Analysis: Ursula von der Leyen announces her new Commission

, by Louise Guillot

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Analysis: Ursula von der Leyen announces her new Commission
Ursula von der Leyen announced the organisation of her European Commission team in Brussels on 10 September. Photo: Etienne Ansotte - Source: EC - Audiovisual Service

Yesterday Ursula von der Leyen unveiled the organisation of her Commission, and the division of tasks between the EU Commissioners. She has announced new Directorates-General and surprising new job titles, which clearly signals the priorities of the next EU executive.

What are the changes compared to Juncker’s Commission?

A new president means a new approach, at least on paper. Ursula von der Leyen chose to present her team in a circle-shaped diagram, which certainly is an attempt to dismantle hierarchies between ordinary Commissioners and Vice-Presidents of the Commission. Five years ago, Jean-Claude Juncker on the contrary chose to present his team in a table to make the Vice-Presidents stand out.

But the presentation style isn’t the only change. The Commission President can choose the job titles and the content of the portfolios, which she discusses and negotiates with heads of state and government. We’re now witnessing a rather strong reorganisation of the EU executive.

Ursula von der Leyen has chosen to try and simplify the portfolios, and to give less complicated job titles than her predecessor. This can be analysed as an effort to make the European Commission easier to understand. Nonetheless, the scope of the Commissioners’ powers remains broad, and this is detailed further in the mission letters.

For example, the “Climate Action” portfolio was transformed into “European Green Deal”, and the justice and home affairs portfolios were separated between two Commissioners. The “Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility” portfolio has been shortened to “Jobs”, which could lead one to think there’s no longer room for a social Europe…

In a similar vein, we can see that certain “keywords” disappeared, and with them decreases the level of attention given to these topics. These include research, culture, education and sports.

Reorganisation of Commissioners’ portfolios also means restructuring the administration, and the Directorates-General which are the EU’s equivalent for a ministry. President-elect von der Leyen announced the creation of a new Directorate-General for Defence Industry and Space, to support the work of the French Commissioner-designate Sylvie Goulard. Goulard is foreseen to be tasked with the Internal Market portfolio, which will be supplemented by a task to develop European defence and space programmes.

Who does what?

Ursula von der Leyen succeeded at forming a gender-balanced Commission, with 13 women and 14 men in the new College of Commissioners. There are multiple approaches for analysing the new organisational diagram, including geographical distribution and the politics of allocating tasks.

Faithfully to the programme she defended in July in front of the European Parliament, Ursula von der Leyen displayed the priorities of her mandate by giving two former Spitzenkandidaten Frans Timmermans (a social democrat) and Margrethe Vestager (a liberal) wide-reaching powers as Executive Vice-Presidents. The Dutchman will be in charge of elaborating a “European Green Deal”, which von der Leyen promised to deliver in the 100 first days of her mandate. Margrethe Vestager, for her part, will be in charge of digital affairs whilst still keeping the competition portfolio that she’s already held for five years. In other words, the Commission’s priorities are fixed around climate action and digital transformation.

In July, when the European Council found an agreement on the four “top jobs”, the absence of representatives from the eastern part of the EU was noted by a number of commentators. In her distribution of jobs within the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen has balanced this by giving major roles to Commissioners from a number of Eastern member states.

For example, the Common Agricultural Policy is foreseen to be managed by the Polish Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski, who will have to continue the major reform begun by his predecessor Phil Hogan. The youngest member of the new Commission and the only representative of the Green party, the Lithuanian Virginijus Sinkevičius will be in charge of environmental matters, supporting Frans Timmermans with the European Green Deal.

The energy portfolio has been given to the Estonian Commissioner Kadri Simson, while the Romanian Rovana Plumb will be tasked with transport. Enlargement and neighbourhood policy will be in the hands of the Hungarian Commissioner, which will require to work closely with candidate countries and implement and defend the EU’s values. The former Hungarian justice minister, László Trócsányi, has been a member of Viktor Orbán’s government that is not exactly famous for following the rule of law or to always abide by European values.

The Trade portfolio will be held by the Irish Phil Hogan, a symbolic Brexit message to the UK which will have to negotiate its future commercial relationship with an Irishman. On that note, the Team von der Leyen has no British representative, following the will of Boris Johnson who refused to nominate a Commissioner as he asserts the country will be out of the EU before the new Commission starts on 1 November. Ursula von der Leyen has told the UK that it will have to nominate a Commissioner if Brexit doesn’t happen on 31 October.

As had been anticipated for days, France’s Sylvie Goulard has been designated to hold a big portfolio, with responsibility for the Internal Market all the while leading work on European defence.

The Belgian Didier Reynders will have the crucial responsibility for defending the rule of law within the EU, thereby taking on the current job of Frans Timmermans. As such, he will probably advocate for the idea of suspending EU structural funds for countries that don’t respect rule of law – a proposal on the table in Germany, among other places.

Now the question remains whether the Commissioners will be validated by the members of the European Parliament, and whether they can defend the European public interest, beyond their national and partisan identities. As this is the role and responsibility of European Commissioners.

But where’s the Commissioner for good vibes?

Reactions to von der Leyen’s announcements were immediate. Besides the typical congratulations addressed to the Commissioners-designates, the Twitter commentariat couldn’t resist making remarks about the unusual job titles given to certain Commissioners.

The Greek Margaritis Schinas has been charged with “Protecting our European Way of Life”, which will apparently involve immigration and border protection. The Croatian Dubravka Šuica’s job title is “Democracy and Demography”, whilst the Latvian Valdis Dombrovskis will hqve to create “An Economy that Works for People”. The titles seek to highlight new priorities and redefine the Commission’s vocabulary, but some are murky.

Now that the team has been announced, it’s time for the 27 Commissioners to start proving they have what it takes for the job. Hearings at the European Parliament will begin at the end of September.

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