Ursula von der Leyen has championed gender equality in her appeal to MEPs to back her as the first female president of the European commission, telling the European parliament: “We represent half of our population. We want our fair share.”
In a 30-minute speech in Strasbourg before a vote on Tuesday evening to confirm her position, the outgoing German defence minister said her nomination by the heads of state and government had been built on decades of progress.
“Exactly 40 years ago, the first president of the European parliament, Simone Veil, was elected and presented her vision of a united Europe,” Von der Leyen said. “It is thanks to you, and to all the other European icons, that I present to you today my vision of Europe. And 40 years later, it is with great pride that it is finally a woman who is the presidential candidate of the European commission.”
Veil, who became only the fourth woman to be honoured by being buried in the Panthéon in Paris after her death last year, was one of France’s most revered politicians, known for her battle as health minister to legalise contraception and abortion.
Von der Leyen, 60, said she was in a position to replace Jean-Claude Juncker on 1 November thanks to those before her who had broken down the “barriers and conventions” that stood in the way of women.
As she pressed her case for being confirmed as commission president, Von der Leyen said she was committed to ensuring full gender equality among the 28 commissioners that she would lead in Brussels if she got the necessary support from MEPs.
“If member states do not propose enough female commissioners, I will not hesitate to ask for new names,” she said. “Since 1958 there have been 183 commissioners. Only 35 were women. That is less than 20%.”
“We also need to talk openly about violence against women,” she said. “If one in five women have already suffered physical or sexual violence in the European Union and 55% of women have been sexually harassed, this is clearly not a women’s issue. I will propose to add violence against women to the list of EU crimes defined in the treaty.”
After being nominated by the heads of state and government on the European council two weeks ago, Von der Leyen needs to secure an absolute majority – half of the MEPs plus one – to formally take the top EU role.
Should she fail, the EU’s leaders would need to agree by qualified majority within a month on a new candidate to be put before the parliament with 23 July pencilled in as a possible date for an emergency summit.
Some are opposed to Von der Leyen on the grounds that she is not one of the spitzenkandidaten, or lead candidates, who campaigned before May’s European elections to head the EU’s executive branch.
Her patchy record as a defence minister has also been raised by MEPs from the German Social Democratic party (SDP) in a dossier as a reason why Von der Leyen is “an inadequate and unsuitable candidate” to lead the commission for the next five years although there were some signs of a softening in their resistance.
During the debate, the co-chair of the Greens in the parliament, Philippe Lamberts, a Belgian MEP, reiterated his group’s opposition on the basis that her policies on the climate crisis did not reflect the existential challenge facing the world despite her pledge to make the continent carbon neutral by 2050.
French and German MEPs representing the far left and the far right also railed against Von der Leyen’s previously stated aspiration to forge a “United States of Europe” and establish an EU army.
Representatives from the governing parties in Hungary and Poland also criticised Von der Leyen’s pledge in her speech to continue with the commission’s attempt to block or reverse judicial changes in their countries that are viewed as attempts to weaken the rule of law.
“Lady Justice is blind – she will defend the rule of law wherever it is attacked,” Von der Leyen had told the parliament.
On Brexit, she was booed by Brexit party MEPs as she reiterated her openness to a further extension of the UK’s membership of the EU after 31 October. “I stand ready for a further extension of the withdrawal date, should more time be required for a good reason,” she said. “In any case, the United Kingdom will remain our ally, our partner and our friend.”
The leader of the Brexit party, Nigel Farage, accused Von der Leyen of wanting to build “a centralised, undemocratic, updated form of communism where nation state parliaments will cease to have any relevance at all”.
“Be in no doubt: five years of these people [and] the European Defence Union will be complete,” Farage said. “And what is there for defence can also be used for attack.
Von der Leyen responded: “We can probably do without what you have got to say here.”