The New European Commission Takes Office: What to Watch
The new European Commission that takes office is strong on improving its gender diversity and has ambitious goals that reflect new European and international realities, but it faces plenty of obstacles. The mission statements and the commissioners chosen give indications about the EU’s priorities for the next five years. But the fractious politics in the run-up to the approval of the new commission, the dearth of solidarity in the EU, the impact of Brexit, and a hostile international environment will all work against its best intentions.
The previous European Commission was called by its leaders a “political” one; Ursula von der Leyen calls hers a “geopolitical” one. Even if is hard to imagine the EU bureaucracy playing geopolitics, the choice of wording reflects a growing awareness that Europe needs to become much better in leveraging its internal strengths internationally. The portfolios and positions that have been prioritized and strengthened reflect this ambition to couple internal and external policies. Margrethe Vestager’s responsibilities will expand from competition policy, where she has taken on the technology giants, to digitalizing Europe, with the ambition of finding a space in the global technological race. The huge internal-market portfolio has been widened further to include defense, with the goal of integrating the defense industry and thus building Europe’s strategic autonomy. A European Green Deal, the overarching goal of the new commission will require a radical rethink of a wide range of policies, from energy to agriculture.
Democratic setbacks across the member states have been one of the most debilitating dynamics underpinning the EU’s crisis. The new European Commission recognizes this; much of the rhetoric is geared toward “people standing together.” Addressing the challenge has been spread across several portfolios, some with awkward and ambiguous titles, and with the promise of a conference on the future of Europe. While progress may be made in specific areas, question marks abound, starting from the appointment of the representative of Hungary—a country that is no longer considered by international standards a full democracy—to the enlargement portfolio, which includes the promotion of good governance and the rule of law. Other portfolios also raise questions: how will the conference on the future of Europe avoid being just another formal consultation that falls short of pursuing substantive democratic goals? How will the rights of Europeans and of non-Europeans arriving to the continent be promoted when the EU cannot agree to a common migration policy aside from strengthening borders? Can a European Green Deal be credibly pursued if the economy is not radically transformed? How can Brussels leverage its greatest historical assets—democracy and prosperity—if it flags on one and indefinitely postpones addressing its eurozone governance weaknesses?
All these areas will be tested internationally: trade agreements will include more demanding climate-related goals, investments in defense will be critically examined by NATO partners, technology is a test ground with respect to relations with China and the United States, enlargement and relations with neighbors can only work if the EU is credible in setting standards. Foreign policy and diplomacy, alongside the long list of crises and relationships to manage, will also have to support the pursuit of these goals in the name of multilateralism, which remains the key overarching international goal of the EU. The test of success will be whether the EU, battered by a long crisis and with difficult partners within and outside will be able to carry this agenda through with political commitment and the needed financial resources.
—Rosa Balfour, Senior Transatlantic Fellow, Europe Program, Brussels
Foreign Policy: A Tough Agenda
Josep Borrell, the new high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, faces an impressive set of challenges. On the strategic front, the former Spanish foreign minister and veteran socialist will need to make headway in bridging the gap between a mounting set of foreign policy demands and a persistent “lowest common denominator” approach to EU external policy. This task will not be made easier by deepening differences between France and Germany on critical issues, including Syria and NATO. In the immediate neighborhood, troubled relations with Turkey and stalled policy toward the Western Balkans will be at the top of the agenda. Pressure from France to reset relations with Russia will be another challenge, alongside a tougher approach to China that many but by no means all EU members favor. With his southern European perspective, the new high representative should have a strong interest in European strategy around the Mediterranean, as well as relations with Africa and Latin America. Borrell is likely to take a frank, perhaps quite tough, approach to the United States. He will bring a different set of skills to the post than those of his predecessor; he may be less inclined to high-flying diplomacy, and more inclined to working political differences in Brussels. It will not be easy.
