Ursula von der Leyen was heckled by Brexit Party MEPs as she said she was ‘ready’ to further delay the UK’s departure from the EU as she tried to persuade the European Parliament to make her the bloc’s next boss.
Mrs von der Leyen faces a crunch vote this afternoon when she will need to win the support of a majority of MEPs in order to be installed as Jean-Claude Juncker’s replacement.
But the difficulty of the task facing the outgoing German defence minister was highlighted by the reaction when she said she would be open to pushing back Brexit beyond the current October 31 deadline.
Mrs von der Leyen had prompted applause from Nigel Farage and his grouping of 29 MEPs as she referred to the UK’s decision to vote to leave the EU in 2016.
But they then switched to jeering and howls of derision as she confirmed her willingness to postpone Brexit past Halloween while other MEPs responded with muted applause.
Her intervention came 12 hours after the the two men vying to replace Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt both ruled out any deal involving a ‘backstop’ arrangement for customs on the Irish border – raising the prospect of the UK crashing out on October 31.
Any further delay would be certain to provoke uproar among Brexiteers and worry in Conservative ranks that they will lose further votes to Mr Farage’s party.
Mrs von der Leyen said of the 2016 referendum result: ‘This is a serious decision. We regret it but we respect it. Since then together with the current government of the UK the EU has worked hard to organise the orderly departure of the UK.
‘The Withdrawal Agreement concluded with the government of the UK provides certainty where Brexit created uncertainty.
‘In preserving the rights of citizens and in preserving peace and stability on the island of Ireland, these two priorities are mine too.
‘However, I stand ready for further extension of the withdrawal date should more time be required for a good reason.’
Ursula von der Leyen, pictured addressing the European Parliament in Strasbourg today, prompted howls of derision from Brexit Party MEPs this morning as she said she was open to a further Brexit delay
Brexit Party MEPs could be heard shouting ‘No!’ as Mrs von der Leyen floated the idea of delaying the UK’s departure past the current October 31 deadline
Nigel Farage, pictured today as he addressed MEPs in the French city of Strasbourg, accused Mrs von der Leyen of pushing ‘an updated form of communism’
Who is Ursula von der Leyen?
Once considered a potential successor to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Mrs von der Leyen’s star has faded in Berlin in recent years but she is now set to take the biggest job at the EU.
Passionately pro-European, the outgoing German defence minister is a mother-of-seven and trained doctor who has seen her popularity hit at home over her oversight of the country’s armed forces.
The 60-year-old member of Ms Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) was a surprise pick to take over from Jean-Claude Juncker.
Her name came out of nowhere as the leaders of the EU 28 finally settled on their proposed candidate to be the next president of the European Commission after three hard days of squabbling.
But her appointment is far from guaranteed, with many MEPs angry at the way she was put forward.
If she is able to win the support of a majority of support from MEPs she will become the EU’s first ever female boss.
It would represent a homecoming of sorts for Mrs von der Leyen because she was born in Brussels.
Having crafted a public persona as a super-mum with iron discipline, she was once dubbed “the soloist” for her go-it-alone style and she is also a fluent French and English speaker.
It was previously revealed that she had spent more than a year hiding in London in the 1970s after becoming a target of left-wing terrorists.
She has previously spoken of a desire to create a ‘United States of Europe’.
She has also stuck to the EU’s position that the Brexit divorce deal cannot be changed.
In that respect she is very much in the same place as Mr Juncker.
How today’s vote works
Ursula von der Leyen will need to secure an absolute majority when MEPs vote this afternoon.
That means winning at least 374 of the 747 votes available.
If she is successful she will replace Jean-Claude Juncker as the president of the European Commission.
But if she fails the EU leaders who nominated her will have to go back to the drawing board.
Boris Johnson told the Sun/TalkRadio event he was ‘not attracted to time limits or unilateral escape hatches or all these elaborate devices, glosses, codicils and so on that you could apply to the backstop’, while Jeremy Hunt said ‘the backstop, as it is, is dead’.
But the EU has consistently refused to renegotiate the current divorce deal to remove it.
Brexit Party MEPs could be heard shouting ‘No!’ and booing Mrs von der Leyen while Mr Farage later used his speech to the European Parliament to claim she had ‘just made Brexit a lot more popular’.
He also accused her of pushing an ‘updated form of communism’.
The leader of the Brexit Party told MEPs in Strasbourg: ‘What you have seen from Ursula von der Leyen today is an attempt by the European Union to take control of every single aspect of our lives.
‘She wants to build a centralised, undemocratic, updated form of communism where the state controls everything, where nation state parliaments will cease to have any relevance at all.
‘I have to say from our perspective in some ways I am really rather pleased because you have just made Brexit a lot more popular in the United Kingdom. Thank god we are leaving.’
Mr Farage also accused Mrs von der Leyen of being a ‘fanatic for building a European army’ as he urged MEPs to reject her candidacy.
Mrs von der Leyen hit back and said: ‘To be quite honest with you, having listened to the last speaker, that provides further proof of how important it is to work closely with our British colleagues in the future.
‘But I think Mr Farage we can probably do without what you have got to say here.’
Mrs von der Leyen’s comments on the Brexit deadline will be seen as a major boost for Remain campaigners because they suggest a No Deal divorce is not necessarily inevitable.
