U.S. Markets closed

The New EU Is About Politics, Not Policy

Leonid Bershidsky

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The lineup of the new European Commission, revealed by President-Elect Ursula von der Leyen on Tuesday, provides the first pointers on how she intends to run the EU’s policy-making body in the next five years. It suggests there will be less focus on values and the rule of law, and less cohesion on economic policy. Instead, perhaps unsurprisingly, there is going to be a lot of politics.

The von der Leyen commission is the first with so many women: 13 out of 27 members. Since one of the women is the president herself, one can consider the gender balance perfect. But it’s also different from the outgoing commission, led by Jean-Claude Juncker, in that it has more people with flowery titles and fewer with clearly defined portfolios.

Where Juncker appointed one first vice president and four vice presidents, von der Leyen, who is German, generously nominated three “executive vice presidents” and five VPs. Some of the portfolios she distributed to commissioners, especially from the smaller member states, are awfully thin. For example, Helena Dalli of Malta has been given “equality,” which was part of a much bigger domain supervised by Vera Jourova of the Czech Republic under Juncker. The migration and home affairs portfolio appears to have been split in two. Vice President Margaritis Schinas, representing Greece, will be responsible for “Protecting Our European Way of Life,” which reads like an anti-immigrant party’s slogan but incongruously is meant to refer to a fair migration and integration policy. Ylva Johansson, a Swede, is taking charge of whatever’s left of Home Affairs.

The logic behind the title proliferation and the portfolio rejigging isn’t arbitrary. Every national leader wants his or her country’s commissioner to get an important, preferably economy-related job. Von der Leyen, imposed on the European Parliament by the national leaders, must keep in mind the balance of power and interests among them, but also avoid rubbing the top parliamentary parties the wrong way. The smaller nations get scraps unless they’re members of important alliances within the EU, or their commissioners are heavyweights in the bloc's transnational parties. 

The three executive vice presidents represent the primary parliamentary parties making up the centrist majority. Frans Timmermans, who nearly became commission president but had his bid derailed by fierce opposition from Eastern European populist and nationalist governments, represents the center-left Socialists and Democrats. He got the important environment and climate portfolio – an area in which he showed interest during the recent campaign for the presidency, but also a new field for the career diplomat. Juncker considered Timmermans capable of taking on any job, and von der Leyen appears to be of the same opinion.

Margrethe Vestager of Denmark, who will keep her old job as head of the Directorate-General for Competition but also become the EU’s digitalization supremo, is backed by the liberal Renew Europe faction. The final new executive VP, Valdis Dombrovskis of Latvia, head of financial services under Juncker, represents the center-right European People’s Party; since this party family has the biggest faction in the European Parliament, it got the most important economic appointment on the commission.

The lesser vice-presidential positions seem largely meant to boost the egos of European political veterans who wanted to advance in some way rather than tread water. Schinas of Greece, who was the commission’s spokesman under Juncker, relishes the important title: He is his country's first-ever commission VP. Slovak Maros Sefcovic, a vice president in the outgoing commission, was spared a demotion, even though his portfolio – interinstitutional relations and foresight – doesn’t really justify a big title.

Jourova likely was named vice president as compensation for not landing a major economic job, as she and Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis had wanted. What she did get was the part of Timmermans’s old portfolio that cost him the presidency: “values and transparency.” This is a major gift to the so-called Visegrad Four – the alliance of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – to which von der Leyen owes her appointment. 

Timmermans pushed the East European countries relentlessly to adhere to the EU’s rule-of-law standards, initiated every possible kind of political and legal action against Polish and Hungarian justice reforms, and was often criticized for giving ruling parties too much control over the courts. Jourova will be hard-put to continue in the same vein: That could ruin the Czech Republic’s  relationship with key neighbors and allies. The era of strong EU pushback against the nationalist and populist governments of Eastern Europe appears to be drawing to a close.

Von der Leyen’s other two gifts to Eastern Europeans, clearly meant to heal one of the nastiest EU divides during Juncker’s term, are the traditionally important agriculture job, for Polish Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski (Poland is a major recipient of EU agriculture subsidies), and the EU enlargement portfolio for Hungarian Laszlo Trocsanyi, formerly his nation’s justice minister. This means that the man who justified Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s  decision to build a 13-foot fence on Hungary’s borders with Serbia and Croatia will now be responsible for the EU's efforts to bring in the western Balkans. Von der Leyen clearly isn’t making that issue a priority.

Finally, the president-elect’s desire to please everyone may have set up a source of internal tension in her commission. French President Emmanuel Macron proposed her for the presidency, and France is an important country, so French Commissioner Sylvie Goulard has been put in charge of industrial policy, promoting the digital single market, defense industry and space – a job so powerful it doesn’t require a nice consolatory title. But with France advocating a weaker EU competition policy to create industrial champions, Goulard probably will clash with Vestager, who is no fan of weakening antitrust requirements. (President Donald Trump dubbed her  the “tax lady.”)  

For now, though, everybody who’s anybody appears to be reasonably happy. If that was van der Leyen’s goal, she’s done admirably. 

(Corrects von der Leyen’s and Jourova’s nationality in third paragraph and Sefcovic’s in the seventh paragraph.)

To contact the author of this story: Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com/opinion

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.