyson Barker is a program director and fellow at the Aspen Institute Germany and a former senior adviser at the U.S. Department of State.