November 2019

By Étienne Bodard, with contribution from Étienne Soula

On October 31, the current European Commission headed by President Jean-Claude Juncker should have left office and ceded its place to a new team headed by former German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen. The new EU Commission was slated to become more green (environmental focus), gender-balanced, and “geopolitical”, in the words of incoming President von der Leyen. At least that was the plan. With just a few days to go before the transfer of power, the incoming team is struggling to get its ducks in order.

Under President von der Leyen, 28 EU Commissioners, each named by one of the 28 EU Member States, will be given specific portfolios to help implement her policies for the next five years. All 28 commissioners must be approved by the European Parliament before the entire team can start its mandate. Extraordinarily, that very number is now a matter of contention. The newly extended Brexit deadline, most recently pushed back to January 31, 2020, means that the new EU Commission will not be able to start its term until a British commissioner is nominated by London and approved by the European Parliament.

However, more firmly anchored EU Member States have also faced setbacks during the process. In an uncharacteristic show of assertiveness, the EU Parliament has, over the past few weeks, rejected the proposed candidates for EU commissioners from Hungary, Romania, and France. Through those rejections, the European Parliament showed the EU Commission and Member States that it was not a mere 'rubber stamp', thereby reinforcing its political standing and influence. This is also a clear warning that the current legislature’s shifting majorities will make it less predictable that its predecessors.

In late September, EU lawmakers rejected the Hungarian and Romanian commissioner candidates due to concerns of conflicts of interest. The former, previously justice minister under Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, allegedly had his private law firm award government contracts, while the latter was dogged by allegations of corruption at home.

Hungary named a replacement in early October but Romania underwent an unexpected change of government and has only now put forward its candidate for EU commissioner.

But European lawmakers’ boldest move was their decision to vote down Sylvie Goulard, France’s nominee for EU commissioner, over legal charges that she used a European Parliament assistant for domestic political work and about her work for the Berggruen Institute in the United States. The French had carved themselves a very expansive portfolio that ranged from digital affairs, to defense, to industrial policy. Paris’ priority has been to ensure that the European Parliament’s snub will not affect this portfolio.

On November 12, the European Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee approved the financial declarations of the new candidates—France's Thierry Breton, Hungary's Olivér Várhelyi, and Romania's Adina-Ioana Vălean. This opens the door for the three commissioners-designate to appear in front of the relevant European Parliament committees on November 14 to assess their suitability to their given portfolio. Already, the French nominee’s previous experience as CEO of a technology company has raised concerns about possible conflicts of interest given his position’s influence over European digital policy—the legal committee approved his financial declaration by a narrow margin of 12 in favor vs. 11 against.

This means that, at best, the whole EU Commission college would be adopted by the European plenary session on November 27, and not able to start its mandate before December 1. It’s even possible that the current Juncker team will remain in its current caretaker role until early 2020.

There are two key takeaways to be gleaned from this situation. First, the difficulties facing President von der Leyen show all stakeholders that the political landscape and institutional balance of power in Brussels has changed. It also gives a sense of what to expect from the now politically reinforced European Parliament where ad hoc majorities will spell the success, or failure, of specific projects. Second, the inability of President von der Leyen to have her team swiftly approved by the EU Parliament leaves her Commission politically weakened. This could make it harder for von der Leyen to implement her “geopolitical” agenda without granting significant concessions to reluctant EU Member States.

The next major milestone is slated to occur within the next 100 days when the European Commission is expected to adopt its 2020 work program and to propose its major initiative, the European Green Deal.

Stay tuned as we continue to report on the impact of this turbulent start on EU policies.