Ursula von der Leyen will take over the Commission Presidency from Jean-Claude Juncker on 1 November. This week she nominated her choices for positions in the various Directorates-General. Will her picks for Brussels’ highest law-making positions save the EU and its institutions?
Ursula von der Leyen took Brussels by surprise when she was nominated for the European Union’s highest post in early July this year. For the second time, the spitzenkandidat electoral system was used. The Socialists and Democrats’ (S&D) candidate, Franz Timmermans, was seemingly in pole position for the title of president-elect. After objections from Central European countries, however, Von der Leyen’s name was proposed by the European Council. A staunch Merkel loyalist who served in many of the German Chancellor’s cabinets, Von der Leyen’s appointment seemed at the time to be informed by a catastrophic lack of judgement. After European elections which returned unprecedented numbers of Green, Liberal and Eurosceptic MEPs, will the continent be satisfied with more of the same?
The President-Elect’s nominations suggest that she is taking bold steps for the EU’s future. The Juncker presidency has been unwilling to stand up to populists across the Union for too long. The European People’s Party, the parliamentary grouping to which Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk belong, failed in its handling of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s chauvinistic posturing. Orbán’s Fidesz Party was suspended from the EPP parliamentary party earlier this year due to concerns over its flagrant breaches of the rule of law in Hungary, including crackdowns on academic and media freedom- Fidesz has even used Juncker’s face on anti-immigration posters in the past, and still remains a member of the wider EPP outside of the European Parliament.
There are three appointments in the Von der Leyen ‘college’ which suggest she is prepared to stand up to populism both inside and outside of the EU. The first is Margrethe Vestager’s reappointment to the position of Competitions and Anti-Trust, which this time comes with the added responsibility of tech regulation. She has been a vocal critic of Donald Trump’s protectionism and was dubbed “the tax lady” and someone who “hates the United States perhaps more than any person I’ve ever met”. Vestager imposed large fines on Google and Apple for competitions breaches and tax avoidance respectively, while also contributing to the introduction of data protection services against large American tech firms in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The Dane is also in charge of regulating social media policy regarding hate speech and misinformation in the new ‘EU Digital Services Act’. Vestager’s appointment is a clear act of defiance against the creeping influence of American tech firms and against Donald Trump’s aim to infiltrate the European market, often through populist alliances in European countries.
Ursula von der Leyen will become the first female Commission President, leading a gender-balanced college. For an institution that has for far too long been a man’s club, this move could be crucial in ensuring that women reach parity in the parliaments of member states. Currently, Spain is the only member state with a majority female parliament.
The most important titles delegated to men in this Commission go to Italy’s Paolo Gentiloni, the nominee for economic affairs chief, and Ireland’s Phil Hogan, the new trade commissioner and chief negotiator. Gentiloni will be in charge of bringing the new Italian government into line after the Commission was at loggerheads with its previous coalition over breaches of the EU’s budget deficit rules. His appointment is a marker of Von der Leyen’s willingness to tackle populists head on- with Matteo Salvini’s hopes of a return to power her clear target. Hogan’s appointment has wide-reaching implications for Britain. Should Boris Johnson request an extension to his country’s exit date on 31 October, his representatives will be negotiating with the former agriculture commissioner. Hogan has argued that the EU should take a much tougher approach with London in the future, accusing the British government of creating a “foul atmosphere” which will hinder its chances of a trade deal in the future. He is a controversial figure in Ireland but his appointment is a clear move to reassure Ireland and other countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands, who could be badly affected by a ‘no-deal’ Brexit, that the new Commission is right behind them.
The cut-and-thrust, absolutist nature of majoritarian politics in the UK often leads us to forget that European governments do things differently. For a long time, we were convinced that the whacking-great majorities given to Thatcher and Blair were what kept us from the chaos that plagued governments in Italy and Spain, when in fact they have simply developed better skills in compromise and understanding. The president-elect, whatever the circumstances of her appointment, has shown that she is willing to work with moderate parties within the parliament to create a long-lasting, integrated future for Europe. She has expressed her wish for a “geopolitical” Commission, protecting Europe from threats posed by the US, China and Russia, while also leading the way in gender equality and climate justice. Meanwhile, onlookers in Europe wait to see whether this gamble will pay off.