The new EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is shaking up her agency. But her dream team is already causing resistance.
The longer Ursula von der Leyen spoke, the less clear her priorities became Photo: reuters
Even a few hours before Ursula von der Leyen presented her dream commission, EU states were jockeying for positions in the Brussels agency. Some commissioners were kept in the dark about their responsibilities until the very end. But when von der Leyen appeared before the press at twelve o’clock sharp, she seemed at peace with herself and the world. She announced that she had put together a "balanced, ambitious and experienced" team. Gender, parties and regions were fairly represented.
And indeed, the new EU Commission, which will take office on January 1, 2010, is a good one. The European Commission, which is due to take up its work on November 1, meets all the proportional representation criteria that are so important in Brussels. With 13 female commissioners, women are more strongly represented than ever before, and parity was only narrowly missed with 14 men. The conservatives were taken into account, as were social democrats and liberals. Eastern Europeans and southerners have been given important posts. Von der Leyen’s dream team also includes political heavyweights; Paolo Gentiloni is even an ex-head of government.
The two big issues for the future – climate and digital – were given to the top candidates in the European elections, Frans Timmermans and Margrethe Vestager. Vestager, a Dane, is also to retain the competition with which she has made an international name for herself. Timmermans is to broker a "green deal." "We will boldly tackle climate change, strengthen our partnership with the United States, define our relationship with a more confident China and be a reliable neighbor," von der Leyen said.
But the longer the first woman to head the EU agency spoke, the more unclear the priorities became. She barely addressed the looming recession in Germany, the refugee crisis or the Brexit chaos. Yet they threaten to overshadow the start of the new EU Commission.
The presentation of the Commissioners and their responsibilities did not paint a clear picture either. In the future, there will not only be three "executive vice presidents" – in addition to Timmermans and Vestager, Valdis Dombrovskis may also adorn himself with this title. His area of responsibility is "An economy for the people. Von der Leyen has also appointed five other commissioners as "ordinary" vice presidents. These include the new EU foreign affairs commissioner Josep Borrell, the Czech Vera Jourova ("values and transparency") and the Greek Margaritis Schinas ("protect the European way of life," which hides migration policy).
Criticism of Hungarian and Polish commissioner
Then there are "clusters," in which several commissioners are grouped together. This already led to confusion when it was introduced. For example, Jourova and Belgian Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders will be responsible for the rule of law and democracy. In addition to Gentiloni and Dombrovskis, the French Internal Market Commissioner Sylvie Goulard will also be responsible for the economy. She is also involved in security policy and heads the new Directorate-General for Defense Industry and Armaments. She is also responsible for the digital single market. The 54-year-old confidante of France’s head of state Macron will thus be one of the most powerful women in "Team von der Leyen. This is probably no coincidence: After all, Macron pushed through von der Leyen’s election at the EU summit in July.
The Hungarian and Polish commissioners Laszlo Trocsanyi and Janusz Wojciechowski will have an astonishing amount of power. The confidant of Hungary’s head of government Viktor Orban is responsible for enlargement and neighborhood. Wojciechowski will be Agriculture Commissioner – and will take over by far the largest budget in the EU budget. These two nominations are being linked in Brussels to the fact that Macron, as well as Chancellor Angela Merkel, aggressively courted Hungary and Poland after the European elections in order to secure von der Leyen a majority.
Resistance to the two "wobbly candidates" is already building in the European Parliament. Trocsanyi is accused of having actively participated in the dismantling of democracy and the rule of law in Hungary as ex-minister of justice. And Wojciechowski is even the subject of proceedings by the EU’s anti-fraud agency, OLAF, concerning travel expenses from his time as an MEP.
Members of the CDU and SPD have already announced that they will "grill" the two Eastern Europeans at the hearings in the European Parliament, which begin at the end of September. Goulard must also expect problems at the hearings, because she is also under investigation by OLAF – because of an old affair involving bogus employment. If a commissioner fails, von der Leyen will have to request new candidates. Otherwise, she risks having her team fail the vote on the EU Commission on Oct. 23. She only managed her own election in July with a razor-thin majority of nine votes.