Photo credit: Press Association
Establishing a new European Commission is always a bumpy ride. Collecting enough votes in the European Parliament, receiving the right nominations and allocating the commissioner-designates to their future portfolios in a convincing way is a multidimensional chess game that brings daily excitement to the Brussels ‘bubble’.
But a new commission is never the same as the one that came before it, neither in terms of personal composition or organisational structure, and the political programme changes as well, depending on the challenges of the time.
The next Commission will work with a more pluralistic (and less duopolistic) European Parliament. The other major development is that – for the first time in post-war history – the EU cannot really count on the positive attitude of the United States’ ruling circles.
For example, because of this, the EU now needs to make greater efforts to assume global leadership in the field of climate policy. It also has to get its act together when it comes to reform of the Economic and Monetary Union, because in the next financial crisis we cannot take for granted that there’ll be a supportive approach from the US and the UK, including through the International Monetary Fund.
The term “geopolitical commission” was rightly coined - and at the best time - by Commission president-elect Ursula von der Leyen when she announced her new team earlier this year. Five years ago, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s executive called itself a “political commission” and a “commission of the last chance.”
The Juncker Commission also started to phase itself out much earlier than others normally do. At the end of the cycle there is an inevitable winding down phase of about 9-12 months, when fewer proposals are made and some are even withdrawn. Some commissioners prepare for transferring themselves to the European Parliament, while many leading officials start thinking about their next job. This time around, the winding down started very early.
“The next Commission will work with a more pluralistic (and less duopolistic) European Parliament”
There are also signs suggesting the new leadership cannot change course on everything so easily. Juncker introduced a rather hierarchical system within the Commission by elevating the vice-presidents to a coordinating role.
Vice-presidents also existed under the previous Commission President, José Manuel Barroso, but this only meant that those with this title were sitting closer to the President in meetings and received a slightly higher salary.
Juncker, on the other hand, agreed to a real hierarchy, which meant that the line commissioners were subordinated to vice-presidents with a coordinating role.
But Juncker’s vice-presidents had no directorates-generals attached to them and could not rely on the support of a significant apparatus in their coordinating and policy work. So, the seeds of controversy were sown, resulting in an unnecessarily bruising experience for many. But creating a more hierarchical commission is a solution to a problem that may not even exist.
Nevertheless, instead of correcting the mistake, von der Leyen is going even further, adding one additional layer: the executive vice-presidents. Considering some of the personal choices, portfolio decisions and PR-driven job titles, the result is a frontloaded turf war with possibly even more dog fights down the road.
However, the von der Leyen Commission may undergo a major organisational overhaul half-way through its cycle, once she really takes things into her hands. For now, correcting some of the job titles is more urgent, which most of all applies to the notorious “Protecting our European Way of Life” portfolio, which raises the fear that the next idea would be to appoint a “Commissioner for Delivering Us from Evil”.
However, some of the noise that accompanied the birth of the von der Leyen Commission is the product of anger around the Spitzenkandidat experience.
The Spitzenkandidat or lead candidate system means that each of the European Parliament’s groups put forward a candidate for the presidency of the Commission – with the one securing the most votes from MEPs being elected to the position. It was invented to address the perceived democratic deficit of the EU.
In reality, neither the democratic deficit nor the potential of the Spitzenkandidat process should be exaggerated. If the Spitzenkandidat process gets interpreted too strictly, it becomes a blank check to the European People’s Party (EPP), which is the strongest European political family for structural reasons.
Whoever the EPP pick will become Commission president and, as we saw twice, the EPP just cannot choose the better candidate out of two. In 2013, they could have opted for French commissioner Michel Barnier, but they chose Juncker.
“Whenever it enters office, von der Leyen’s Commission is already a historical one since it is led by a woman and aims at delivering full gender balance”
In 2018, they could have come forward with former Finnish prime minister Alex Stubb, but they stuck to EPP group leader Manfred Weber, who had been endorsed by German chancellor Angela Merkel a few months earlier when she wanted to pacify the Christian Social Union (her coalition party) following a spat over immigration.
The reality is that European Parliament election campaigns change voting preferences minimally and the names and personalities of lead candidates are not too well known outside their own countries and the Brussels bubble.
Nevertheless, those particularly keen on the Spitzenkandidat process were upset when von der Leyen emerged as a compromise candidate.
With the German Social Democratic Party and others in the European Parliament withdrawing their support for von der Leyen, she had to rely on the backing of Hungarian President Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, Polish political leader Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice party and Italy’s populist Five Star Movement - all of whom come with a price tag attached to their support.
Whenever it enters office, von der Leyen’s Commission is already a historical one since it is led by a woman and aims at delivering full gender balance. If, on the other hand, gender policy stops here, it will be seen as a token action and will damage rather than enhance the credibility of the college.
This puts the portfolio for equality into a strategic position and calls for substantial initiatives tackling the gender gap in labour market participation, pay, promotion as well as pensions. It is not only the gender balance that has improved but the Commission’s political balance is also better than it has been for a long time.
The presence of Social Democratic commissioners in key areas such as foreign affairs and partnerships, economic and cohesion policies, as well as social and home affairs, in addition to two strong vice presidents, potentially opens the door to much greater progressive influence than any time in recent memory.
(This article first appeared in The Progressive Post, FEPS' weekly opinion newsletter)