international analysis and commentary

The new team of hopeful Commissioners

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The atmosphere surrounding the public unveiling of the European Commission led by Ursula von der Leyen was not too different from that of the launch of a new iPhone: there were interactive presentations on the screen, some well-kept secrets which later became sensational announcements, as well as marketing slogans such as “protecting the European way of life”.

Still, in Cupertino and in the whole Silicon Valley they might not be too excited to see that Margrethe Vestager, the Danish liberal politician who has taken on Apple and other tech giants such as Google and Amazon, will stay on as Commissioner for Competition, the same portfolio she was responsible for in the Juncker Commission.

Margrethe Vestager

 

A rather unprecedented – move in the EU institutions, where the unwritten rule is to avoid the concentration of powers that is likely to occur if someone remains in charge of a policy area/Directorate General of the Commission for more than one term. However, not only Vestager will continue to be the European “Tax Lady” – as US President Donald Trump once labelled her – but she will also take charge of the EU Digital Strategy.

Valdis Dombrovskis, the outgoing (and incoming) Latvian Commissioner from the center-right EPP has received a similar exemption: he will continue overseeing the bloc’s economic and financial policies, coordinating the job of – among others – Italy’s Paolo Gentiloni, who will need to deal with a fiscal hardliner in his mission (im)possible to call for a revision of the Stability and Growth Pact.

Together with Vestager and Dombrovskis, socialist Dutchman Frans Timmermans – to become the EU’s climate czar – completes the “executive” triumvirate of vice-presidents (one representative per each of the main governing parties) who will closely work with Ursula von der Leyen on the implementation of core priorities of her 2019-2024 program.

With the United Nations’ Agenda 2030 for sustainable development as a paramount political reference, von der Leyen has missed the chance to task one of those executive VPs to follow up the EU mainstreaming of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), clearly earmarking a global vision for Europe vis-à-vis jittery international partners such as the US and Russia. Climate and energy will be among the defining topics for the new Commission that will work on a legislation to enshrine the 2050 climate-neutrality target into law.

A quick look at the numbers of the newly-designated European Commission shows that von der Leyen has put together a gender-balanced team (13 women and 14 men) even though not a very young one (the average age being 55). She has also further developed the hierarchical structure already adopted by Jean-Claude Juncker, with eight vice-presidents (three of whom proudly wear a newly-branded “executive” title) tasked to coordinating different policy areas and making sure that synergies work across the portfolios.

In the College, nine members (including the President) are from the EPP, six from the centrist/liberal alliance Renew Europe, one each from the Conservatives (ECR) and the Greens, while ten are Social-Democrats (S&D) – this way reflecting a positive trends for European leftist mainly due to their recent comeback in government in Finland, Sweden and Italy. The new socialist majority in Denmark has nonetheless decided to confirm Vestager, showing a certain degree of political maturity which is usually not to be taken for granted.

Alexis Tsipras could have also had the chance to propose a name for commissioner a few months before holding national elections – however, after dramatically losing to his opponents at last May’s European elections, the euro-critic-turned-EU-believer during four years in office as Prime Minister of Greece called a snap election at the beginning of July. This resulted in a change in government in Athens earlier than scheduled, giving the possibility to the newly-sworn center-right government to propose former Juncker spokesperson Margaritis Schinas as European Commissioner.

The only Green representative has been put forward by Lithuania, where his (right-leaning) Farmers Unions is in government: despite being the youngest member in the new College, Virginijus Sinkevičius has been entrusted with the huge environment portfolio. The fact that he owns a “Make America Great Again” red hat has caught media attention and will not make it easier for the progressive-minded Greens/EFA Group in the European Parliament to revert the decision not to back the new Commission.

Virginijus Sinkevičius

 

After being the king-maker who advanced the compromise names of von der Leyen as head of the Commission and Christine Lagarde as chief of the European Central Bank (ECB) at July’s European Council, France’s President Emmanuel Macron turned to a third powerful woman to complete the picture. A EU-enthusiast and long-serving Member of the European Parliament (MEP), Sylvie Goulard has been chosen to lead the internal market portfolio – that this time includes also the digital single market – and to prepare Europe for the ambitious challenges ahead when it comes to defense and space.

