A new team of Commissioners

On Tuesday September 10, Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen presented her team of Commissioners and the portfolios attributed to each of them. The Commission counts 27 members, one per Member State. No British Commissioner has been put forward on the assumption that Brexit will take place on October 31 2019. Should that not be the case, the UK will then have to appoint a Commissioner for the duration of their continued membership of the European Union (EU).

Although the candidate Commissioners are proposed by their respective Member State governments, they are not national envoys representing their countries’ interests. Commissioners act in the common EU interest, based on the powers granted to them by the EU treaties. National interests, meanwhile, are represented by ministers in the Council. The newly proposed Commission team will now be scrutinised by the European Parliament in public hearings set to take place between 30 September and 8 October. The Parliament must then endorse the Commission as a whole but could demand that President-elect Ursula von der Leyen replace any candidate Commissioner who fails to convince the Parliamentary committee. The final vote is expected on October 23 and the new Commission will then enter into office on November 2 2019.

New Commission Priorities

In her speech before the European Parliament in July 2019, Ursula von der Leyen identified six priorities for her new team:

  • A European Green Deal
  • An economy that works for people
  • A Europe fit for the digital age
  • Protecting our European way of life
  • A stronger Europe in the world
  • A new push for European democracy

The distribution of responsibilities among the team of Commissioners closely reflects these priorities.

New feature: Three Executive Vice Presidents

When presenting her team, Mrs von der Leyen emphazised that she looked for balances in her Commission set-up. The first was gender balance, evident in the appointment of 13 female Commissioners and 14 male Commissioners. The second factor was the political balance, with Commissioners belonging to the European political parties whose support the Commission will need in the Parliament to pass legislation. As a result of the European Parliament elections in May, at least three major parties are required to form a majority. The three Executive Vice Presidents of the Commission each come from a different political party (EPP, S&D and Renew Europe), reflecting this notion of a political pro-EU coalition.

Political Party GroupNumber of Commissioners
Socialists & Democrats10
European People’s Party9
Renew Europe6
Greens1
Conservatives1

The third balance is geographic, with Northern, Southern, Western and Central European Commissioners all having major responsibilities for comprehensive policy goals.

Three Executive Vice Presidents of the Commission will coordinate and implement the overarching strategic goals: Frans Timmermans, for “The European Green Deal”; Margrethe Vestager, for “A Europe fit for the Digital Age”; and Valdis Dombrovskis, for “An Economy that Works for People”. Remarkably, economic aspects have been included in each of these three remits.

The Commission published a very creative and unusual organogram – at least for those used to administrative or corporate hierarchy and reporting structures.  Many observers and stakeholders will spend sleepless nights bent over this image trying to figure out who to contact on a particular matter.

What does this mean for business and stakeholders?

A remarkable difference between the current and new Commission is the role of Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager, who starts a second term as competition Commissioner but gets the digital policy portfolio on top. The competition Commissioner, the highest competition law enforcement authority in the EU, now also has a policymaker role, including the crafting of regulatory and legislative proposals on the digital economy. In the previous Commission, Margrethe Vestager gained a reputation as a tough law enforcer, by inflicting massive fines on digital giants for anti-competitive behavior (Qualcomm, Google, enquiry into Amazon), by investigating controversial behavior by digital platforms or blocking high-profile merger plans (Alstom-Siemens).

Now, she will also coordinate policies arguably affecting the same digital players as they operate in the internal market. In short, not only will she uphold the law based on established practices and behavior of companies, but she will also potentially propose how the market in which these players operate shall be organized. In this way, she’s able to resolve the eternal Commission dilemma: whether the Commission intervenes in a failing market, when breaches of competition rules have been established, or whether it proactively creates conditions that enhance the functioning of the internal market, through legislation. This dilemma is particularly acute in the digital economy, which is globalized, knows very strong dominant players and is, by nature, cross-border. The role of Executive Vice President Vestager and the attribution of both enforcement and policy-shaping responsibilities in one role reveals a very novel approach by this Commission.

Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovksis will be responsible for deepening the Economic and Monetary Union, with a strong emphasis on financial services and the completion of the post-financial crisis initiatives taken by the previous Commission, such as the European Banking Union and the Capital Markets Union. Remarkably, he will also oversee social dialogue and the pillar of social rights. Together with economy Commissioner Gentiloni, he will oversee the European Semester, which is the vetting of national budgets by the Commission to comply with the strict debt and deficit criteria of the Eurozone. Dealing with tax matters and fighting money laundering, as well as policies for new phenomena such as cryptocurrencies, will no doubt be prominent items on his agenda. It is noteworthy to see tax policies elevated to the responsibility of a Commission Vice President, illustrating the growing importance of this policy domain for the EU.

Executive Vice President Frans Timmermans is responsible for the top priority of this new Commission: climate policy. He will coordinate all efforts to include carbon neutrality (net zero CO2 emission) by 2050 into EU law. Climate policy is not limited to environmental regulation but also encompasses economic reform and industrial policies.  Mr Timmermans will need his gift of communication, for which he is already well-recognized, to convince the governments of the EU Member States to adhere to the profound structural reforms that are needed to reduce the impact of human activity on climate change – and to prevent further global warming. In sum, it’s not only environmental policies for which he will be responsible, but also economic ones – including a possible CO2 tax on imported goods at the EU border.

Other key Commissioners with economic responsibility

Phil Hogan is the new trade Commissioner, first and foremost responsible for negotiating the future relationship between the EU and the UK after Brexit. He will be equally engaged in both starting and concluding negotiations with other trade partners. The EU will no doubt continue to expand its regulatory footprint globally through such Free Trade Agreements. The current trade tensions between the US and China (and others) will also be on his plate and he will be in charge of finding and implementing stronger defence instruments to protect EU trade interests globally. In the previous Commission, Mr Hogan was responsible for agriculture, so he knows these files intimately. The trade in agricultural products tends to be the most difficult aspect of free trade negotiations and we can expect his expertise will fare him well, especially when negotiating with the UK or discussing the EU-Mercosur trade agreement.

Commissioner Sylvie Goulard will oversee the internal market, with a very comprehensive set of responsibilities. Her super-department includes the communications technology fields of DG CNECT, with completion of the Digital Single Market as a major field of activity;  DG Internal Market, Industry and Entrepreneurship, responsible for the free movement of goods and services in the EU; and the new DG for Defence Industry and Space, a policy area for which the EU has great ambitions. In the digital domain, she will work on enhancing Europe’s technological competitiveness, notably by establishing a policy on artificial intelligence. Cyber security will be another priority, as well as a Digital Education Action Plan and the development of connected and automated mobility. Her biggest challenge will likely be the development of a European industrial policy that would foster European companies competing as champions on a global scale. That may require a new interpretation of the EU’s competition rules on mergers and on state aids – a most difficult theme for various Member States.

Completing the European Digital Single Market, including its essential intellectual property aspects, is another area that will generate passionate debates.

A whole new field for the development of EU policy is the creation of an open and competitive defence equipment market, thus linking innovation, industrial development and space programmes to Europe’s security policy. Mrs Goulard may well become the Commissioner with the longest queue of stakeholders knocking at her door.

The portfolio distribution hints at the new approach

The new Commission set-up integrates economic, climate, social and security policy priorities in a focused yet collegial manner. The Executive Vice-Presidents have the key role to ensure that coherent and integrated policies are developed by their colleague Commissioners. Thus, they will avoid creating internal silos leading to tunnel visions of Commission departments. President-elect von der Leyen not only sought to balance the gender equality, political party affiliation and geographic spread of her Commission team, but through the novel distribution of responsibilities, she indicates her balanced approach to the substance of the Commission policy priorities.

Stakeholders will be well-advised to take a similar integrated approach if they want to influence EU policy during the next five years.