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New EU chief Ursula von der Leyen vows to uphold the rules-based order 'the European way'

Stuart Lau in Brussels

The European Union on Tuesday picked Ursula von der Leyen as its first female chief executive, ushering the hawkish German minister onto a path of potentially more challenging EU-China relations.

In her speech, the ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel vowed to uphold a rules-based order "the European way".

"We want multilateralism, we want fair trade, we defend the rules-based order because we know it is better for all of us," von der Leyen said following her selection in Brussels. "We have to do it the European way."

While the new chief executive comes from the European bloc that promotes an open market, experts say the EU could be tempted to take a harder line on China's growing influence over the geopolitical and business environments in Europe.

Newly elected European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is congratulated by European Parliament President David-Maria Sassoli after the vote at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France. Photo: AFP alt=Newly elected European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is congratulated by European Parliament President David-Maria Sassoli after the vote at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France. Photo: AFP

The European Union privately has been accusing China of splitting the bloc and the continent, prompting Chinese officials to repeatedly reassure the EU that China will stand by its vow to respect European unity.

China's plan for a 5G technology business in Europe " coupled with the promotion of Belt and Road Initiative projects in the poorer part of the EU " have fuelled suspicion in Brussels, too.

The belt and road is China's massive plan to link the country with Asia, Europe and Africa through a network of infrastructure projects.

As head of the EU executive, von der Leyen will be in charge of trade negotiations, economic and climate policy for 500 million Europeans and antitrust rulings involving powerful tech giants.

She received the European Parliament's endorsement on Tuesday to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker from November 1, despite some opposition to the European Council's choice of a candidate who did not run in the European elections.

She won the vote by a 383-327 count, the speaker of the assembly, David Sassoli, announced. She cleared the minimum threshold of 374 by only nine votes and was far short of the 422 votes cast in favour of Juncker in 2014.

"The trust you placed in me is confidence you placed in Europe," the German conservative said. "Your confidence in a united and strong Europe, from east to west, from south to north. It's a big responsibility and my work starts now."

On Tuesday, she did not say much about her view on China and Russia, which she had cast as major threats facing Europe.

As German defence minister, von der Leyen had said earlier this year that China "kindly ensnares" Europe.

"We often overlook how consistently it pursues its goals " and how cleverly," she said.

As the first German to lead the commission in half a century, von der Leyen focused her pre-vote address Tuesday on climate change, pledging to make Europe by 2050 the first "carbon neutral" continent " meaning it could reduce carbon emissions while offsetting the its remaining carbon emissions with climate protection policies.

She also vowed to achieve gender equality among the commissioners' positions, saying that she was prepared to "ask for new names" if member states failed to come up with a sufficient list of women to choose from.

Besides vowing to defend the rule of law, von der Leyen took aim at US tech giants' low tax bills in Europe and said she would update EU-wide policies for tackling the European migrant crisis.

"We need to address the legitimate concerns of many and look at how we can overcome our differences," she said.

Von der Leyen also indirectly took aim at foreign powers' attempt to split Europe, vowing that Europe under her leadership would provide clear, centralised foreign policy decisions.

"I believe Europe should have a stronger and more united voice in the world " and it needs to act fast," she said.

"That is why we must have the courage to [make] foreign policy decisions by qualified majority. And to stand united behind them."

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2019 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.