1 October 2019

The questions MEPs should ask the new EU Commission

By Jeremy Shapiro

Let’s face it, the confirmation hearings for the new European Commission are not exactly must-see TV. They mostly consist of monotone parliamentarians asking incomprehensible questions and risk-averse nominees responding with a potently boring mix of obfuscation and deflection. Meanwhile, the audience at home wishes it was Eurovision season.

The lack of spectacle, however, conceals how much is at stake. In the five years since the last such hearings, the world has become a dramatically more difficult and competitive place. Internally, the EU must struggle with the challenge of Brexit and a multitude of other threats to its internal cohesion. As ECFR surveys reveal, most European voters now believe the EU could collapse in the next 10 to 20 years.

Despite these fears, Europe’s voters want the EU to do more. They believe both the EU and their national governments are failing to protect them against competitors such as China and Russia. With both internal and external threats, Europe’s strategic sovereignty – its ability to act independently in the world – is at risk.

Commission President Ursula van der Leyen has promised that the commission she leads will be “geopolitical”, meaning that the EU will no longer be a vegetarian power among increasingly ravenous carnivores. To do this, however, she will need a new breed of commissioner, ones who understand that economics is also a realm of power and can think of ways the EU can harness its considerable untapped potential to advance the interests of Europe’s citizens. This, in turn, requires a new (and happily more entertaining) approach to confirming the candidates.

Here are some questions, and suggestions, that might help European parliamentarians gauge whether the key Commissioners are up to the difficult job ahead.

Josep Borrell, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Policy and Security Policy and Vice President for a Stronger Europe in the World

First up is Josep Borrell. He has the longest title and arguably the toughest job. In theory, he is the closest thing the EU has to a Foreign Minister. In practice, his predecessors have had to leave the heavy lifting to their national counterparts and focused on niche areas in which the member states had a strong consensus or didn’t really care much.

But ECFR surveys show that European voters want the EU to help protect them from the big players: Russia, China and even the problem of Donald Trump’s United States. The next HRVP needs to be able to create consensus among EU member states on bigger issues such as these if he wants to make Europe stronger in the world.

It would be useful, when examining Borrell’s candidacy, for MEPs to gauge his thoughts on Russian interference in the domestic politics of EU member states, and what action he proposes to counter their cyber-attack and disinformation strategies. Parliamentarians would also be wise to press him on how he proposes to de-escalate tensions between the US and Iran, and ensure that a damaging war does not break out.

Margrethe Vestager, Executive Vice President for a Europe fit for the digital age

Vestager has already showed her chops over the last five years as competition commissioner, standing up to US tech giants on a series of contentious issues. President Trump claimed that “she hates the United States perhaps worse than any person I’ve ever met”, demonstrating both that she is having some impact and that President Trump doesn’t get out much. In the next five years, she will need to turn her attention to making sure that Europeans can compete fairly and succeed in artificial intelligence, an industry that might eventually be worth over 3 trillion euros.

Vestager’s record, ostensibly, makes her a good fit. However, MEPs should be minded to ask how she will foster the EU’s talent, data and hardware in the face of tech giants – who have, at times, bought, borrowed and stolen European technologies – as well as the ethical standards the EU should set in AI.

Valdis Dombrovskis, Executive Vice President for an Economy that works for the People

Dombrovskis is another alumni of the previous commission, now burdened with arguably the stupidest title in the new commission. Beyond figuring out what his title means, he will need to hold together the European front on Russia sanctions, while making sure the burden is equitably shared and there is a path to relief sanctions if Russia behaves. He will also want to develop a response to the increasing use of extraterritorial sanctions by the US, a policy which has contributed to an unfortunate but increasing sense in Europe that the US is no better than Russia.

Dombrovskis’s candidacy raises two important questions on foreign policy – how the EU can ensure that the costs of any sanctions policy are shared equitably across the EU? And should the Union consider fighting back against any country that harms European interests through secondary sanctions? Answers to these questions would give parliamentarians significant insight to the action plan on the EU’s direction of travel over the coming years.

Sylvie Goulard, Internal Market Commissioner

Sylvie Goulard’s Internal Market brief now contains the increasingly important defence industry brief. If the EU is to develop its strategic sovereignty, it will need to maintain and expand its capacity to compete with US, Chinese and Russian defence firms in developing high-tech kit. The last commission pushed itself into the business of defence, principally through the establishment of the European Defence Fund (EDF), which is designed to stimulate research and development with 13 billion euros of subsidies from the EU budget. Goulard needs to find a way to make this fund work, particularly in the face of US charges of defence protectionism. The key will be buy-in from the member states.

There are some questions that hang over Goulard’s nomination, however, including her position on defence spending – given the concerns of several member states about the US – and whether she believes the European defence industry should be further consolidated, and, if so, how this could be achieved. Asking these questions would be a good place to start for Parliamentarians to start.

Phil Hogan, Trade Commissioner

Lastly, trade – arguably the EU’s most successful policy area and the one area of international policy where the EU fully holds the reins. This is a contentious issue, given the UK’s focus on executing an independent trade policy, as well as mutterings from more protectionist voters in other member states. Indeed, as our polling earlier this year showed: a clear majority in member states believe that their national governments would do a better job than the EU in representing their country’s interests in international trade negotiations.

This means Hogan will need to simultaneously demonstrate to EU citizens that the EU can represent them, and potentially negotiate tough deals with the US over a new trade pact and with China over reform of the WTO.

He should also be prepared to set out how he will help to rebuild the EU’s credibility in the eyes of European voters – and further, at the request of MEPs, detail how the EU, possibly working with the United States, could curb some of China’s abusive trade and investment practices. Should this work be affected by WTO reform, or is the answer a more effective system of trade and investment protection that monitors Chinese behaviour?

With these challenges on the horizon, Europeans need and want the geopolitical commission that Von Der Leyen has promised. The European parliamentarians need to use these hearings to make sure that they get it.

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Jeremy Shapiro is Research Director at the European Council on Foreign Relations