Germany's von der Leyen begins EU charm offensive

Conservative German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen took questions from EU lawmakers in Brussels on Wednesday after her nomination to lead the European Commission was announced last week. The meetings with centrist and left-leaning blocs in the European Parliament were the first part of von der Leyen's attempt to court the necessary majority for her ascension.

Speaking a mix of German, English, and French, von der Leyen spoke about climate change, the rule of law, and allowing EU citizens to have more of a say in policy.

While meeting with the free-market liberal group Renew Europe, she said it was a "brilliant idea" to hold a citizens dialogue about the future of Europe.

She also acknowledged the "bumpy start" she had gotten off to with the liberals, referencing the widespread disapproval of her surprise nomination over the candidates who had been announced before the European Parliament elections in May.

Nicola Beer, of Germany's pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) called von der Leyen's appearance "passionate but nebulous," adding that she believed the minister "had not yet totally convinced the whole [parliamentary] group."

Greens not convinced

While talking with the Greens, she acknowledged that "CO2 must have a price," and promised to heed the advice of scientists on climate policy.

The Green bloc was less than impressed with her answers, apparently, with Dutch Green MEP Bas Eickhout telling reporters after the meeting that she was "evasive on all the answers."

"What she will do concretely is unclear," he added. Several other Green deputies have announced their intentions to vote against her.

No change on Brexit backstop, need for UK clarity

In her first public comments about Brexit since securing the nomination, she told British MEPs that she still hoped the UK would reverse course, but urged Britain to provide clarity for the future: "it is in our interests to have you sort things out."

"I think the backstop is of utmost importance. We absolutely know how crucial this non-existing of a border is for you, and therefore having the backstop in the Brexit deal is," said von der Leyen, referring to the 'backstop' agreement aiming to protect the open Irish border, which a future British prime minister is liable to try to change.

The defense minister and compromise candidate faces an uphill battle, as several members of the European Parliament (MEPs) voiced disapproval when EU leaders decided to ditch the "lead candidate" nomination process — in only the second instance of trying to use it — when European leaders couldn't agree on any of the candidates put forward by the party groups.

Iratxe Garcia of Spain, who leads the Socialist and Democrat (S&D) group, has said she could not speak for her entire group on whether or not they would vote in favor of von der Leyen. The German lawmaker needs at least 374 votes from 747 MEPs in order to become European Commission president.

Prime Minister Antti Rinne of Finland, which just took over the rotating presidency of the European Council, called for von der Leyen's quick approval.

"For the Finnish presidency, it is very important that this process is completed as soon as possible," Rinne said while on a visit to Berlin. A vote on von der Leyen's candidacy could come as soon as Tuesday.

es/msh (AFP, AP, dpa)

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