—Ian Lesser, Vice President and Executive Director, Brussels Office
Neighborhood and Enlargement: Support Genuine Reformers
Countries in Europe’s eastern neighborhood continue to face cyclical challenges to their democratic development. Promising governments are regularly elected only to be replaced a few years or even merely months later by less democratic and open ones, or they fall short of their promises to carry out political and economic reforms. One lesson after the past decade is that, while these countries’ internal struggle to reform is influenced and fueled by Russia, it is still to a larger extent conditioned by internal politics and dynamics. Deep-rooted corruption, a political culture of state control and manipulation, poor economic processes, and lack of transparency are the real factors of their seemingly never-ending cycles. The division of their political forces in pro-European and pro-Russian is now too simplistic and does not reflect the real competition – that between pro- and anti-reform actors.
A fresh approach to the region—for which Olivér Várhelyi is now responsible as commissioner for neighborhood and enlargement—should focus more vigorously on the defense and advancement of good governance, clean politics, and healthy economic development. Those actors who are genuine in their resolve to promote these values in their respective countries and who are at the same time well connected to their constituents and communities should be supported as champions, rather than those who merely wave the EU flag. While one cannot pretend geopolitics does not influence this part of the world or the EU’s approach to it, the union should not let itself be fooled anymore by those using it as a screen for their incompetence or malevolence.
—Alina Inayeh, Director, Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation, Bucharest
Equality: A Good Basis for Change
Many people welcome a portfolio for equality as the European Commission takes office. Helena Dalli, Malta’s former minister for European affairs and equality as well as minister for social dialogue, consumer affairs and civil liberties, has been a strong advocate for equality throughout her political life. While she was enthusiastic during her hearing in the European Parliament, on content she was weak. She referred to pertinent policy challenges—a European Gender Strategy, equality at work and pay transparency, the Women on Boards Directive, the Work–Life Balance Directive, or cracking down on gender-based violence—but she had little to say how she is going to do her work. At a time when some member states have populist or authoritarian regimes, when nationalist, conservative rhetoric has taken hold, and some citizens fear “others”, her task to strengthen the EU’s commitment to inclusion and equality—not just with regard to gender, but also racial or ethnic origin, age, disability, sexual orientation, or religious belief—will not be easy.
The true equality work will have to be done by Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission. She made a good start by insisting member states suggest a male and a female candidate for “their” commissioner positions. She also reiterated her commitment to a gender equal commission, pushed the incoming commissioners to have diverse cabinets, and set up a task force for equality with representatives of all EU institutions to include equality considerations in all policies. Her gender-sensitive actions and words will be much more impactful when it comes to the way the EU’s leadership will encompass diversity and inclusion in their work and policies. The passion of Dalli combined with political leadership of von der Leyen could be a good basis for change.
—Corinna Horst, Senior Fellow and Deputy Director, Brussels Office
Trade: Unresolved Business
Phil Hogan seems perfectly cast as the EU’s new trade commissioner. Having been commissioner for agriculture for five years, he knows the ways of the European Commission, and the politics within the EU on its most sensitive trade issues. A large and imposing figure, he was trained in the cut and thrust of politics in Ireland; he can be affable but is also known for being blunt. His predecessor, Cecilia Malmström, significantly expanded the EU’s swathe of bilateral trade agreements, including with Canada, Japan, Singapore, and Vietnam, providing him a strong hand in dealing with her one main bit of unfinished business—the United States.
But that one challenge will also be particularly tough for Hogan, and not just because he faces Trump and his rough trade team. To win with the United States, he will need to leave behind his time as agriculture commissioner, for the biggest U.S. complaint about EU trade policy is its unjustified protection of its agricultural sector. (The EU is the world’s largest agro-foods exporter.) Trump’s threat of tariffs on autos has receded, but only because the United States can legally target European farmers with high tariffs since it prevailed in the World Trade Organization over the EU’s subsidies to Airbus. This challenge can be solved by separating food regulatory issues from the trade talks, but only if Hogan is willing to deal in the political sensitivities he knows all too well.
