11 September 2019

Welcome to the new EU Commission – it’s as if the European elections never happened

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As Ursula von der Leyen, President elect of the European Commission, unveiled her new team of 27 Commissioner’s for the next five years, balance was the central mantra: balance in gender – 13 of the 27 Commissioners will be female – balance in political families, and balance geographically between East and West. The latter two accommodations are evident in her appointment of three Executive Vice Presidents (i.e. Commissioners with more power than others): Denmark’s Margrethe Vestager from Renew Europe, Latvia’s Valdis Dombrovskis from the European People’s Party (EPP), and the Dutchman Frans Timmermans from the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats.

If you want to know whether von der Leyen has big plans for her stint as Commission President, just take a look at the titles she gave to the three major players in her line-up – titles which for some reason sounded like a good idea to the Commission but sound overly dramatic and self-obsessed to almost everyone else: Vestager will be the Commissioner for a “Europe fit for the Digital Age,” Timmermans for a “European Green New Deal,” and Dombrovskis for “An Economy that Works for People.”

All three choices are worrisome and show that the EU will not back down on its path to an “ever closer union”. After all, Vestager is known for her hawkish views on “Big Tech” companies, which she has penalized regularly as Competition Commissioner over the last few years. She may think that fining the likes of Google, Amazon, and Qualcomm is part of a market economy – she certainly never forgets to mention it – though fining successful companies for being “too big” is in fact little more than purposefully weakening them. Considering Vestager will also be in charge for taxing digital companies, her further elevation as the EU’s Digital Czar is hardly good news for a Europe that wants to stay competitive.

Meanwhile, Timmermans will be in charge of creating a “European Green New Deal,” akin, at the very least in name, to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s American version which has read more like a socialist manifesto than an actual plan to save the world. Von der Leyen wants to present it within the first hundred days of her tenure, and it appears both her and Timmermans see more taxes as the answer, including a carbon border tax.

Finally, Dombrovskis’ track record on the euro suggests he will continue trying to further integrate a  system which is anything but ready for the next economic crisis – whether going even further down the road of a common currency is the best way to rectify that, however, is questionable.

The three Executive Vice Presidents are hardly the only appointments that have raised an eyebrow. Indeed, von der Leyen had some more oddballs ready. Phil Hogan from Ireland and a vocal opponent of Brexit will be responsible for trade policy – i.e., will also be a major part in negotiating the future relationship of Britain with the EU. Von der Leyen also tasked him with developing a new sanctions regime, including trade defence mechanisms, which is part of yet another disastrous plan  to make the EU more protectionist.

Paolo Gentiloni, a former Prime Minister of Italy, was assigned the economic portfolio and, specifically, the supervision of the Stability and Growth Pact. That a former Prime Minister of Italy – a country that has had a difficult time ensuring the fiscal discipline the Pact provides (or theoretically forces upon member states) – should be in charge of maintaining that very pact and will later head proceedings against countries that violate the Pact – such as Italy – is curious to say the least.

Paradoxical as well was the choice of Věra Jourová for the area of “values and transparency.” The previous Commissioner for Justice proposed just last year to curb the freedom of the press and has been one of the most vocal supporters of forcing social media platforms to regulate the content which is posted on their pages. The Greek Margaritis Schinas will be Commissioner for “protecting our European way of life,” which ultimately boils down to migration, but certainly has a, shall we say, interesting ring to it.

Perhaps most curiously of all, László Trócsányi will be responsible for the EU’s enlargement policy and its engagement in Balkan countries. Trócsányi, nominated by Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz Party, was Orbán’s Minister of Justice while the rule of law and freedom of association in Hungary was further and further curtailed. From now on, he will have to monitor the rule of law situation in possible accession countries in the east.

All of this leaves out other new top EU leaders, like Josep Borrell from Spain, the new quasi-Foreign Minister who thinks that Iran’s insistence to eliminate the state of Israel is not really an issue. In addition, Sylvie Goulard from France, Rovana Plumb from Romania, and Janusz Wojciechowski from Poland are all currently under investigation for alleged corruption – Goulard and Wojciechowski for misusing EU funds. This will not necessarily matter to von der Leyen, who herself is under investigation in Germany for mis-spending as Defence Minister. But it might matter for the European Parliament, who still need to agree to the appointments of all the Commissioners.

Of course, von der Leyen herself can’t and shouldn’t take the blame for some of the bad picks in the line-up. It was the member states after all that nominated the Commissioners. Nonetheless, it was von der Leyen who was in charge of assigning many of the Commissioners to their portfolios.

What is perhaps worst of all in the long-term is that while von der Leyen attempted to strike balances on multiple fronts – and it was laudable of her to do so – there is no balance whatsoever on the most important dividing line of all: the political spectrum itself. In the European elections, the Greens won big. They still only have one Commissioner. Renew Europe (formerly ALDE) has six, up from five, despite having gained almost 50 new MEPs. And right-wing populists, however you want to define them, while scoring around a third of all votes across Europe, can only boast two candidates, i.e., less than a tenth of the Commissioners.

One doesn’t need to agree with the agenda of all these groups. But that the centre-left S&D and centre-right EPP, the two major losers of the elections, still combine for 19 out of 27 Commissioners, hardly shows that the EU, including the head of states, take the concerns of their citizens really seriously. Keeping other voices that want to see fundamental changes to the status quo out for longer will only hurt the European project in the end.

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Kai Weiss is a Research and Outreach Officer at the Austrian Economics Center and a board member at the Hayek Institute.