Some thoughts on Ursula von der Leyen’s European Commission

Sébastian Blanchard, T&P Senior Consultant
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.

What can we learn from this new European Commission?

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:

  • Depending on who will ultimately be appointed by the government of Romania (see below), Ursula von der Leyen could succeed in delivering on her promise of a strictly gender-balanced college of Commissioners (13 women and 14 men), which will be a first in the history of the European Commission
  • Unlike the current Juncker Commission which had merged the portfolios, Ms von der Leyen proposes to return to the practice prior to 2014 by having an energy portfolio (Ms Kadri Simson with the support of DG Ener) separate from the one of Climate Action (Mr Frans Timmermans with the support of DG Clima). With a third portfolio dedicated to the environment and the oceans, three commissioners will act on these high-priority issues for the European citizens, as shown by the results of the last European elections, which are at the heart of the "European Green Deal "piloted by Vice President Timmermans.
  • As regards the portfolio granted to the Commissioner appointed by France, Ms Sylvie Goulard, it should be noted that this portfolio is extremely broad, since beyond the official title of Commissioner for the Internal Market traditionally covering the action in the field of industrial policy, public procurement and the single market (physical and digital), Sylvie Goulard will also supervise a new Directorate General for the defence and space industry. This will streamline the management of the European Defence Fund and the first joint industrial and research projects launched recently.
  • Strong political choices have been made by Ursula von der Leyen with regard to the allocation of other ‘hot-potatoes’. First, on values ​​and respect for the rule of law, the President-elect wished to trust the expertise of Czech Commissioner Věra Jourová, who was able to engage in the current Commission on these issues thanks to her Justice portfolio. It may seem surprising at first sight that Frans Timmermans does not continue his mission as Vice-President in charge of the Rule of Law and the Charter of Fundamental Rights. But of Czech origin, Věra Jourová can probably more easily reduce the current split with some Central and Eastern Europe countries. In practice, she will be assisted on these issues by the former Belgian Minister Didier Reynders, who will take over the Justice and Consumers portfolio and will be in charge of setting in motion the new annual mechanism of guarantee of the respect for the rule of law, which he himself had promoted within the Belgian government. Secondly, on trade issues, it is Irish Commissioner Phil Hogan, currently the Commissioner for Agriculture, who will have the responsibility to continue the EU's intense trade agenda. Beyond the many important issues already open (Mercosur negotiations, negotiations with New Zealand and Australia, reform of the WTO DSB, trade tensions with the United States ...), he will also be tasked to negotiate the future commercial relationship with the UK following Brexit. If one is accustomed to say that nationalities fall when one assumes the function of European Commissioner, one can easily imagine that Downing Street is not really delighted by this news. Thirdly, the sensitive issue of migration and asylum will continue to be steered by the Greek Commissioner, Margaritis Schinas who becomes Vice-President and will succeed the current Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos. However, while the latter enjoyed a broad portfolio (migration, internal affairs, citizenship), the Vice-Presidency awarded to Margaritis Schinas, under a surprising title - which has already been much in the news - "Protecting our European way of life ", seems rather limited to coordination and elsewhere it is another Commissioner (Ylva Johansson, Sweden) who has been awarded the portfolio of Home Affairs, with the support of DG Home officials who is attached to it.

What follow-up for this new European Commission?

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.

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