With its blocking of some candidates, the European Parliament is seeking the prominence it was denied when the proclamation of the Spitzenkandidatfailed.
Ursula von der Leyen, at the plenary session of the European Parliament where she defended her candidacy [European Commission].
ANALYSIS / Jokin de Carlos
In 1963 the Elysée Treaty was signed between President Charles de Gaulle and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, ending centuries of Franco-German rivalry and beginning the friendship between the two countries. Over the following decades, France and Germany, as the leading economies of the Union, would largely shape the political and economic diary . Even in times of crisis, the two leading countries avoided a confrontational image.
However, after the European elections last May, there was a public tussle between Berlin and Paris over who should replace Jean-Claude Juncker as head of the European Commission. On the one side, led by Angela Merkel, were those leaders who defended the nomination of the Bavarian Manfred Weber, Spitzenkandidat of the conservative European People's Party; on the other side, led by Emmanuel Macron, were those who, with liberal or social democratic leanings, opposed this nomination in preference to the Dutchman Frans Timmermans or the Danish Margrathe Vestager.
After weeks of negotiation and diplomatic tension, Weber's candidacy was withdrawn, partly because of Merkel's political weakness in Germany and the momentary defenestration of Sebastian Kurz in Austria due to Ibizagate. But position did not go to Vestager or Timmermans but to Ursula von der Leyen, the German defence minister and Merkel's Christian Democrat colleague, who hails from Hanover and comes from an aristocratic family.
And so ends the summer of our discontent, with this Hanoverian sunshine.
One of the main problems for the new Commission President will be how to achieve consensus among the leaders at committee and among the parties in the Parliament.
Von der Leyen was unanimously elected on committee, but her election to the European Parliament was the narrowest in history, with only nine votes above the required majority. There were several surprises in this vote, with the Italian 5 Star Movement and the Polish PiS voting in favour and the SPD and all of the Greens voting against.
Composition of the Commission
On 9 September, von der Leyen made public his nominees for the new Commission, composed of 28 members for the 28 member states, although the United Kingdom Withdrawal will have a seat due to its scheduled departure from the Union on 31 October.
The von der Leyen Commission has been organised in the form of pillars, each led by a Vice-President and composed of one or more Commissioners with specific portfolios. These pillars are five: (a) agreement green Europe, which will cover issues such as energy, transport or agriculture; (b) a Europe ready for the digital age, for issues such as innovation and skill; (c) protecting our European way of life, which will cover the areas of immigration and security; (d) a Economics that works for the people, for trade, work and finance; and (e) a Europe strong in the world, which will include issues such as International Office or crisis management.
For the composition of this Commission, Von der Leyen has tried to integrate two of the Spitzenkandidat who were discarded for the presidency. Socialist Frans Timmermans, former Dutch deputy prime minister, will continue as vice-president and lead the European Greenagreement pillar, while liberal Margrethe Vestager, former Danish deputy prime minister, having been commissioner for skill in the previous Commission, will lead the Digital Ready Europe pillar. These are two of the most popular commissioners in the Juncker Commission, in Vestager's case for her fight against tax evasion by several large US tech companies, such as Google, Amazon and Apple.
Of the remaining vice-presidents, three will head the other three pillars: the new EU High Representative Josep Borrell, a former Spanish minister in several portfolios and former president of the European Parliament, will lead Strong Europe in the World; Latvian Christian Democrat and former premier Valdis Dombrovskis will head the economic pillar; and Greek conservative Margaritis Schinas will lead the pillar of protecting the European way of life.
Three other vice-presidencies, with smaller areas, will go to the Czech Verá Jorubá (Values and Transparency), Slovakia's Maroš Šefčovič (Inter-institutional Relations) and Croatia's Dubravka Šuica (Democracy and Demography).
Among the nominees for commissioners are prestigious people who have achieved important positions in their respective countries, as well as in previous European commissions: Paolo Gentiloni, former Italian prime minister, will be commissioner for Economics, and Didier Reynders, former Belgian minister of defence, finance and foreign affairs, will head justice.
There are two characteristics of this Commission proposal: (1) the first is its more political character and (2) the second is a marked Francophilia.
(1) In the past, Commissioners tended to show a technical profile and in many cases a preference for remaining in the shadows. In a way they could have been considered the secretariat of the European committee . However, Von der Leyen' s selection seems to want to put an end to this tradition by opting for better known names. Thus, Gentiloni or Dombrovskis have previously governed their countries, while others such as Vestager, Timmermans or Reynders have had some previous prominence. It seems that the interest of EU politicians is no longer so much to create the European Federation as soon as possible as to bring Brussels closer to the people. Whether this strategy works or not, time will tell.
