Ursula von der Leyen, nominee to head EU, 'hopes UK abandons Brexit'

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German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen, who has been nominated as European Commission President, attends a news conference during a visit at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on 3 July 2019.Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
A vote on Ursula von der Leyen's nomination to run the EU commission is due next week

Ursula von der Leyen, the nominee to become the next European Commission chief, has told MEPs she hopes the UK abandons its plans for Brexit.

"I still hope you remain," she said, warning the British authorities to "sort its side of things on Brexit".

Mrs von der Leyen was speaking at a European Parliament hearing ahead of a vote on her nomination next week.

She vowed to make the EU more ambitious on climate change and pressed for more gender balance within the bloc.

Mrs von der Leyen, who is currently the German defence minister, is due to take over from Jean-Claude Juncker on 1 November if approved by parliament.

If this happens, she will become the first woman to take the EU's top post.

What exactly did she say about Brexit?

As part of her pitch on Tuesday, Mrs von der Leyen tackled the thorny issue, calling on British lawmakers to take responsibility for sorting out the UK's departure.

She said a divorce deal negotiated by outgoing UK PM Theresa May with EU leaders was "a good one", in her first public comments on Brexit since being nominated.

She warned the two men vying to replace Mrs May as leader, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, that the "tone and attitude" of Brexit was vital for setting out future relations between both sides.

Media caption,

European Council leader Donald Tusk says the new EU leaders will be as consistent on Brexit as the current team

"Though I still hope you remain, it is in our interests to have you sort things out. We have an agreement - which hasn't been signed on both sides - and we have the backstop," she said, referring to a controversial provision in the deal negotiated by Mrs May to avoid extensive border controls on the Irish border after Brexit.

Many UK MPs objected to the clause, fearing it would be used to permanently trap the UK in the EU customs union, preventing the country from striking its own trade deals.

It was this provision that ultimately led to the deal's repeated failure in the UK parliament, and Theresa May's eventual resignation last month.

"I think it's a good deal but it is your responsibility and your noble task to sort things out," Mrs von der Leyen added.

What else did she pitch?

She vowed to put progressive climate policy at the heart of her five-year term, and voiced her backing for the EU going carbon neutral by 2050.

"For that," she said, "we will have to be more ambitious with our climate goals for 2030."

She announced plans to fill EU commissioner posts with equal numbers of men and women and said she would ask European leaders to give her two candidate names - one male, one female - for each post.

Currently only eight of the 28 EU commissioners are women.

Mrs von der Leyen also spoke in favour of enlarging the eurozone and the EU's open-border Schengen area, and said the EU should be ready to take in western Balkan countries.

The 60-year-old needs more than half of the votes in the 751-member parliament to be confirmed in the post next week.

She is likely to win the backing of major groups in the European Parliament, but the way she was proposed as a surprise candidate has come under criticism.

Many MEPs were frustrated that national leaders chose her over some of the frontrunners from the biggest political groupings in the new parliament, following the elections in May.