URSULA VON DER LEYEN was no one’s first choice to be president of the European Commission. She did not run for the job during the European election campaign in May as a “lead candidate” representing a political grouping. Only because national leaders could not settle on an alternative did they resort to Germany’s now-former defence minister, a centrist Christian Democrat. The European Parliament, newly fragmented after the elections, was barely convinced and endorsed her candidacy with a majority of just nine votes. When next week she presents her proposed team of 26 commissioners (one from each other member state, minus soon-to-exit Britain), and especially when she takes office on November 1st, questions about her authority will hang in the air.Nor can she expect a honeymoon. Mrs von der
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URSULA VON DER LEYEN was no one’s first choice to be president of the European Commission. She did not run for the job during the European election campaign in May as a “lead candidate” representing a political grouping. Only because national leaders could not settle on an alternative did they resort to Germany’s now-former defence minister, a centrist Christian Democrat. The European Parliament, newly fragmented after the elections, was barely convinced and endorsed her candidacy with a majority of just nine votes. When next week she presents her proposed team of 26 commissioners (one from each other member state, minus soon-to-exit Britain), and especially when she takes office on November 1st, questions about her authority will hang in the air.
Nor can she expect a honeymoon. Mrs von der Leyen formally takes the reins of the EU’s executive at midnight on October 31st, the precise moment when Britain is due to leave the EU. That could make for a busy first day. Then there is the teetering pile in her in-tray: a looming economic downturn, disputes over the EU’s next seven-year budget, unresolved problems in the euro zone, splits on migration and law and order, trade wars and an altogether daunting wider world. Her handling of these will depend especially on how political she is willing and able to be.
The job of commission president has evolved. The EU’s executive combines the roles of “guardian of the treaties” (enforcer of rules and arbiter in disputes), initiator of legislation and implementer of decisions taken by the European Parliament and national governments. It once seemed like little more than a glorified secretariat. Roy Jenkins, the incumbent from 1977 to 1981, called his position “the impossible job.” “Indeed, it can hardly be called a job at all,” wrote his biographer in 1983: “The president has a number of conflicting responsibilities but no power. By no stretch of the imagination does [he] resemble the prime minister of Europe.”
That has changed. Successive treaties have made the president more accountable to the European Parliament, more powerful over ordinary commissioners and better able to set the agenda. The latest stage of the process came in 2014 when the “lead candidate” convention came in, offering voters a chance to endorse a prospective president by voting for his or her party family. Jean-Claude Juncker “won” in that his centre-right European People’s Party came first, and claimed this as a mandate to create a “political commission”. That turned out to mean a tighter list of priorities, more control from the centre, new vice-presidents leading groups of commissioners and a greater willingness to apply political rather than merely technical judgments—for example by allowing Italy to bend budget rules in order to calm relations with its Eurosceptic government.
Mrs von der Leyen, a wonkish and unflashy type, cannot point to much of a mandate from the parliament. It is thus tempting to assume that she will ditch the “political commission”, subordinate herself more to national leaders and restore the EU’s top job to its more technocratic roots.
The early evidence suggests otherwise. From the start, Mrs von der Leyen has sought to put her political stamp on the next commission. She has insisted on there being more female commissioners. Twelve of the 26 nominated so far are women; Romania, the remaining member state, has proposed a man and a woman between whom Mrs von der Leyen can choose. So the next commission will be 44% or 48% female. And Mrs von der Leyen is also planning to give the vice-presidents greater powers and resources. Frans Timmermans, a Dutch socialist, and Margrethe Vestager, a Danish liberal, are earmarked for cross-cutting responsibilities for climate change and the digital economy; a central or eastern European, perhaps Vera Jourova of the Czech Republic, will also get a weighty vice-presidential role.
Those pending appointments point to three other emerging features of Mrs von der Leyen’s commission. First, she is keen not to reverse but to extend the Juncker-era politicisation. Second, the new commission will have a leftish hue on many big issues. In her first 100 days Mrs von der Leyen will table a “green new deal”, new minimum wage protections, pay-transparency measures and a new strategy on the ethics of artificial intelligence; she has also called for more “growth-friendly” (that is, looser) fiscal policies in the euro area. Third, Mrs von der Leyen is determined to bind in those eastern member states that feel unfairly treated in the EU; making conciliatory noises about rule-of-law infringements in countries like Poland and Hungary, and calling for a reset on the divisive issue of accepting and distributing migrants who cross the Mediterranean.
Not to everyone’s taste
All of which alarms some. In February Stef Blok, the Dutch foreign minister, argued that: “A commission that prides itself on being political undermines its own objectivity.” In his view, the institution’s primary role is to be a neutral arbiter between member states, and it cannot do that if it is constantly taking positions on things. It is indeed troubling that the incoming president seems inclined, for diplomatic reasons, to bend the expectations of freedom and democracy that the EU has for its member states.
However, it makes little sense to hark back to a halcyon era of technocratic, supposedly dispassionate decision-making. Jenkins’ Europe was a simpler, more homogeneous, more harmonious place. By contrast Mrs von der Leyen inherits a sprawling, plural club riven with differences and bombarded with events. The measures her commission proposes will probably have to command support spanning three, four or even five party groups in the fragmented European Parliament. Her tenure, like that of Mr Juncker, will probably be defined by how she reacts to unexpected crises. One can take issue with political decisions that she takes. But her right to take them is clear. ■