(2) The second characteristic of this new Commission is a clear pro-French direction, to the satisfaction of Emmanuel Macron. Many of the members of the Commission are political allies of the French president; the clearest example is Ursula von der Leyen herself, despite having been a member of Merkel's cabinet and a co-religionist of hers. It should be remembered that it was Macron who proposed her for the position after the veto of Weber, who was Merkel's initial candidate . But that is not all. Both Timmermans and Vestager are political allies of Macron (Vestager had been his first choice to chair the Commission). Josep Borrell is also a well-known Francophile, and Didier Reynerds is a French-speaking Belgian whose party is allied with Macron's, as is Italian commissioner Paolo Gentiloni. It is thus a largely Francophile Commission, which could increase Macron's weight in the Union and advance his vision of Europe.
Outside the Commission, the other positions nominated by the European committee were Christine Lagarde, the former French finance minister, who has left the IMF to head the European Central Bank, and Charles Michell, the French-speaking premier of Belgium and a fellow liberal of Macron's, the new president of the European committee .
These nominations were also intended to meet a number of objectives:
i) First and foremost, there was a desire to put an end to the possible alienation of the countries of Central and Southern Europe. Out of eight vice-presidents, four are from Central Europe, in charge of such important areas as the economic pillar or justice issues; two others are from the South, with responsibility for immigration and foreign policy.
ii) It has also tried to reach out to groups that may have doubts about Von der Leyen or directly voted against him in the parliamentary session. Looking at the Greens, Europe's greenagreement portfolio aims to reduce carbon emissions by 55% of their 1990 levels by 2030 and to make Europe the first zero-carbon continent by 2050. The immigration pillar, called Protecting our European way of life, seems to augur a tougher policy on immigration issues with goal to maintain the support of Poland's PiS and Hungary's Fidesz.
iii) Briefly it should also be mentioned that the nomination of Gentiloni to the economic portfolio seems a way to reward Italy for the training of a pro-Brussels government. While the nomination of a left-wing Italian for Economics might worry Germany or the New Hansa, it seems that the nomination of Austrian conservative Johannes Hahn for the Budgetary Commission has been made to balance Gentiloni's nomination.
Challenges and possible complications
The four main challenges of this new Commission seem likely to be ecology, Economics, immigration and the construction of a common foreign policy.
As mentioned above, the nomination of Borrell and other commissioners may lead to a foreign policy along French lines, which at certain points may lead to conflicts with Poland, the Baltic states or even Germany if tensions between France and the US lead Washington to question its commitments to NATO and Russia.
Immigration looks set to remain a major issue for the Commission, although not as much as in recent years, largely because the issue of people arriving in Europe has dropped dramatically. From more than one million in 2015 to less than 150,000 in 2018. Everything seems to indicate that the line on illegal immigration will be tougher than in previous years, although an attempt will be made to avoid populist rhetoric. However, the very name of the portfolio, Protecting our European way of life, has already been criticised by certain political and civil society sectors in Western Europe.
The Economics will be another element core topic. With a Brexit that could damage the European Economics or cause a slowdown.
Another major problem will be related to Timmermans and his position. As head of the European green pillar agreement , the Dutchman will be in charge of dealing with countries to reduce their carbon emissions. Central European countries, especially Poland, are still heavily dependent on the coal sector, which employs a significant portion of the workforce. Timmermans showed a certain clumsiness in dealing with Poland and Hungary on justice issues when he was Juncker's vice-president, so it remains to be seen how he deals with the energy issue.
In relation to the nominations, there has been concern over the Parliament's blocking of the Romanian, Hungarian and French Commissioners, who were rejected for different reasons. In the case of the Hungarian nominee, the veto was attributed to his relationship with a law firm, and in the case of the French nominee, to his links with an American think tank . However, the general analysis seems to indicate that these rejections, especially in the case of the French nominee, seem to be a retaliation by the Parliament for having been section in the decision on the Commission presidency - by disregarding the proclamation of the most voted Spitzenkandidat - by the European committee , especially by Emmanuel Macron. The fall of the Romanian government and the establishment of a government provisional until the 2020 legislative elections may delay the training of the Commission. According to High Representative Josep Borrell, the training of the Von der Leyen Commission is expected to be delayed until 1 December.
To say that the Von der Leyen Commission will be continuist, as many claim, would be partially incorrect. While the ideology seems to be the same, the objectives set are very different and much more political. It seems that some of the mistakes made by the Juncker Commission want to be solved and an attempt is being made to respond to some of the demands that citizens are making of Brussels, on issues such as care for the environment, economic improvement, the correct integration of Central Europe, border control, the development of a common international policy and bringing Brussels closer to Europeans.
Whether this will be a failure or a victory, on verra.