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EU parliament votes on German nominee to fill Brussels top job

(Ursula von der Leyen has still not managed to win over the Greens and the far-left. Photo: AFP-FREDERICK FLORIN)

BRUSSELS, (AFP): German minister Ursula von der Leyen’s fate hung in the balance Tuesday as sceptical European lawmakers voted on whether she is right for Brussels’ top job.

The 60-year-old defence minister will replace Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission if she secures a majority vote in the Strasbourg assembly.

“The secret to happiness is freedom. The secret to freedom is courage. Let’s have courage together,” she urged lawmakers, citing the ancient Greek historian Thucydides.

If the conservative mother-of-seven loses Tuesday’s vote — and the ballot could be close — Europe faces a summer of institutional infighting between parliament and the 28 EU leaders.

If her victory is close, or secured only thanks to eurosceptic members, the first female head of the EU Commission will be weakened even before she takes over in November.

“It has been mentioned many times, we have only had two weeks to get to know each other. I am here,” she said rounding off her case to parliament after a speech that triggered lively debate.

“A speech is just a speech, it’s limited,” she admitted, urging members to consult a hastily put together manifesto designed to answer demands from conservative, socialist and liberal pro-European parties.

She promised: “A climate-neutral Europe in 2015. A more social and competitive Europe. A Europe that makes use of its full potential.

“A Europe that has a new push on European democracy and a strong Europe that protects our European way of life.”

Von der Leyen has had only a short time since the 28 EU leaders nominated her to win over the main centre-right EPP, socialist S&D and liberal Renew Europe blocs she hopes will get her the necessary 374 votes.

In the hours between her speech and the start of voting, party officials suggested she could count on the centre-right, almost all of the liberals and maybe two-thirds of the left — which should get her to the line.

But the Greens and centre-left members from major member states like France and Germany were to vote against, perhaps leaving her reliant on eurosceptics or populists for a majority.

– A small ‘yes’ –

The nominee announced Monday that she would step down from Angela Merkel’s German government this week whatever happens in the vote, underlining her European ambitions.

“It will be a small ‘yes’,” one well-placed European source predicted. “She’ll be elected with fewer votes than Juncker was five years ago.”

The former Luxembourg premier received 422 endorsements, and anything less than 400 would be seen as disappointing for von der Leyen, who was born in Brussels.

Another senior official said that if von der Leyen failed, outgoing Belgian premier Charles Michel would still become head of the European Council of EU leaders.

IMF director Christine Lagarde’s appointment to the European Central Bank would also remain on course, but the vacancy at the European Commission would be complicated to fill.

“Any new candidate for the European Commission presidency would have to come from the EPP family and could not be French. It would be a tricky situation, with gender balance back hanging in the balance,” he said.

The vote began in the Strasbourg assembly at 6:00 pm (1600 GMT) and the result is expected up to two hours later.

The new head of the European Commission is due to take office on November 1, the day after the deadline for Britain’s departure from the bloc.

He or she will have to manage the Brexit aftermath, Italy shirking its debt targets and efforts by Poland and Hungary to flout the EU-mandated rules of liberal democracy.

For that, the commission president will need a reliable majority in Strasbourg, but this year’s elections threw up a more fragmented EU parliament than ever.

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