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.
The new Commission is never identical with the old one, neither in terms of personal composition, nor in terms of organisational structure, and the political program changes as well, depending on the challenges of the time. While at the time of the establishment all attention is focusing on the identity of the members, some broader factors condition much of the adaptation process. Specifically, in 2019 this means that it is a more pluralistic (and less duopolistic) European Parliament that the Commission will work with. The other major development is that – first time in post-war history – the EU cannot really count on the positive attitude of the ruling circles of the United States of America. Due to the latter, the EU needs to make greater efforts to assume global leadership in the field of climate policy for example. The EU also has to get its act together regarding the reform of the Economic and Monetary Union, since in a next financial crisis a supportive approach from the US and the UK, including through the International Monetary Fund, cannot be taken for granted. The term “geopolitical commission” was rightly coined and at the best time.
Commission of the last chance?
Five years ago, when they entered, Jean-Claude Juncker’s called itself a “political commission”, and they also said it was the “Commission of the last chance “. Indeed, they produced the largest number of reflection papers about various issues and policy fields, as attachment to a White Paper which in reality was a green paper explaining the divergent EU visions of the largest Member States. Shrinking the work program of the Commission and switching into reflection mode before and after the 2016 UK referendum allows the new Commission led by Ursula von der Leyen to adopt the “last chance” motto too, if they wanted to.
In addition, the Juncker Commission started to phase itself out much earlier than others normally do. There is at the end of the cycle an inevitable phase of winding down, about 9-12 months, when not many new proposals are made any more, some are even withdrawn, some commissioners prepare for transferring themselves to the European Parliament, and the leading officials start thinking about their next job. This time around, the winding down started just very early, with Juncker’s controversial head of cabinet Martin Selmayr parachuting himself into the job of Secretary General. Von der Leyen very quickly acting on this matter by axing Selmayr is a sign of good judgment and decisiveness in action.
The seeds of controversy were sown, resulting in an unnecessarily bruising experience for many.
On the other hand, there are signs suggesting that the new leadership cannot change course on everything easily. Juncker/Selmayr introduced a rather hierarchical system within the Commission, by elevating the vice-presidents to a coordinating role. Vice-presidents also existed under 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. On the other hand, 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. The seeds of controversy were sown, resulting in an unnecessarily bruising experience for many.
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, and adds one additional layer: the executive vice-presidents. Taking into account some of the personal choices, portfolio decisions and PR-driven job titles, the result is a frontloaded turf war, and possibly even more dog fight down the road. The Ursula von der Leyen Commission may become the one that undergoes a major organisational overhaul half-way in the cycle, once the President really takes things into her hands. Correction of some of the job titles is more urgent, which most of all applies to the notorious “defending the European way of life”, 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 accompanies the birth of the von der Leyen commission is still the product of the anger around the Spitzenkandidat experience. This is the system that was invented to address the perceived democratic deficit of the EU and give a chance to Martin Schulz to become Commission president at the same time. In reality, neither the democratic deficit, nor the potential of the Spitzenkandidat process should be exagerated.
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 picks will be Commission President. And, as we saw it twice, the EPP just cannot choose the better candidate out of two. In 2013 they could have opted for Michel Barnier but they chose Juncker. In 2018 they could have come forward with Alex Stubb, but they stuck to Manfred Weber, who had been endorsed by Angela Merkel a few months earlier when she wanted to pacify the CSU (her coalition party) following a spat over immigration.
The reality is that the European Parliament election campaigns change voting preferences minimally, and the name and the personalities of the 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 with Ursula von der Leyen, when she emerged as a compromise candidate at the European Council. Withdrawing support from von der Leyen by the German SPD and some others in the European Parliament resulted in her dependency on Orbán, Kaczynski and the 5 Star Movement, who all attached a price tag on their vote. Taking back influence by the progressive family requires a greater effort after this intermezzo.
Whenever it enters office, von der Leyen’s Commission is already a historical one, since it is led by a woman, and it 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 pension.
On the other hand, it is not only the gender balance that has improved as compared to the entire history of the institution, but the 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 is a momentum Social Democrats cannot afford losing.