8 Take-Aways From The New Commission
1. Missing Martin?
With Martin Selmayr departed to the Austrian Alps and Ursula von der Leyen (VDL) placing her former German Defence Ministry chief of staff in charge of her cabinet, there risks being a vacuum at the heart of the transition. Would Selmayr have allowed the frantic last minute reshuffle that saw Vestager suddenly back in charge of competition or Gentiloni insisting on ECFIN rather than internal market? A new Sec Gen is urgently needed to install discipline and order, with Frenchmen, Jean-Eric Paquet and Olivier Guersent, the current front runners.
2. Two is company, three’s a crowd
The big surprise of the announcement was the addition of Valdis Dombrovskis as a third Executive VP. Was VDL exerting her independence, carving out an extra position for the EPP on top of the two candidates “imposed” on her by the European Council? Timmermans was reported as being annoyed by the move but still remains “first among equals” in having the symbolic task of presiding over college meetings in VDL’s absence.
3. VPs get a DG
VDL has clearly learnt the lessons from the Juncker Commission by ensuring that her 3 Executive VPs also have direct access and oversight of their own DG. Juncker’s VPs had to rely on the Sec Gen and go through the cabinets of their Commissioners. It remains to be seen how the dynamics will work and how the new Commissioners’ Groups will operate but there are already some fascinating combinations. Will Dombrovskis be able to exert fiscal discipline on Gentilioni? How will Vestager and Goulard sort out the digital agenda when Vestager is also charged with policing the sector with her competition hat on?
4. Balance restored
VDL’s first success was to honour her commitment to the Parliament to ensure a gender neutral Commission and her team of 8 VPs also redresses the geographical imbalance left by EU leaders. She calls on her Commissioners to ensure their Cabinets strike the “appropriate balance in terms of gender, experience and geography” and all Commission events should now aim for gender-balanced panels.
5. Forget the political Commission, we’re now Geopolitical
Running through the political guidelines is the necessity to align the internal and external aspects of the EU’s work, so that action on the climate, for example, is as much about getting other major emitters to follow the EU’s lead as it is about adopting internal EU targets and policies to meet them. VDL stresses that multilateralism is under threat from both internal populist forces as well as external risks from Trump, Putin or Xi. Putting the “tax lady” back in charge of competition and “Big Phil” on trade policy indicates she’s prepared to stand up to Trump.
6. Protecting out European way of life
As job descriptions go, the new titles for many Commissioners have led to confusion and controversy. What exactly does the Commissioner for Democracy and Demography do? Are Values and Transparency just for Vera Jourova to work on or the whole Commission? The biggest furore was over the migration portfolio being re-branded as Protecting our European Way of Life. It seems to have been a nod to the EPP manifesto but has spectacularly backfired, with Le Pen’s endorsement surely giving it the kiss of death. MEPs are also asking why research, fisheries, culture and even social affairs don’t get a mention in any of the titles. Expect some cosmetic name changes.
7. One in, One out principle already under fire
Rumour has it that former Croatian MEP Dubravka Suica was none too keen to take up the role of Commissioner and I doubt she was reassured by the task of developing a new instrument to deliver on a “One in, One out” principle. The drive to cut red tape is commendable and the principle is that every legislative proposal creating new burdens should relieve businesses of an equivalent existing burden in the same policy area. The Greens have already labelled the idea “ deregulation on steroids” and will no doubt target it during the hearings.
8. The Hearings – who is most at risk?
What started off as a list of the obvious candidates from the countries already on the naughty step (Poland, Hungary, Romania) has suddenly lengthened with an embarrassing number of candidates under official investigation. Sylvie Goulard was interviewed by the police on the same morning VDL was telling the world she would take on the mega-portfolio of internal market, industry, digital and defence. Didier Reynders, in charge of Justice and Rule of Law, is now feeling the heat of the law on his back over alleged corruption charges and VDL herself still has the defence contracts scandal hanging over her. The Parliament of course has tasted blood in the past and nobody wants to join the exclusive club of Commission rejects – Rocco Buttiglione (IT), Ingrida Udre (EE), Rumania Jeleva (BG) and most recently Alenka Bratusek (SI). The Hungarian Laszlo Trocsanyi looks the most at risk and his absence from an EPP family photo of their Commissioners can only add to the sense that he may be sacrificed.