Three Gs – a European Green Deal, Gender and Geo-balance: these are the major takeaways from the next Commission set-up. A few weeks have now passed since Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen disclosed her team and their portfolios (see our first assessment here). Now is the time to have a more thorough look at what to expect:
First, the quite successful attempt to strike a gender balance, a good balance between Western and Eastern European countries, as well as party proportions is to be acknowledged with high respect: Ursula von der Leyen has managed to square the circle, even if this will mean difficult negotiations in the Commissioners’ college.
Whilst Dutch social democrat Frans Timmermans and Danish liberal Margrethe Vestager were set from the beginning, appointing Latvian conservative Valdis Dombrovskis as a third Executive Vice President was a surprise that proves smart in terms of geopolitical balance and EPP party satisfaction – whether Dombrovskis can deliver on the economy ”that works for the people“ is for him to prove.
Prudent is also von der Leyen’s choice of portfolios for commissioners and her own cabinet selection: French candidate Sylvie Goulard’s portfolio is significantly enlarged, including single market, telecommunications and defence policy – thereby pushing for collaboration on cybersecurity and further integrating digital policies into the single market as demanded for a long time already by the ICT industry, and at the same time satisfying Emmanuel Macron and strengthening the German-French axis.
A sign for the latter is also an important choice of her own cabinet members: she announced to appoint French Commission Director Eric Mamer as chief spokesperson.
I will not name all portfolios here as they are still up for approval by the Parliament with some question marks, and they can be assessed elsewhere . Some are worth mentioning.
For instance, von der Leyen follows Juncker’s approach to put the fox in charge of the henhouse for two portfolios. Italy’s commission candidate Paolo Gentiloni is to head the economy portfolio and may well have to take decisions against Italy’s not-so-EU budget-compliant government. Romanian Rovana Plumb, currently one of the weakest candidates and therefore most likely to be rejected by the Parliament, has received the transport portfolio although Romania has a rather non-existent transport infrastructure. Not a good sign for more environmentally friendly transport however: the mission letter she received from von der Leyen only mentions rail once – more emphasis is placed on other modes of transport.
Talking about weak candidates: the designated Commission is not off to a good start as quite a number of Commissioners are or were under investigation for misuse of public funds or even for corruption, and in an exceptional step for the European Parliament, two are already out of the race: Sylvie Goulard and Belgian Didier Reynders were cleared by the EU legal committee but are still under investigation in their home countries, but Rovana Plumb and Hungarian László Trócsányi wer called into an extra round of questioning before the actual hearings begin – and for the first time, were rejected even before any public hearings.
Not only a promise to the Greens but a reaction to current trends is the high emphasis on climate policy. Frans Timmermans embraces von der Leyen’s “Green Deal“ and brings in a prominent figure as his head of cabinet: fellow Dutch party member (and former leader) Diederick Samson has been responsible for successfully negotiating the Dutch climate agreement between around 600 organisations.
By now, more and more names for heads and staff of cabinet are mentioned. Whilst not confirmed until the Commissioners are actually approved and in office, we see a trend as usual: fellow party members with EU experience such as Margrethe Vestager’s Kim Jorgensen (currently Danish EU Permanent Representative) as well as former Maltese ambassador Neil Kerr for Helena Dalli or Swedish Permanent Representative Asa Weber for Ylva Johansson; and senior-level Commission officials such as Brexit Art. 50 task force No. 2 Stéphanie Riso for Sylvie Goulard or DG Connect director Despina Spanou for Margaritis Schinas. This means commissioner-candidates seek experience over experiments and we can expect similar routines and procedures as we know from prior Commissions.
As a side note, we will get to watch an unintended experiment: given current British developments, we have no idea when and if Brexit actually occurs – yet the British government has already chosen not to put forward an EU Commissioner. Commissioners are independent and pan-European in theory and shall not decide on behalf of their member states, but all previous discussions e.g. on rotating commissioners for smaller countries have so far been unsuccessful. Should the UK decide to stay, the European Commission gets to prove that Commissioners are indeed promoting all-European interests.
Finally, and countering some of the praise, one balancing attempt of von der Leyen appears rather unfortunate. Margaritis Schinas’ portfolio title “Protecting our European Way of Life“ has already triggered a lot of criticism as ill chosen to describe Europe’s future dealings with migration. Less controversial but still awkward is Executive Vice President Dombrovskis’ portfolio for an “Economy that Works for the People“ (who else, you may be inclined to ask).
We would not be the Emeralds if we did not wonder if some choices can be interpreted as displaying a particular feminine touch –understood as emphasising feminine-labelled values such as a more relationship-oriented , negotiating leadership style or an emphasis on caring and nurturing (for more on this, see Hofstede 2001), which can of course also be a focus of male leaders.
We would like to think so: von der Leyen’s ability to balance out gender, parties and portfolios demonstrates an immense capability to negotiate, and priorities that differ from her male predecessors. Her initial speech to the European Parliament demonstrated her capability of balancing emotional motivation and facts; her choice of portfolio titles, even if debatable, can be interpreted as an attempt to insert a human touch, and her fervent embracement of climate policy also fits these values. We will see whether and how she delivers
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