The first woman ever chosen to be the European Union’s top executive clinched her selection on Tuesday, narrowly winning approval from the European Parliament after her unexpected nomination as a compromise candidate.
Ursula von der Leyen of Germany was selected to lead the European Commission and the 32,000-member staff at the heart of the European project. She will take on the role as the bloc is rived with internal divisions stoked by rising nationalism and increasingly entangled in power struggles with Russia, China, the United States, Iran and other nations.
Despite only just managing to secure confirmation, Ms. von der Leyen struck a triumphant and conciliatory tone in her acceptance speech.
“The trust you place in me is confidence you place in Europe, confidence in a united and strong Europe, from east to west, from south to north,” she said.
She will represent the European Union, 28 countries and more than half a billion people that together form the richest collective in the world, in major events like the Group of 20 meetings. She will be tasked with advancing the bloc’s interests in trade talks with President Trump and other world leaders, and she will oversee Brexit, and its aftermath, in one of the messiest and most painful events for the European Union since it was conceived in the aftermath of World War II.
Ms. von der Leyen, 60, who will begin her five-year term as European Commission president in November, won the office after an acrimonious nomination process. European Union heads of government had agreed to nominate a president from among the candidates proposed by the political blocs in the European Parliament, but they scrapped that deal when the two top contenders faced implacable opposition.
After days of intense negotiations among European leaders in June and early July, they settled instead on Ms. von der Leyen, the German defence minister who had not been seen as a candidate and sent the nomination on to the European Parliament. A member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union, she won support to her left by promising a minimum wage and a path to a carbon-neutral Europe.
Inevitably, many in the Parliament, the only directly elected institution on the European Union level, saw Ms. von der Leyen’s nomination as a cynical deal between France and Germany, an arrangement that smacked of the Old Europe that the union’s newer and smaller members resent.
She was voted in by a thin majority of 383 of 733 votes cast, a historically slim margin that underscores the lingering divisions in the bloc. The outgoing European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, who also faced resistance to his 2014 nomination, was elected by 422 votes out of the 729 cast.
In her acceptance speech, Ms. von der Leyen said that building coalitions would be a key part of what she does as commission president. But ultimately, she said, “in a democracy, a majority is a majority.”
European politics aside, Ms. von der Leyen has also faced scrutiny based on her track record as defence minister.
In late 2018, she was forced to admit there were “mistakes” in the awarding of consulting contracts worth millions of euros to companies suspected of being too close to the ministry. A parliamentary committee is looking into how the contracts were awarded and whether the internal investigation started by Ms. von der Leyen was in line with requirements for transparency.
Her approval by the European Parliament also opens the way for other picks for the top jobs in the European Union, most notably that of the woman chosen to lead the European Central Bank, Christine Lagarde of France. As the selection of nominees for the bloc’s leading positions is a grand bargain, a failure to confirm Ms. von der Leyen would have had a domino effect, throwing other positions, including that of the president of the European Council and the chief of foreign policy, up in the air.
Her bumpy road to the office means that Ms. von der Leyen, who raised seven children and worked as a medical doctor before becoming a full-time politician, will start the job with a handicap. But on Tuesday she appeared confident and at ease.
With populism on the rise and the global system of trade and liberal democracy fraying, Ms. von der Leyen came across as passionately globalist, and rejected isolationism as unfit for Europe. And she took thinly veiled jabs at both China’s Belt and Road infrastructure projects around the world and President Trump’s tariff and trade wars.
“Some are turning toward authoritarian regimes, some are buying their global influence and creating dependencies by investing in ports and roads. And others are turning toward protectionism. None of these options are for us,” she said.
“We want multilateralism, we want fair trade, we defend the rules-based order because we know it is better for all of us,” she added to applause by members of Parliament.
This attitude will put her in conflict with some member states, in particular in Europe’s eastern and southern flanks, which see Brussels as an intrusive foreign power challenging their sovereignty. And her rhetoric of free trade and multilateralism pits her on the opposite side of President Trump’s agenda.
Ms. von der Leyen tried to acknowledge that the European Union is fragmented across political and geographic lines, and she pledged that she would strive to address those differences.
“We have to do it the European way,” she said.