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Ursula von der Leyen elected as next EU Commission president replacing Jean-Claude Juncker

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Ursula von der Leyen elected as next EU Commission president replacing Jean-Claude Juncker 2

Ursula von der Leyen elected as next EU Commission president replacing Jean-Claude Juncker 3

The European parliament has narrowly approved Ursula von der Leyen as the next president of the European Commission, replacing Jean-Claude Juncker at the helm of the EU’s executive.

The German defence minister was approved by 383 votes to 327, with 22 abstentions and one blank vote on Tuesday evening. She needed 374 votes to reach the threshold to be elected, meaning she scraped through by just nine votes.

Ms Von der Leyen, who was nominated by EU leaders earlier this month, is the first woman to hold the top job in Brussels. The European Commission is the union’s executive arm and is responsible for proposing EU law, enforcing its treaties, and representing the interests of the bloc as a whole on the world stage. 

She is due to take office on 1 November after a handover period during which her cabinet of commissioners, one from each member state, will be chosen and their portfolios allocated. She has pledged to achieve gender balance in the top team – but could face a showdown with member state governments, who may have other candidates in mind as their commissioners.

The German politician’s appointment is controversial because she was not a lead candidate in the EU elections last month. The European parliament had previously said that the next commission president should have been on the ballot paper during the contest and campaigned across the EU, under the so-called “spitzenkandidat” system.

But a majority of MEPs gave Ms Von der Leyen their backing anyway after national leaders called their bluff and proposed a candidate who was not available to vote for. She was opposed by MEPs from the green and left groups in the parliament, but supported by the centre-right and the liberals. The centre-left socialist group was split, with some countries’ parties such as the German SPD opposing the appointment and others such as Labour supporting it.

“The trust you placed in me is the confidence you placed in Europe,” she told MEPs in her acceptance speech. 

“Your confidence in a united and a strong Europe, from east to west, from south to north. Your confidence in a Europe that is ready to fight for the future rather than fighting against each other. Your confidence in a Europe that will take the big challenges of our times together. The task ahead of us humbles me: it is a big responsibility and our work starts now.”

In her address to MEPs on Tuesday morning ahead of the vote, the nominee proposed a number of reforms, including scrapping the member state veto on EU foreign policy to speed up decision-making during international crises. She also pledged to bring in a “green deal” investment programme for the continent in her first 100 days in office and to ramp up environmental targets and write them into law. She also said that she supports tougher action against member states that breach the rule of law.

A close ally of Angela Merkel, Ms Von der Leyen is only the second German to ever hold the commission presidency. During her last job as defence minister in the German federal government she was unpopular with the public and her department was placed under parliamentary investigation for alleged nepotism mismanagement.

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Ursula von der Leyen says her new cabinet of EU Commissioners will be half women

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Ursula von der Leyen says her new cabinet of EU Commissioners will be half women 5

Ursula von der Leyen says her new cabinet of EU Commissioners will be half women 6

The nominee to replace Jean-Claude Juncker as the next European Commission president has said her administration will be made up of half women and half men.

Ursula von der Leyen has asked EU member states to nominate two people, a man and woman, as their candidates to be their EU Commissioners to ensure the posts can be divided up equally between genders.

The Commission president leads a college of Commissioners drawn from the 28 member states – effectively a cabinet government for the EU’s executive. The Commission is responsible for proposing new EU laws, which have to be scrutinised by the parliament and council.   

Each member state gets one Commissioner, who is allocated a portfolio by the president such as agriculture, security, or finance. The Commissioners however do not report to member states and are bound to act in the interests of the union as a whole.

“I want a Commission with half male and half female commissioners,” von der Leyen said during a meeting in Brussels with MEPs.

Ms von der Leyen will be the first woman president of the Commission if she is confirmed by MEPs in a vote scheduled for Tuesday in the European Parliament. The parliament must also sign off the team of commissioners following a process of security.

The current Commission cabinet, which is referred to as the college of commissioners, has 19 male commissioners and just nine female Commissioners. 

In 2014 when Mr Juncker formed his college he asked member states to propose women candidates to achieve gender balance, but was unsuccessful. Ms von der Leyen’s new approach of requiring two nominations from each member state – of which one will be picked – is an attempt to get around the problems faced last time.

The question of who member states nominate to be their commissioner is often fraught with domestic politics, which would have shaped the commissioners which the countries put forward.

During her time as Germany’s federal minister responsible for women’s quality the president-nominate unsuccessfully pushed for binding quotas for women on company supervisory boards.

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Ann Widdecombe: Fury as MEP compares Brexit to ‘slaves rising up against their owners’

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Ann Widdecombe: Fury as MEP compares Brexit to ‘slaves rising up against their owners’ 8

Ann Widdecombe: Fury as MEP compares Brexit to ‘slaves rising up against their owners’ 9

Brexit Party MEP Ann Widdecombe has attracted ridicule after she compared Britain’s departure from the European Union to slaves rising up against their owners.

The former Tory shadow home secretary claimed Britain was “oppressed” and, apparently without irony, likened Brexit to a colony rising up against an occupying empire.

“There is a pattern consistent throughout history of oppressed people turning on the oppressors: slaves against their owners, the peasantry against their feudal barons – colonies, Mr Verhofstadt, against their empires. That is why Britain is leaving,” she told MEPs in her maiden speech in Strasbourg on Thursday. “It doesn’t matter which language you use, we are going, and we are glad to be going.”

Ms Widdecombe, who represents South West England, said it was “a great honour to speak on behalf of the largest single party” in the European parliament – a reference to the Brexit Party’s victory at the EU elections.

MPs and other MEPs criticised the Brexiteer’s comments. Labour MP David Lammy said: “It is impossible to explain how offensive and ahistorical it is for you to equate my ancestors tearing off their chains with your small-minded nationalist project. Shame on you.”

Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator, said: “Nigel Farage is facing some stiff competition as chief clown of the Brexit Party in the European parliament. By the way, when Widdecombe talks about ‘colonies liberating themselves from their empires’, is she really referring to the American Revolution of 1776?”

Green MEP Alexandra Phillips said: “Is she drunk? This is beyond embarrassing. It’s this type of behaviour which makes me ashamed to be a British MEP right now.”

Martin Horwood, a Liberal Democrat, suggested the former Tory MP had a waning grip on reality and had embarrassed Britain. “To imply that the United Kingdom is any way in a similar situation to the colonies of our former empire or a victim of slavery is deeply offensive. Widdecombe’s comments trivialise the suffering of those who have experienced slavery and colonialism,” he told The Independent after the speech.

“If Ann Widdecombe had any grip on reality, she would have the sense to look at her own record on oppressing women and minorities when she defended shackling pregnant women and opposed repealing Section 28. Anne Widdecombe has not only embarrassed herself but she has embarrassed the nation she represents. I hope she withdraws her comments and sincerely apologises to all those she has offended immediately.”

Brexit Party MEPs caused a storm earlier this week when they turned their backs on the EU anthem in protest during the parliament’s opening ceremony.

Responding to Ms Widdecombe’s comments, a Downing Street spokeswoman said: “I haven’t spoken to the prime minister about it, but I think it is safe to say that that isn’t a characterisation that she would recognise. Nor is it a phrase she would ever use to describe leaving the EU.”

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