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Von der Leyen pledges social, climate reforms ahead of knife-edge EU vote

Von der Leyen pledges social, climate reforms ahead of knife-edge EU vote
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By Francesco Guarascio

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union’s conservative nominee to head the executive Commission proffered a raft of economic, environmental and social reforms on Monday, an eleventh-hour bid for support from EU lawmakers who will vote on her nomination on Tuesday.

Seeking to win over socialists, whose support for a majority of votes in the European Parliament remains uncertain, Ursula von der Leyen said she would back a guaranteed minimum wage for all EU workers and an unemployment benefit scheme.

In letters to the socialist and liberal leaders of the assembly, she also said that EU fiscal rules should be interpreted more flexibly and should aim for a more growth-friendly stance in the euro area – a stand that appears to defy Germany’s traditional policy of fiscal restraint.

Von der Leyen, currently Germany’s defence minister, would be the first woman to lead the powerful European Commission, which oversees trade negotiations, antitrust rulings and broad policy for 500 million Europeans.

She will address the 751-member parliament in Strasbourg on Tuesday. Lawmakers will then hold a debate and vote for or against her in a secret paper ballot at 6 p.m. (1600 GMT).

She needs the backing of an absolute majority, which would normally be 376. The assembly is currently four members short, which means she needs 374 votes from a total of 747. Diplomats say it is far from certain that she will cross that line.

Many lawmakers are angry that EU leaders, horse-trading over top posts at a summit this month, brushed aside the so-called “Spitzenkandidaten” – the main political groups’ candidates for Commission chief – and nominated von der Leyen instead.

If lawmakers reject her, it would be another blow for the bloc, which has been rocked in the last decade by the euro zone debt crisis, Britain’s decision to leave and the rise of far-right and far-left eurosceptic parties.

Although the Greens have ruled out their support for her, von der Leyen said she would seek a cut in EU carbon emissions of up to 55% by 2030, raising her previous offer from the existing 40% target.

She also pledged to extend the bloc’s emissions-trading scheme and set up a “Just Transition Fund”, offers that are likely to please liberal lawmakers and defuse accusations from “yellow vest” protesters that France’s Emmanuel Macron is forcing the poor to pay for the transition to a green economy.

Echoing a proposal from Spain’s socialist government, von der Leyen said she would back a “carbon border tax” to favour European industry.

To win over German socialists, who have been among the sharpest critics of her appointment, she offered a scheme to help EU countries with high jobless numbers hit by a downturn.

The idea was flagged last year by Germany’s socialists but was blocked by the larger centre-right component in the German ruling coalition to which von der Leyen belongs.

Socialists are also likely to be pleased by her offer of “a fair minimum wage”. Six EU countries, including Italy, Austria and Sweden, have no minimum salary, and minimum wages vary greatly within the bloc.

BLOW TO EAST?

Von der Leyen also offered reforms to the way the EU monitors respect for the rule of law in EU states, a proposal that may irk Hungary and Poland, which have been accused for years by Brussels of breaking rules on civil rights.

They will, however, be welcomed by pro-EU socialist and liberal deputies who cast doubt on her candidacy because it came after eastern European leaders blocked the nomination of Frans Timmermans, an EU commissioner who denounced Warsaw and Budapest for civil rights shortcomings.

To counter accusations that the closed-door bargaining used by EU leaders for her appointment undermined EU democracy, von der Leyen offered to improve the “spitzenkandidaten” process.

She also said she would support a right of legislative initiative for the European Parliament, a move that would reduce the Commission’s exclusive power to propose EU laws.

Echoing nationwide debates launched by Macron to quell yellow-vest protests, von der Leyen said she wanted a “conference on the future of Europe” that would bring together citizens and civil society for two years and be followed up with possible legislative actions, and even changes to the EU treaty.

Von der Leyen, a 60-year-old former gynaecologist and mother of seven, pledged an overhaul of migration and foreign policies.

She called for eliminating the veto powers of EU states in matters like tax, climate and social issues, where decisions are taken by unanimity, giving smaller countries disproportionate power to block reforms.

A plan to introduce an EU-wide digital tax was blocked this year by a handful of countries, including Ireland and Denmark, despite support from a large group of the 28-nation bloc.

“I will ensure the taxation of big tech companies is a priority,” she said.

(Editing by Alissa de Carbonnel and John Chalmers)

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