“Every Beginning Lives a Magic”, with this line from the poem “Steps” by Hermann Hesse Angela Merkel commented on the exuberant reception that the Berliners prepared for the French President, Emmanuel Macron, on his inaugural visit to Berlin in June 2017.
What happened afterwards? Well, the new foundation of Europe demanded by Macron has so far failed to materialise. German European policy has played its part in this. It is not only pragmatic through and through, but unfortunately often also stubborn and know-it-all.
Let us walk the talks
Now another German has been given the great opportunity to breathe new life into the European idea and, as she herself put it, to “walk the talks”. Yesterday at noon the time had come. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the #EuropeanCommission and former German Defence Minister, introduced her team in Brussels.
But nobody would have thought of speaking of the magic of the beginning. And this despite the fact that Ursula von der Leyen and her team spared no effort to formulate their coherent and challenging working agenda and the dossiers derived from it for the new Commission as modern and agreeable as possible. One or the other long-serving official of the EU Commission might have difficulties finding his way back between “European Green Deal” or “Protecting our European Way of Life”.
The magic failed to materialise
The fact that the magic failed to materialise was due to Ursula von der Leyens start not being very glamorous. Her name only appeared at the very last minute. In addition, without wanting to deny her the ability to hold this office, she was and is one of the classic compromise candidates, to which 28 heads of state and government are able to struggle their way through at the last minute after tough negotiations. The European Council against the opposition of the European Parliament also enthroned her. The MEPs right up to her election resented the fact that she was not one of the “spitzenkandidaten” in the European election campaign. The German SPD, what could be seen as a hugely unpatriotic act, could not help but refuse its allegiance to the first German President of the Commission since Walter Hallstein in 1958 – at least at that time still a cabinet colleague in Berlin.
In Parliament, she won her office as President of the Commission accordingly only with a wafer-thin majority and with the help of political groups such as the eurosceptic Italian “5-star” movement. Many people therefore already spoke ill that she had to buy this majority at a high price by making concessions not least to Victor Orban and the ruling PIS party in Poland. Both countries are in the dock before the European Court of Justice for violating the principles of the rule of law and democracy.
Taking advantage of the element of surprise
This could not be called premature praise. However, without them, there are also advantages. It gives you the element of surprise. And Ursula von der Leyen was able to take advantage of that yesterday.
Her new Commission will include, for the first time, almost as many women as men. That alone is a more than positive surprise and sets her Commission clearly apart from all its predecessors. Besides Ursula von der Leyen, 12 women and 14 men will share the tasks of a thoroughly demanding working agenda in the future.
However, with the exception of Ursula von der Leyen, all the other candidates still have to face the hearings in the European Parliament. Parliament decides in the last instance on the Commission, but can only reject or accept it as a whole. Under pressure from Parliament, a number of candidates have already withdrawn in the past.
Not all candidates will get through
It is to be expected that again not all candidates will get through. Parliament owes that to itself. And it often had good reasons. This time, however, it will certainly make use of its right. The sting is still deep that the Heads of State and Government have undermined the “spitzenkandidaten” model with which Parliament successfully and against the will of the European Council made Jean-Claude Juncker President of the Commission. But it was the disunity of the European Parliament itself that this time prevented neither Manfred Weber, the leading candidate of the European People’s Party, nor Frans Timmermans of the Socialist and Democrat Party from making it to the office of President of the Commission.
The nominations from Romania, Poland and Hungary are controversial. The candidate proposed by Victor Orban in particular, Laszlo Trocsanyi, was responsible for the highly problematic reform of the judiciary, which has now been at least partially halted. The fact that Ursula von der Leyen has now made him responsible for the Neighbourhood and EU Enlargement portfolio should raise many questions. But it could also have a method. He would probably not be an unwelcome pawn sacrifice.
The Hungarian’s going to have a hard time
It will be difficult for Trocsanyi to convince Parliament that, although he does not believe so much in democracy, the rule of law or freedom of the press, he will now devote all his energy to respecting and enforcing these very values and principles in EU accession negotiations and in relations with neighbouring countries.
