Ursula von der Leyen named new head of European Commission

Outgoing German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen has been approved as the new president of the European Commission, becoming the first woman to hold perhaps the most important post in the 28-nation EU.

Close ally of Germany's Merkel chosen in secret vote in European Parliament

Germany's Ursula von der Leyen was selected as the new president of the European Commission on Tuesday. (Vincent Kessler/Reuters)

Outgoing German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen was approved as the new president of the European Commission on Tuesday, becoming the first woman to hold perhaps the most important post in the 28-nation EU.

Von der Leyen, a German conservative and a close ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, won with 383 votes for to 327 against, according to speaker of the assembly David Sassoli.

Von der Leyen needed a minimum 374 votes to be confirmed. There were 22 abstentions and one blank vote, Sassoli said.

"The trust you placed in me is confidence you placed in Europe. Your confidence in a united and strong Europe, from east to west, from south to north," said von der Leyen, who will take up her new role on Nov. 1.

"Let us work together constructively, because the endeavour is a united and strong Europe."

The Christian Democrat of the European People's Party was a last-minute candidate to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker that EU leaders agreed as part of a package of top jobs that were decided on early this month.

Under the package, the free-market liberal Renew Europe group got Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel as Council President and the Socialists won the top parliament job. France's Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), was put forward as president of the European Central Bank.

Lagarde announced Tuesday she had submitted her resignation from the global lender, saying she had "greater clarity" about her nomination to head the ECB.

Gender equality

Earlier on Tuesday, von der Leyen told lawmakers in Strasbourg that the gender element will be essential if she was elected Commission President overseeing a team of 28 commissioners.

"I will ensure full gender equality in my College of Commissioners. If member states do not propose enough female commissioners, I will not hesitate to ask for new names," she said. 

Pointing out that since its inception in 1958, less than 20 per cent of commissioners had been women, she said: "We represent half of our population. We want our fair share."

Had the parliament rejected her candidature, the whole package of political appointments could have fallen apart like a house of cards and thrown the EU into a constitutional crisis. 

The parliamentarians had not so much objected to von der Leyen personally as voiced their anger that they were sidelined in the appointment process: Their candidates for the commission post, arguably the most important of all the jobs, were all rejected by the EU leaders.

'A green deal'

During her address to the parliament, von der Leyen addressed what she sees as the biggest challenge: climate change.

"I want Europe to become the first climate-neutral continent in the world by 2050," she said, adding she would work out "a green deal for Europe in the first 100 days" of her office. It would include rules to improve on the current goal of reducing emissions by 40 per cent by 2030. 

She said she would set up a climate division within the European Investment Bank to "unlock one trillion euros of investment over the next decade."

Despite the need for votes to get the absolute majority, she insisted that her commission would continue to be tough on countries like Poland and Hungary, which have been accused of disrespecting Western democratic values when it comes to the rule of law.

"There can be no compromise when it comes to respecting the rule of law. There never will be. I will ensure that we use our full and comprehensive toolbox at European level," she said.

With files from The Associated Press