Published on: 3 October 2019
Beginning of September, the President-elect of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, presented her new team, the responsibilities of each Commissioner and the way in which she intends to operate during this new mandate of the European Commission.
This presentation concluded a first institutional phase started in mid-July following election of the former German defence minister by the MEPs (by 383 votes for), making her the first woman to hold the position. Her speech to the parliamentarians gathered in plenary session was a first opportunity for her to draw some strong lines as regards the formation of her team. In particular, she expressed her wish to form a strictly gender-balanced college of Commissioners and thus required the Member States, exclusive holders of the power of proposals, to transmit to her two names, that of a woman and that of a man (this request has largely remained a dead letter, with only a few Member States actually transmitting two names).
Then, an intense phase of exchange, reflection and interview took place, spreading over the month of August, as and when the national authorities made officializations of the appointed Commissioners. Some countries quickly formalized a choice made even before the election of Ms von der Leyen as President, confirming their outgoing commissioner (this is the case, for example, of Austria, Ireland, Latvia, Denmark, Bulgaria, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Slovakia). Conversely, others have played the clock to the end, like France, President Macron announcing the candidacy of Sylvie Goulard 48 hours after the date initially set by Ursula von der Leyen. The situation in Italy, with the implosion in the middle of August of the coalition government and the reorganization of a new government alliance in early September, leading to an official nomination of the Italian candidate only on September 5, also added some pressure on the composition of the new team of commissioners.
With regard to the structure and functioning of the new European Commission, unlike the current Commission and for the first time, some of the eight Vice-Presidents will not solely have a coordinating role for the works and actions done on the political priorities. In fact, three Vice-Presidents will also have an executive function, since they will combine this role with the Commissioner's position and will thus be able to count on the support of a European Commission Directorate-General they will supervise.
Two of these Executive Vice-Presidents had long been known, since the Heads of State and Government had taken the decision at the July European Council to include Frans Timmermans and Margrethe Vestager in the compromise leading to the proposal to appoint Ursula von der Leyen as President of the European Commission. With the latter's decision to install Latvian Valdis Dombrovskis as third Executive Vice-President, it is a triumvirate of experience that reflects the balance of the first three European political forces (European People's Party, Social and Democrats, Liberal-centrist) and indicates a certain politicization at the highest level of the European executive.
Regarding the composition and distribution of portfolios, several key features and innovations need to be highlighted:
Everything is not yet set in stone and the entry into office of the new Commission on November 1 is still a distant horizon.
Indeed, a second institutional phase has been recently open, during which each commissioner-designate has to pass the evaluation process by MEPs gathered in their respective parliamentary committees. This is not a simple exercise, as candidates must really demonstrate their skills and convince the MEPs of the adequacy between them and the outlines of the portfolio awarded (first in a written way by answering Members' questions, then orally during a three-hour long hearing). This is evidenced by the fact that in the past, the European Parliament has not hesitated to veto candidates who, in the view of the MEPs, did not seem to be fit enough for the job envisaged or who were facing judicial troubles : thus, in 2004 during the first "Barroso Commission", the MEPs rejected the candidacy of no less than 3 commissioners. During the installation of the last European Commission, President-elect Jean-Claude Juncker had to cope with the rejection by the European Parliament of the Slovenian Commissioner-designate and the refusal to grant the Hungarian Commissioner-designate the envisaged portfolio.
The current European Parliament upheld the traditions, since we already count “two victims” of the parliamentary control. Indeed, both the Romanian and Hungarian initial candidates did not survive the first evaluation phase of their declaration of interests by the Legal Affairs Committee of the European Parliament. MEP’s declared them in breach of the rules on conflict of interests and rejected their candidacy, denying them the possibility to pass the hearing. If the Hungarian government reacted quickly and appointed a new candidate within 24-hours, the Romanian government is still in turmoil and hesitates between two candidates, a man and a woman, then putting at risk the result initially achieved by Ursula von der Leyen of having a gender-balanced college of Commissioners.
Other candidates did not successfully please the MEPs at their hearing. That is the case, for example, of the Polish and French Commissioners-designate, who have been requested to answer a new set of written questions, as a first step before a potential second-hearing. In this highly-political game, more surprising twists are expected.
After the evaluations, the plenary session of the European Parliament will have to validate the entire college of Commissioners before the European Council can formally appoint the new European Commission.
The Brexit turmoil could also disrupt the entry into office of the new European Commission and its first weeks of exercise. If the Council of the European Union did receive at the end of August confirmation that the United Kingdom would not proceed with the appointment of a British commissioner, the open conflict with the House of Commons on the issue of a no-deal exit and the legal obligation Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing to request a further extension to the EU-27 in case of failure to negotiate a revised agreement at the October European Council, make it plausible to assume the British government will ultimately appoint a commissioner.
The final configuration of the "von der Leyen Commission" therefore remains subject to significant potential impacts and it is reasonable to expect that some adaptations will be made by 1 November.Back to top