Both Mr Johnson and Mr Hunt have kept No Deal as an option as they battle to succeed Mrs May in Number 10.
But while Mr Hunt has said he is open to a small further delay if more time is needed to strike a deal, Mr Johnson has promised to deliver Brexit ‘do or die’ and with or without a deal on October 31.
Both men have made renegotiating Mrs May’s existing Brexit deal their ‘Plan A’ but Brussels has been ice cold on the prospect of making changes to the terms of the UK’s divorce.
Mrs von der Leyen will need to win at least 374 out of 747 votes at a secret ballot this afternoon if she is to be Mr Juncker’s replacement.
But she is far from a lock for the top job with widespread discontent among MEPs over the way in which she was put forward.
The compromise candidate set for the EU’s top job
Ursula von der Leyen was the surprise choice to head the European Commission after days of behind-closed-doors by European leaders.
The German defence minister was the compromise candidate after nations could not agree which of the favourites Manfred Weber and Frans Timmermans.
But her appointment has to be approved by MEPs today.
If European Parliament lawmakers reject von der Leyen, it would be a serious blow for the bloc, beset by challenges from trade to Brexit and erosion of democratic norms.
It would also create a headache for EU leaders who would have to come up with another candidate in a month.
Von der Leyen, who earlier this week resigned as German defence minister regardless of the EU lawmakers’ decision, needs 374 votes for an absolute majority in the vote in the European Parliament due to take place at 5pm UK time.
If approved, she would make history as the European Commission’s first female leader. However, her nomination as a compromise candidate by EU leaders as part of horse-trading has angered some politicians who had put forward their own candidates.
The Christian Democrat of the European People’s Party has promised parliamentarians she will put tackling climate change and social issues at the heart of her programme over her five year term.
However, senior figures in the EU fear Mrs von der Leyen may struggle to secure the majority of support she needs.
Many in Brussels believe she will limp over the line but if she is rejected it would represent a major headache for EU leaders.
She was chosen as the last-minute candidate by the leaders of the EU’s 28 member states after a grueling three day summit during which other better known names were rejected because of internal squabbling.
The way in which she was chosen angered many MEPs and if they reject her then the EU28 will likely be forced to go back to the drawing board.
Her speech to MEPs this morning as she sought to win over her doubters, came after she had written to socialist and liberal representatives yesterday to make the case for why they should support her.
In her letter she said that she would support a further Brexit extension beyond the current October 31 deadline.
But she also insisted that the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated with Theresa May was still the ‘best and only possible deal for an orderly withdrawal’.
Her comments on the finality of the current deal highlight the strength of opposition likely to face Mr Johnson and his plan to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s divorce from the bloc if he becomes PM next week.
Brexit has already been delayed twice since the original March 29 deadline.
Mrs von der Leyen faces a secret ballot of MEPs this afternoon on whether she will replace Jean-Claude Juncker
Mrs von der Leyen will become the first female president of the European Commission if she secures the support of a majority of MEPs
But senior figures in Brussels are concerned that Mrs von der Leyen may barely get the numbers she needs. If she is rejected then the leaders of the EU28 member states will likely have to go back to the drawing board to select a new candidate
Remain MPs warn next PM against suspending parliament to force through No Deal
Remainer MPs warned the next prime minister today that any attempt to shut down Parliament to force through a No Deal Brexit would be a ‘kamikaze act’ that could see them booted out of power.
Senior rebel Tory Dominic Grieve and Labour’s Dame Margaret Beckett issued a warning to Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt that seeking a unilateral departure from the EU would risk sparking a general election.
It came after a leadership head-to-head between the two men vying to be the next Tory leader saw them both rule out any deal involving a ‘backstop’ arrangement for customs on the Irish border – raising the prospect of crashing out on October 31.
She concluded her letter with a lengthy passage on her Brexit vision as she said: ‘If elected, I am ready to pave the way to the ambitious and strategic partnership we want to build with the United Kingdom.
‘Should more time be required and should there be good reasons provided, I will support a further extension if good reasons are provided.’
Ms von der Leyen expressed her ‘regret’ that the UK had voted to leave the EU in June 2016 but added: ‘I fully respect this decision.’
‘The Withdrawal Agreement negotiated with the United Kingdom is the best and only deal possible for an orderly withdrawal,’ she said, according to a copy of the letter published by The Independent.
Her use of the phrase ‘good reasons’ in the letter and in today’s speech has been interpreted as meaning either a second referendum or general election being held to break the Brexit deadlock.
However, while her remarks give a good indication of the future direction of the EU, it will ultimately be up to Mr Juncker and the leaders of the EU member states to decide whether there should be a further Brexit delay.
Mrs von der Leyen is due to take over from Mr Juncker on November 1, the day after the current Brexit deadline.
Boris fails to give lower net migration pledge
Boris Johnson failed to guarantee that he would bring down immigration levels if he is the next prime minister as he clashed with Jeremy Hunt last night and the race for Number 10 entered its final phase.
Mr Johnson was asked directly if net migration would fall if he takes over from Theresa May as he took part in the last head-to-head showdown of the Tory leadership campaign and he said he would not get into a ‘numbers game’.
But Mr Hunt said if he wins the keys to Number 10 that the number of people coming to the UK would be brought down.
Mr Johnson said: ‘I am not going to get into some numbers game. We will have control. That is what people voted for.’