Hogan’s other main issues are China (where he, like his predecessor, can seek to align with the United States), the World Trade Organization (where again Washington induces headaches) and Brexit as he will need to negotiate the new trade agreement with the United Kingdom should it leave the EU. In the latter, he will be well served here by his team (his director general was the deputy for the Brexit negotiations), but also by his Irish roots; he will want to be imaginative in the talks to minimize the damage to his home country.
—Peter Chase, Senior Fellow, Brussels
Home Affairs and European Way of Life: A Geopolitical Conscience for Migration
It will be no easy task for the European Commission to make a fresh start in asylum and migration policy—an issue that straddles the portfolios of Margaritis Schinas, the vice-president for the newly created area of “promoting our European way of life,” and Ylva Johansson, the commission for home affairs, and in some regard also other commissioners. With a new pact on migration and asylum and being a reliable neighbor to Africa, among other things, on the agenda, three things should be on the commissions list.
Von der Leyen’s “geopolitical commission” will serve the EU if it stays true to the promise of its name: embedding migration interests and cooperation far more systematically into the broader geopolitical upheavals of our time. This means taking into consideration European interests beyond migration into account—say when discussing whether to tie development aid or other issues (trade, legal migration) to cooperation on returns, as is currently fiercely debated in Brussels. The outcome of these considerations consequently must vary depending on the country or region in question and must include a view toward the interests of partner countries and other actors—such the United States, China, or Russia—in Africa.
The migration-related consequences of political and security changes in the EU’s broader neighborhood (and also the actions or inaction of the union and its member states) must also be taken into account from the beginning. The alternative is to face migration consequences without a real say in their causes; for example, the consequences of European irrelevance, like in Syria, or of diverging European interests, like in Libya. The commission could establish itself as the voice for these migration-related linkages and as a constant reminder of how these may tie to a European interest in staying relevant and able to act in tomorrow’s world.
The commission’s premise of what gives the EU geopolitical clout should emphasize its value-based and human rights commitments as one of its great soft power assets. As migration and the treatment of migrants has become something of a litmus test for these values, the voice of a geopolitical commission on migration would also remind member states of this asset, and the price they may pay if they lose it.
—Jessica Bither & Astrid Ziebarth, Migration Fellow and Senior Program Officer, & Senior Migration Fellow and Head of Strategy, Europe Program, Berlin
Values and Transparency: Protecting Democracy
Věra Jourová, the vice-president for values and transparency, is tasked with fighting internal and external threats to the EU’s democratic systems and processes. In this new mandate, she will bring together some of the most challenging strands of work to address external interference in Europe, including in the digital realm, and unify them under a single strategy. Under a European Democracy Action Plan, Jourová will propose legislation that improves transparency in the financing of political parties and in paid political advertising. This is a hot political area, as the major online platforms announce their political advertising policies, an issue on which there is little coherence.
In addition, Jourová is in charge of countering disinformation. It will therefore be her job to decide whether the Code of Practice of Disinformation is a strong enough tool to counter disinformation and inauthentic behavior on online platforms, such as Facebook—and, if not, to propose regulations to improve democratic norms on digital platforms. Given widespread displeasure with the platforms, further regulation is very possible.
Beyond her work on external threats, Jourová will be responsible for coordinating the European Commission’s work on upholding the rule of law, which will face pushback from numerous member states. Furthermore, she will have to broker debates on introducing transnational candidates into the European Parliament and reforming the process of choosing a lead candidate for the post of European Commission president. Any one of these issues could easily define a mandate, and it is notable that she will have to manage them all.
—Kristine Berzina, Senior Fellow, Alliance for Securing Democracy, Brussels
Justice: A Delicate and Conflict-ridden Portfolio
Bearing in mind the recent autocratization of member states like Poland and Hungary and the European Commission’s ongoing conflicts in defense of rule of law and other European values, Didier Reynders portfolio as commissioner for justice appears to be one of the most delicate and conflict-ridden ones. A key driver in his former capacity as Belgium’s foreign minister behind the “friends of rule of law” group of member states and the proposed rule of law peer-review procedure in the European Council, his dedication and experience is beyond dispute.
