By Will Marshall
December 1, 2019
BOLOGNA, Italy – The European Commission of President Ursula von der Leyen assumed office on December 1 after clearing a final hurdle in the European Parliament.
On November 27, Members of the European Parliament (MEP) approved the 27-member College of Commissioners in an uneventful 461 to 157 vote despite the absence of a nominee from the UK, which plans to withdraw from the EU by January 31. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who expects to win approval for his Brexit plan following domestic elections on December 12, has refused to nominate a Commissioner.
In October, MEPs rejected three candidates from Romania, Hungary, and France for important Commission portfolios in an unusually controversial confirmation process that delayed the transition to the new Commission beyond its original November 1 start date. Those nominees have since been replaced and approved by the European Parliament, but not before exposing new fault lines within the EU.
Commissioner von der Leyen, a former German defense minister and ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel, inherits a Council whose north-south divisions on immigration and eurozone participation have stymied the progress of reform efforts. In Strasbourg, she must also grapple with a parliament that has become more fragmented since the May elections in which a surge of populist and centrist parties upset the chamber’s comfortable majority held by the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Socialists.
Sir Michael Leigh, former Director-General for Enlargement and a professor at SAIS Europe, believes the addition of the liberal “Renew Europe” political group into the Parliament’s grand coalition will complicate the Commission’s agenda. “It will be more difficult than in the past for the Commission to mobilize majorities and persuade the political groups to support its proposals,” Leigh predicts.
Indeed, Parliament dealt her an early blow in October when the EPP blocked the French nominee, and personal friend of von der Leyen, Sylvie Goulard from a role in which she would oversee the internal European market. The move appeared to be in retaliation for French President Emmanuel Macron’s veto of the group’s preferred Commission candidate.
For von der Leyen, who narrowly secured a majority in her bid for the job, this new dynamic poses a challenge for her tenure. Nevertheless, the new Commissioner has presented an ambitious proposal calling for the EU to play a larger geopolitical role, not just in Europe but globally. Within the union, she wants to hasten the transition of the European economy to a low-carbon future through a European Green Deal.
During a recent event at the Bologna Institute for Policy Research, Christian Danielsson, the EU’s Director-General for Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations explained how the new Commission intends to take a more geopolitical approach through consolidation, or a more clear demarcation between responsibilities that fall either to the EU or the member states. “With Brexit, the EU has a stronger reason to consolidate,” Danielsson said. “We should have a more coordinated approach or a clearer division of the portfolio held by member states and the EU. For instance, [member states] keep war and peace, and the EU takes climate, digital innovation and migration.”
Although von der Leyen has yet to fully define what she intends with her talk of a more “geopolitical Commission,” it is clear the new Commission president wants to give strong thematic branding to her program. “She wants to show that the EU isn’t just a technocratic body. It’s also a political body with a geopolitical vision,” Leigh said.
In practice, this could mean a variety of things. Leigh speculated that such a view could give new importance to subjects such as climate, regulation of large internet companies, and energy policy – which all have geopolitical implications. “These issues are the core of EU relations with key partners around the world, and there is no reason why they should only be considered technical dossiers,” Leigh said.
French President Macron is another leader with a vision for the EU that has often conflicted with the Commission’s goals. In October, Macron drew the ire of the Commission by voting against the start of EU accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania, arguing that the enlargement process is in dire need of reform. In a recent interview with the Economist, he lamented the “brain death” of NATO, once again upsetting the Commission as well as the EU’s Eastern European members.
“There is no doubt about why he is doing this unilaterally at a time when the other two traditional major powers (the UK and Germany) count for far less because of Brexit and Chancellor Merkel’s de facto lame duck position,” Leigh said. “He is seeking to occupy the space that normally would have been occupied by shifting alliances of these three major players in the EU.”However, Leigh warned that such a strategy could backfire. “He is asserting leadership but in little to no consultation with others,” Leigh said. “Unilateral initiatives don’t always pay off, so if he gets into difficulty on an issue, he can’t rely on support from traditional backers.”