The incoming president of European Commission wins a comfortable majority of 461 to 157 to approve her line-up of top officials, who will take office on December 1.

European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen arrives at the European Parliament ahead of a vote on her college of commissioners in Strasbourg, France on November 27, 2019.
European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen arrives at the European Parliament ahead of a vote on her college of commissioners in Strasbourg, France on November 27, 2019. (Reuters)

Brussels' next top official, Ursula von der Leyen, will take office on Sunday after winning a comfortable parliamentary majority for her plan to build a green superpower.

The 61-year-old conservative takes office with Europe challenged to find its new role alongside geopolitical and economic giants, US and China.

Before the parliament voting, she vowed to fight the climate crisis, as German conservative told the European Parliament that fighting climate change was an "existential" challenge and she would ensure money was provided to help adapt economies to lower fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

Speaking ahead of a final vote in the chamber to confirm her as European Commission president from December 1 and also confirm the other Commission members, von der Leyen said: "We don't have a moment to waste any more on fighting climate change."

She said that transition towards "climate neutrality" by mid-century had to be achieved in a "sustainable way", meaning it must keep on board workers, regions and governments that still rely on coal for jobs, energy needs and economic growth.

"It must be inclusive or it will not happen at all," she said.

461 to 157 vote of confidence

Her path to office, delayed from November 1, was rocky and Brussels' power has been undermined by Franco-German rivalry and Britain's imminent exit.

But on Wednesday, the European Parliament in Strasbourg gave the former German defence minister a 461-to-157 vote of confidence to allow her 27-strong commission to get to work on December 1.

"I ask for your support to give Europe a new start," she said in a largely well-received speech attended by the massed ranks of the new commissioners and in which she shifted fluently between English, French and German.

"Our union will embark on transformation that will touch every part of our society and economy and we will do it because it will be the right thing to do, not because it will be easy," she said.

She hailed the Dutch vice-president that she was obliged by member states to pick as her deputy, socialist Frans Timmermans, as the right man for the dossier.

And she promised a "European green deal ... for the health of our planet, our people and our economy."

Trade superpower 

As well as promising measures to combat climate change, von der Leyen insisted that Europe has the heft to lead the world in a digital economic revolution.

"We are the world's trading superpower," she boasted. "We are the largest source and destination of foreign direct investment anywhere in the world.

"We should harness this twin power of digitalisation and climate transition to boost our industrial base."

Von der Leyen's own appointment to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker as president was approved in July with only nine votes more than she needed, a narrow margin in EU politics.

And three of her initial nominees were rejected during the parliamentary confirmation process – an unprecedented snub – weakening her from the outset.

But the main centre-right, liberal and socialist voting blocs rallied round her in the final vote, and the Greens chose to abstain rather than vote against.

"Our priorities are a crucial part of the von der Leyen commission," said Manfred Weber, head of the parliament's centre-right EPP bloc and himself a disappointed former presidential hopeful.

"In 2024, Europe will have the most ambitious and inclusive climate policy in the world, a European border and coast guard, transformed Europol into a European FBI, a master plan to fight cancer and created millions of jobs."

'Always a remainer'

The commission has members from across the political spectrum and 12 out of the 27 are women, not quite the parity that was promised, but the highest number ever in the European Commission.

There will, nevertheless, be opposition. The parliament's eurosceptic, far-left and right-wing populist parties oppose much of her program and the Greens are sceptical.

"Having heard the von der Leyen speech in the European Parliament today, I already miss Juncker," sighed German MEP Reinhard Butikofer.

And there is one more cloud hanging over the investiture: Brexit.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson plans to pull Britain out of the EU on January 31 after Brexit was repeatedly delayed amid wrangling in Westminster over the divorce terms.

But in the meantime, he has refused to fill Britain's seat on the commission and is now standing for re-election in a December 12 vote.

Von der Leyen expressed regret at Britain's decision and was markedly more conciliatory than her predecessor Juncker, who often made jokes about what he saw as London's great mistake.

"I have made no secret that I will always be a remainer. But I will also always respect the decision taken by the British people," she said.

"And whatever the future holds, the bond and the friendship between our people are unbreakable."

Source: AFP