Valérie Hayer will lead the European Parliament’s faction of liberals and centrists – the Renew Europe group – after receiving the backing of its 101 lawmakers on Thursday.
Hayer, a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) from Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance party, becomes the youngest person to lead the liberal group in the European Parliament at 37.
The position was left vacant earlier this month after Stéphane Séjourné was named Minister of Foreign Affairs in Emmanuel Macron’s government. Hayer was the only candidate for the role and was elected by acclamation.
Malik Azmani, a Dutch MEP and the Renew whip, was widely rumoured to be lined up for the role but did not put his name forward. His Dutch liberal VVD party are currently in delicate coalition talks in the Netherlands after Geert Wilders’ far-right populist Party for Freedom’s shock victory in November’s Dutch election.
Hayer takes the reins as Renew Europe, the umbrella group which includes centrist and liberal parties from across the bloc, is slipping in opinion polls ahead of the European elections on 6-9 June.
Current projections foresee the group losing as many as 15 seats, while right-wing groups appear set to gain enough territory to piece together a majority coalition in the parliament for the first time, buoyed by Wilders’ recent triumph in the Netherlands.
“Our family is strongly united and optimistic about the upcoming elections,” Hayer said.
“We are the most recognised political family in the fight against the extremes and the populists,” Hayer said about the far-right surge. “So we will give everything in this fight in the next weeks and we’ll see each other on election night.”
But she also warned that Europe’s “fundamental values” are at stake as Europeans head to the polls, naming far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD), Poland’s opposition Law and Justice (PiS) and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán as major threats.
“I want to be absolutely clear that our family will not give in to blackmail,” she said in reference to Orbán.
Some liberal lawmakers have accused the Hungarian premier of vetoing the bloc’s financial support to Ukraine in a bid to pressure the EU executive to unblock EU funds for Hungary, frozen due to concerns over the rule of law and democratic backsliding.
Hayer – whose parents are both farmers – also used her first speech as Renew president to vow her group was “attentive” to the concerns of Europe’s agricultural sector.
Farmer protests have spread across the continent in recent weeks over grievances including high energy prices, burdensome environmental policies and the EU’s free trade agreements with third countries.
Brussels’ flagship Green Deal, which aims to significantly cut emissions in a bid to curb climate change, is emerging as one of the main sources of discontent among rural farming communities.
Hayer refrained from confirming whether the Renew group would pitch a “pause” on Green Deal policies in its manifesto ahead of June’s elections, but indicated it would be discussed by her group’s parties.
“That will be the subject of discussions we will all have together,” she said.