The new European Commission is a victory for France
EMMANUEL MACRON is having a good summer. In July, at his insistence, the leaders of the member states of the European Union nominated Ursula von der Leyen, then the German Defense Minister, as President of the European Commission. In a package deal, Christine Lagarde, the French head of the IMF, was put forward to head the European Central Bank; Charles Michel, the Belgian Prime Minister and an ally of Macron, for the presidency of the European Council; and Josep Borrell, Spain’s French-speaking foreign minister, will be the EU’s next High Representative for Foreign Affairs. Mrs von der Leyen, who had narrowly won her confirmation vote in the European Parliament, presented her proposed position of Commissioners at a multilingual press conference in the Berlaymont building in Brussels on 10 September. It was another good day for the French president.
According to Ms von der Leyen’s proposal – the European Parliament will hold confirmation hearings before the new committee takes office on 1 November – the next committee will be more hierarchical than the previous one. Directly below her will be a team of three silo-breaking “executive vice presidents” responsible for the three broad areas that Ms. von der Leyen has indicated will be her priorities. Margrethe Vestager will lead the way in making Europe “fit for the digital age” and will continue as competition commissioner – in a role the Danish liberal has duly challenged US digital giants and made an enemy of Donald Trump. Frans Timmermans, a Dutch social democrat, will lead Europe’s “green new deal”, which will accelerate the EU’s progress towards carbon neutrality by 2050. And Valdis Dombrovskis, a Latvian Christian Democrat, will lead economic and financial affairs, with a special emphasis on inclusiveness.
The choice of the three reflects the long-term shift towards a more political and proactive committee. They come from the three largest mainstream political groups in the new, more divided parliament, which Ms von der Leyen will have to sideline to secure majorities for her proposals (she can also rely on the Greens, hence the big focus on climate change). Ms Vestager and Mr Timmermans were both “leaders” in the European elections, which strengthened the democratic legitimacy of the team. The inclusion of Mr Dombrovskis addresses Central European fears of “second class” status. With Ms von der Leyen, the trio will form an inner quad that will lead the EU’s executive, with an outer ring of five regular Vice Presidents (three from Central Europe and two from Southern Europe, for geographical balance) and beyond that the other 18 members of the committee.
Among the other vice presidents and commissioners are a number of notable appointments. Paolo Gentiloni, a center-left former prime minister of Italy, will be commissioner for economic affairs and responsible for fiscal rules. Rome dispute over the Italian budget. However, this may worry flintier Germans and other northern members of the so-called New Hanseatic League. Sylvie Goulard, a former French defense minister and close ally of Mr Macron, takes charge of internal market and defence; she will oversee the development of a European strategy for regulating artificial intelligence and will continue a Digital Services Act on e-commerce with Ms Vestager. Ireland’s Phil Hogan, currently the Agriculture Commissioner, will take over the trade portfolio, including responsibility for negotiating a deal with a post-Brexit Britain – a clear reminder that the EU’s first allegiance in such matters is to Dublin rather than London .
Less favorable is the appointment of Laszlo Trocsanyi as Commissioner for Enlargement; as an ally of the authoritarian Hungarian Viktor Orban, he is hardly in a position to pass judgment on the rule of law in candidate countries. That Margaritis Schinas, the Greek commissioner and former chief spokesman for the commission, has been named vice president for migration (a portfolio ominously referred to as “protecting our European way of life”) suggests that the new commission will see that issue as a matter of hard borders and public relations.
Some candidates may struggle during the hearings. Mr. Trocsanyi’s appointment, for example, is far from secure. But assuming most or all of the current lineup survive to take office on November 1, it’s pretty clear how the EU’s executive will operate over the next five years. Environmental progress will be central. Ms von der Leyen wants to raise the EU’s 2030 CO2 emissions target to a 55% reduction from 1990 levels. At the same time, alarmed by the EU’s fragmentation, she wants to narrow the gap between and within Member States: early indications suggest that her committee will be relatively strict on migration and less critical of the rule of law in order to drive those southern and central European states at risk from the European herd (Vera Jourova, a Czech, becomes vice president for “values”). Progressive on environmental and social cohesion – 16 of the 27 Commissioners have a liberal or left-wing political background – but in other words reactionary on culture war issues.
Most importantly for the rest of the world, the von der Leyen Commission will work to make Europe a more autonomous player in a world that looks menacing – or extending “European sovereignty”, as it is in euro parlance is called. Ms. Vestager and Ms. Goulard will form a strong team developing a distinctive European way of managing new technology and balancing open markets and an industrial strategy to respond to emerging industrial giants from China and Silicon Valley (the liberal instincts of Vestager may clash with the activist mood, personified by Mrs Goulard, in Paris and Berlin). Mr Borrell, a sincere socialist and foreign policy heavyweight, will be allowed to make Europe’s voice heard more loudly in the world.
All of this fits well with Mr Macron’s strategy. Not only does the French president have allies and fellow travelers – from Ms von der Leyen and Ms Lagarde to Ms Vestager and Ms Goulard – in positions of power, but the entire structure and program of the new commission is consistent with Mr Macron’s hopes for Europe. It proposes more geopolitical autonomy, a greener and more powerful economy, deeper political structures, more cohesion and more “realism” about progress towards liberal values in Central and Eastern Europe. Like it or not, the French president is the dominant figure in European politics today. In Mrs. von der Leyen, he seems to have a like-minded ally in Brussels.