However, forging an inter-institution coalition for rule of law may be a very tough challenge, especially as several member states in the European Council may exploit the peer-review proposal as fig leave to reject any cooperation with the European Commission in the annual monitoring of the member states’ rule of law performance. In this field, Reynders’ most important task will be the establishment of a comprehensive mechanism that covers all member states, as envisaged by the commission’s Rule of Law Communication issued in July. He will also be responsible for enforcement, which will mean among other things fighting the usual fight with the governments of Poland and Hungary by infringement procedures and court referrals.
Concerning justice and consumer affairs, Reynders will accompany the establishment of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office, which should start its operations next year. Developing consumer-protection standards for online transactions and with respect to the era of green and digital transitions rounds up Reynders portfolio.
—Daniel Hegedüs, Non-Resident Fellow for Central Europe, Berlin
Internal Market: Overcoming Resistance on Security
Thierry Breton has taken on an enormous portfolio: not only is he commissioner for the internal market, but he also oversees the Directorate-General for Communication Networks, one of the issues that will be of major political importance in the coming years. But above all he will be the focus of the attention of foreign and security policy observers as he will be in charge of the new Directorate-General for Defense Industry and Space, the creation of which has been under discussion for more than a year.
The latter’s creation is an expression of years of efforts to expand the role of the EU as a security actor. However, Breton will not have policy powers in security in the narrower sense, and he will have to concentrate on establishing a common market for armaments. To this end, he will have to successfully implement the formats and initiatives that have already been decided upon, above all the European Defence Fund.
Breton will have to fight against three powerful forces—the national interests of the member states, the skepticism of NATO, and the resistance of the United States. So far, it has been mainly the member states that have defended their arms policy interests, industries, and export regulations against Brussels’ influence. Breton must overcome or at least contain this resistance. At the same time, NATO insists that the EU’s greater armament efforts do not duplicate the alliance’s plans or undermine transatlantic cooperation. Here, Breton will have to illustrate the added value of a deepened European armaments cooperation for NATO with selected projects. Finally, the United States demands unhindered access for U.S. armaments companies to the European market and fears protectionist measures. In view of the recent transatlantic upheavals, it has not become easier for Breton to develop a participation for third countries that safeguards the interests of the Trump administration.
—Markus Kaim, Helmut Schmidt Fellow of the Zeit-Stiftung and GMF, Washington/Berlin
Digital and Competition: A Wide, Vital Remit
Margrethe Vestager starts her mandate as executive vice-president responsible for “a Europe fit for the digital age” with a strong reputation but also having faced some criticism. As commissioner for competition, her action against the dominance of digital champions was praised, while her decision to block the merger between Siemens and Alstom was criticized for not paying appropriate attention to European industry.
Vestager retains the competition portfolio, but with a mandate to review competition policy to support an EU industrial strategy and to tackle the distortive effects of foreign states’ ownerships and subsidies. This means a rethink of competition policy, very focused on consumer welfare until recently, to which she may be adverse given her instincts as a political liberal.
Vestager also gains more power with a specific mandate to coordinate the European Commission’s digital transition policies, which is one the two main priorities announced by Ursula von der Leyen, alongside the Green New Deal. She will coordinate the preparation of a legislative proposal on artificial intelligence (in particular on ethical aspects), a Digital Services Act (consisting of a review of the outdated Electronic Commerce Directive to take into account in particular the working conditions of platform workers), and a proposal for an EU digital tax if no international consensus can be found on this by end 2020. The lead commissioner on these proposals will be Thierry Breton and, with his strong industry and corporate background, he will bring a strong input to Vestager’s overarching strategy.
—Michel Servoz, Non-Resident Senior Fellow, Washington
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