Instinctif Partners Public Policy

September 10, 2019

A sneak peek at the new European Commission


Ursula von der Leyen has unveiled the portfolios of the members of the new European Commission and in so doing underlined some of the policies that will be priorities for the EU for the next 5 years.

This note highlights some of those priorities. It also flags a couple of catch phrases that are code for entire policies or policy leanings that might not be readily apparent to the uninitiated. It is also worth mentioning this new Commission has a historic, near-perfect gender balance and portfolio assignments designed to tackle urgent policy challenges.

The Commission is structured as a “college” of Commissioners, but as in the outgoing Commission, von der Leyen has given 3 of its members— 2 of whom were also in the last Commission–the title of Executive Vice President in a sign that their broad portfolios represent some of her top priorities:

  1. Frans Timmermans (Netherlands) has been given the task of coordinating a European Green Deal—an idea that several Democratic candidates for president of the United States are also promoting on the other side of the Atlantic. This refers to a set of policies to help the EU achieve its ambitious goal of climate neutrality by 2050, an ambition that implies sweeping—and sometimes wrenching—changes to EU energy, waste and trade policies, among others.
  1. Margrethe Vestager (Denmark) remains the Commissioner for competition but has also been given the task of coordinating all policies related to making Europe fit for the Digital Age. That phrase is often used as EU code for banning restrictions on cross-border sales of both physical goods and digital content. What kind of single market is it, anyway, if someone can’t order something from another EU country or watch their favourite television series when they’re away from home?
  1. Valdis Dombrovskis (Latvia) will be the Commissioner for financial services but also coordinate the work on an “Economy that Works for People”—a nod to the thousands of people who have taken to the streets in countries such as France to protest what they perceive to be an unequal distribution of the burden of shifting to a cleaner, greener economy. Von der Leyen’s mission letter to Dombrovskis says his job will be to ensure that European policies “put people’s welfare above all else” and adds that “This is all the more important at a time when we are redesigning our industry and economy in line with societal, environmental and technological changes.”

These three appointments, all to commissioners from solidly pro-European small countries, show that von der Leyen is serious about putting meat on the bones of the EU’s climate strategy, ensuring that U.S. tech giants respect Europe’s competition and privacy laws and paving the way for a socially just transition to a more sustainable, climate neutral economy.

A few other comments and appointments worth highlighting:

  • The nomination of Stella Kyriakides (Cyprus) as Health Commissioner bodes well for the health care sector. She is a medical psychologist by training and has years of experience in health, the fight against cancer and social affairs. In her mission letter to Kyriakides, von der Leyen underlined the need to support Europe’s innovative pharmaceutical industry; to maintain a supply of affordable medicines—i.e. no U.S.-style drug pricing, thank you; and promoting vaccination against the persistent “myths, misconceptions and scepticism that surround the issue.”
  • The appointment of Phil Hogan, the pragmatic Irish former Commissioner for Agriculture, as Trade Commissioner, is reassuring to the Irish, who know that he will ensure that the United Kingdom’s planned exit from the union will respect the open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK. The Irish “backstop” has become the biggest sticking point for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who sees it as an intractable impediment to his stated intention of steering the UK outside the EU on Oct. 31. Hogan will be in the driver’s seat in the context of any potential trade negotiations with the UK.
  • Rovana Plumb, the Romanian named as Transport Commissioner, has been charged with ensuring “that we have a transport sector fit for a clean, digital and modern economy”—music to the ears of those investing in electric and micro-mobility solutions such as the electric bicycles and scooters that have become ubiquitous on the streets of Europe’s biggest cities. Von der Leyen asked Plumb to “put forward a comprehensive strategy for sustainable and smart mobility” and increase the uptake of “sustainable and alternative transport fuels for road, maritime and air transport.”
  • Didier Reynders, a Belgian trained as a lawyer, will be responsible for enforcing “the rule of law”, a phrase that is often understood to point a finger at the central and eastern European countries who lately have been making a sport of flouting EU laws including many to which they’d agreed. Belgium isn’t without its faults, but as a founding member of the European Union it has traditionally subscribed to the vision of an ever-closer union of EU member states. Von der Leyen said she wanted Reynders to “focus on tighter enforcement” and “promote a rule-of-law culture among European citizens.”
  • Several references to “demography” are an acknowledgement that the Commission knows that Europe’s ageing population is a problem and that the Union will need improved education and immigration policies to ensure that the union can live up to its economic potential and continue to pay for its generous social benefits. Von der Leyen’s letter to Commissioner Dubravka Šuica, who is from Croatia, charged her with convening a Conference on the Future of Europe, as well as new tools for engaging European citizens in between elections, in order to ensure that Europe understands and responds to the impact of demographic trends and megatrends on everything from health care to migration and the environment.
  • France will be happy with the appointment of Sylvie Goulard, a well-known former Member of European Parliament, as the Internal Market Commissioner. The Commission said that her brief will not only include deepening and enforcing the rules governing inter-state trade within the Union, but also industrial policy—a sore point for France ever since the Commission nixed a planned mega-merger between Germany’s Siemens and France’s Alstom. France and German had claimed that the merger was necessary in order to create “national champions” in things like trains and power plants in order to be able to confront growing competition from the likes of China.
  • Lastly, the appointment of Estonia’s Kadri Simsonas Commissioner for Energy underlines the importance of a better-functioning European energy market for the achievement of the EU’s climate neutrality goal. He was tasked with prioritising energy efficiency, clean energy and regional cooperation towards better integrated energy markets. It may also be a sign of a tough stance vis-à-vis Russia, which supplies much of Europe’s natural gas. The Baltic countries, annexed by Russia after World War II, have traditionally been highly sceptical of Russia’s designs on the EU energy market.

The Commissioner designates still need to be confirmed by the European Parliament, which has scheduled hearings for the beginning of October.