My take on the von der Leyen Commission

Posted: September 12th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: european union, human rights, politics | No Comments »

I have followed EU law and politics for two decades. First, as a participant in the European Youth Parliament, then as a student of EU law and for the past decade as a lecturer of EU law.

During this time I have seen (from a closer or farther distance) the Prodi, two Barroso and the Juncker Commissions. Even though the 2009 Lisbon Treaty did not change much in the functioning of the Commission, the role and composition of the Commission has been fundamentally transformed. The Prodi Commission was the most representative of the traditional civil service oriented body that followed the letter of the law, somewhat hampered by the relative weakness of the Commission President. Barroso, although becoming more presidential, followed with a more or less traditional approach as well, even though his second Commission took office with the coming into force of the Lisbon Treaty.

The greatest shift in the work of the Commission happened with Juncker Commission in 2014. The Commission President had become quasi(or faux)-elected as a result of the Spitzenkanditaten process promoted by the two dominant political party groups EPP and S&D. This meant that the work of the Commission became more political, and also more strategic. It can be argued that this is a slight departure from the role of the “guardian of the treaties.” However, it can also be seen as taking a larger role in the future of the EU, by strategically leveraging its role. In any case, the Commission work became much more political, with decisions to start or not start infringement proceedings more and more politically motivated.

Perhaps this was inevitable, because during the financial crisis the Commission had been sidelined somewhat and it needed to regain its relevance. Juncker not only reasserted himself and the Commission during the migration “crisis” with the quota system, but also with using EU funds for large investments bearing his name and many other ways.

The Juncker Commission also started to shift the work of the College of Commissioners (which had grown to 28) into teams that work under a specific Vice President. Under the original Lisbon Treaty, the Commission was never meant to be so large (a rotating system was foreseen), but to placate the Irish and so enable a second referendum there over the Lisbon Treaty, it was decided to keep to the “one Commissioner per Member State” principle. The incoming von der Leyen Commission takes the shift to a more team based College to an another level.

It could be argued that this is not fully compatible with the original meaning of the treaties, which foresee Commissioners being equals, with the President “primus inter pares”. Now we have not only the President, but three Executive Vice-Presidents, five Vice-Presidents and other Commissioners. With the exception of the Commission President and the High Representative (who has a dual role, also chairing the Foreign Affairs Council in the Council of Ministers), none of these roles are foreseen in the treaties. However, given that the Commission President has under the treaties a broad power to organise the work of the Commission, and the actual voting in the College remains the same as in the treaties, it is probably not so problematic. This flexibility is also necessary practically to coordinate the work of 27.

There is much to like about the new set-up of the Commission. Each of the Executive Vice-Presidents also retain a control over a key policy area and also are supported by a DG. Frans Timmermans has the Climate Action Directorate-General, Margrethe Vestager DG Competition (probably the most powerful DG in terms of competence and impact) and Valdis Dobrovskis DG FISMA. This solves the issue in the Juncker Commission that the supposedly powerful Vice-Presidents always had to rely on other Commissioners (with actual DGs supporting them) to get any work done. The problem of not having a DG still remains for the four non-Executive Vice-Presidents (the HR has the EEAS).

I also like the Missions-oriented titles of the teams, although these have been called confusing. “European Green Deal,” “Europe Fit for the Digital Age,” “an Economy that Works for People,” “A Stronger Europe in the World” are easy to understand both in terms of purpose and the goal. The “Values and Transparency” and “Democracy and Demography” missions are somewhat vaguely worded, and could have used also a more activity-oriented approach. “Interinstitutional Relations and Foresight” is related to administration and as such fine. However, the tone-deaf and xenophobic “Protecting our European Way of Life” title for Margaritis Schinas will probably need to be changed. Whether intentional or not, the adoption of the far-right narrative (coming from the influence the far right has had within the EPP) is a serious misstep.

In terms of working on human rights, there are a number of portfolios that are important. Already mentioned and not so well named “Values and Transparency” VP includes work on rule of law issues, accession to the European Convention on Human Rights and monitoring the application of the Charter of Fundamental Rights (in addition to improving democratic functioning of the EU). The post is going to Vĕra Jourová, the current Justice Commissioner.

The other Commissioners that have signficant portfolios relating to human rights are the Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders who will work under Jourová and is also in charge of DG Justice and Consumers. Equality gets its own Commissioner (something that I have argued should also be the case in governments, because of its cross-cutting nature), with Malta’s Helena Dalli taking the post. She has achieved remarkable progress in equality and human rights in Malta, so even if tasks given to her are not very many and more gender equality oriented (and notably exclude any reference to specific LGBTI related action), I am quite confident she will fill the new role well and get things done. There will not be a separate DG for her work, but she will be supported by “a task force of experts” and DG JUST.

Aging and children’s rights are also handled by the VP “Democracy and Demography”, which might create some overlap. The “Democracy and Demography” VP will be supported by DG COMM, which means its main role is related to democratic developments and communication.

The migration and asylum issues will be handled by the renamed VP Schinas and Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson from Sweden who is in charge of DG HOME, which is actually not so bad news at all and creates hope for a more human rights compliant asylum and migration policy in the EU.

The image von der Leyen wants to project is an agile, modern Commission. The first female Commission President is a historically hugely significant. The gender balance she has achieved should be celebrated by all Europeans, this was not an easy task at all and already makes the Commission most representative ever (even though it remains an all White group).

It remains to be seen whether the reforms are superficial and only related to the projected image. The missions-oriented teams are a step forward from Juncker Commission. Going paperless and cutting red tape are less substantive reforms, but also aim to project the modern image. The gender balance itself will not improve much unless they also bring into the College and advocate for feminist policies.

Overall the von der Leyen Commission looks very positive, but it is not going to be easy because of the European Parliament being more fragmented and only narrowly supporting her nomination, and more Member State governments becoming corrupted with anti-democratic far right politicians. Juncker failed to stop Orban and allowed his influence to contaminate the EPP, which created many problems for the EU as a whole. Let’s hope von der Leyen does better, because these are critical times for the European Union.

Leave a Reply