The most surprising thing, however, are not the nominees, who have been more or less predetermined by the Member States. Although one may say that this time almost only experienced politicians are nominated. Of the 27 Commissioners, 18 alone are former ministers, including three former heads of government.
What is rather surprising is how Ursula von der Leyen set the priorities for her agenda, tailored the ministries to the candidates, built bridges and networks, balanced the difficult arithmetic between South, North, East and West and gave the Commission a new structure.
A pinch of hierarchy for the collegiate principle
The Commission is governed by the principle of collegiality. Per se, all Commissioners are equal. The key to success is to bring 27 Commissioners into line and to network their portfolios efficiently and effectively. Von der Leyen could have found it with the introduction of three Executive Vice-Presidents and five other Vice-Presidents, including the Spanish High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, as envisaged by the EU Treaty.
For the newly created Executive Vice-Presidents posts, she has selected Frans Timmermans (S&D), Margrethe Vestager (“Renew” former Liberal) and Valdis Dombrowski (European People’s Party), three highly experienced and respected politicians, all of whom were also members of the previous Commission. With this, she might succeed in drawing a hierarchy into the college that should not actually be allowed to exist.
Frans Timmermans (Netherlands) will coordinate the new cross-departmental priority “A European Green Deal”. Kadri Simson (Estonia) with the energy dossier and Virginijus Sinkevicius (Lithuania) with the environment and oceans dossier will be assigned to this priority. One would hope that the new Polish Commissioner for Agriculture would also find a firm anchor here.
Vestager wants to continue to teach Google&Co. the fear
As Competition Commissioner, Margrethe Vestager (Denmark) will continue to fear Internet giants such as Google, Amazon and Apple, and will be responsible for the priority “A Europe equipped for the digital age”.
The third in the group, Valdis Dombrowski (Latvia), will be responsible for the economic and social dimension under the title “An economy that works for people”. He will be assisted by former Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni with the Economy portfolio and Nicolas Schmit (Luxembourg) with the Jobs dossier.
As Competition Commissioner, Margrethe Vestager (Denmark) will continue to scare Internet giants such as Google, Amazon and Apple and be responsible for the focus “A Europe ready for the digital age”.
The third in the group, Valdis Dombrowski (Latvia), will be responsible for the economic and social dimension under the title “An economy that works for people”. Former Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni with the Economy portfolio and Nicolas Schmit (Luxembourg) will support him with the “Jobs” dossier.
Macron’s candidate gets a new Directorate General
To this group could also be added the French candidate, Sylvie Goulard. She will be responsible for industrial policy and building up Europe’s own defence capabilities, which was Macron’s explicit wish. For the latter, a new Directorate-General will even be set up in the Commission. Frictions with Margrethe Vestager should be programmed. Maintaining and building European champions that can hold their own in global competition has so far not been in line with EU competition policy.
Ursula von der Leyen has also shown a good hand in sharing responsibility for dossiers. The Belgian Didier Reynders for Justice and the Czech Vera Jourova for “values and transparency” form such a pair: the two can now start to observe and evaluate democratic developments in Poland or Hungary from both a Western and an Eastern perspective. Perhaps they will be more successful than Frans Timmermans has been so far.
How shrewd, an Irishman for the trade contract with the British
Without question, the appointment of the Irishman Phil Hogan as Commissioner for Trade can be described as particularly profound to sophisticate. In the future, he will lead the negotiations between the United Kingdom and the EU after the Brexit. For Ireland, it is a matter of the Whole. In this case, there is no question of the goat being turned into a gardener. This has yet to be proven with other appointments. The German media, which are particularly strongly stability-oriented and demonise debt making, are already getting excited about the election of the Italian Gentiloni. As Commissioner for Economic Affairs, he will be responsible for ensuring that Italy puts its finances in order. At least, there is one thing he cannot be accused of, and that is that he does not know a thing about the matter. And that may well be an advantage.