As security of energy supply is a topic very dear to Eastern European countries – especially vis-à-vis Russia – Estonia can be satisfied with ending up with the energy portfolio for her own Kadri Simson.

Von der Leyen’s branding operation of certain portfolios has proven not to be a success story: while some critics have spoken outrage for seeing the “protection of the European way of life” linked to the responsibility for migration, others have blamed the lack of visibility for education and culture. They are watered down in a generic “Innovation and Youth” portfolio, in the hands of Bulgaria’s Mariya Gabriel. Despite the reductionist label, however, it shows a forward-looking approach to create a “knowledge chain” that brings together – for the first time at the EU level – research and education.

As opposed to Juncker’s “political Commission”, von der Leyen herself referred to the new College as a “geopolitical Commission” that will need to be “the guardian of multilateralism”. She is aware that such a challenge starts already in the EU’s own courtyard, meaning the Western Balkans. The fact that Hungary’s László Trócsányi has been given responsibility over the enlargement and neighborhood portfolio might not be too bad of a news item – at least as seen from the region, after five years when no further enlargement was on the Commission’s agenda.

Against the backdrop of “old” member states such as France and the Netherlands trying to resist a further enlargement (as opposed to a deepening) of the Union, an Eastern commissioner taking over the accession negotiations might be interpreted as a sign of renewed interest in the region by those countries that have either already started the process (i.e., Serbia and Montenegro) or that are still waiting for it to be formally opened after undertaking tough domestic reforms (i.e., North Macedonia and Albania). With an ally of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán as the enlargement chief, however, a political paradox might easily come up.

Viktor Orbán and the Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić

 

The Hungarian commissioner would actually be tasked to oversee the state of the rule of law in candidate or potential candidate countries, while his own government is the EU’s black sheep for the respect of democratic values: a clear picture of the already well-known EU’s double standards that are applicable to those who want to join the club but rather not for those who are already members.

In light of the sensitivity of the topic, two caveats should be borne in mind: first, that the European Commission acts as a collective body and second that, once appointed, commissioners cut the umbilical cord with their own government and perform their duties in the interest of the Union. However, the political affiliation is hard to die and it will nonetheless play a role in the internal equilibrium of the new College.

As a next step, commissioners-designate will have to undergo hearings in the relevant committees of the European Parliament starting on 30 September. There, hopeful commissioners will need to receive the green light from two-thirds of the political groups’ coordinators (a target that is even higher than that required to elect the president of the Commission in plenary): they will test their general competence and their strategy to manage the assigned portfolio(s). If such threshold is not met, according to the Parliament’s rules of procedure the committee can further ask questions in written form or summon the candidate for a second hearing.

A few times already there have been cases of candidatures withdrawn following a negative result of such hearings. As already happened in the last legislative term, it is very much likely that the candidate put forward by Hungary will not have as easy time before the Parliament, especially in light of his controversial background as Justice Minister who has taken a hard stance vis-à-vis NGOs and even the (once) Budapest-based and Soros-fueled European Central University. Much will depend on whether MEPs will decide to engage in a politically exhausting arm-wrestling match with Orbán, whose party Fidesz still is member of the EU’s biggest political family, the EPP.

During the second half of October the European Parliament will then convene in plenary to give its consent to the Commission as a whole, which is set to be sworn in on November 1st. This timeline explains also why the technical date for the delaying Brexit was agreed on Halloween Day. If the United Kingdom does not ask for a further extension of Article 50 after October 31st, London will keep faith with its proclaims not to send a representative to Brussels.

The von der Leyen Commission has still a long way to go: some of its hopeful members might be first grilled and then politically annihilated by an ambitious Parliament that needs to prove to be the bearer of democratic legitimacy within the Union’s architecture vis-à-vis the backroom talks of a re-empowered European Council, where the views of the member states are reflected.

Von der Leyen in the European Parliament

 

However, instead of losing heads, the team might even end up adding one – depending on what the political turmoil on the other side of the English Channel produces.