The Von der Leyen commission: key appointments for a more assertive EU

The Von der Leyen commission: key appointments for a more assertive EU

10/09 - 15:06 - Gender-balanced team already causing controversy

Ursula von der Leyen, the incoming president of the European Commission, has unveiled her 27-strong team — a gender-balanced squad led by Brussels old-timers, heralding a more assertive European leadership on the world stage.

The former German defence minister has placed three senior “executive” vice-presidents directly under her command to lead the way on big policy areas including climate, digital, and industrial policy over the next five years. She has widened the remit of Margrethe Vestager, the competition commissioner who has gone after US tech groups for unfair practices. She has placed former Dutch foreign minister Frans Timmermans — who led work in the current commission on upholding the rule of law — in charge of fighting climate change.

Italy, whose expansionary budget has been a subject of contention with Brussels, has been rewarded with the economics portfolio and France will lead the way on common defence policy and the industrial reforms dear to French president Emmanuel Macron.

Here are some of the main figures to watch in the incoming college of commissioners;

. Margrethe Vestager, 51, executive vice-president of digital: The commissioner Donald Trump dismissively called the “tax lady” has been rewarded for her policing of EU competition rules with a larger portfolio that will combine her antitrust work with wider regulation of the tech sector.

Ms Vestager has earned praise and criticism in the US for handing out record multibillion fines to American tech groups, including a total of €8bn against Google, as well as for ordering Apple to pay €13bn in back taxes to Ireland.

As one of the most powerful commissioners over the past five years, the Danish liberal politician has pursued probes against Amazon, Qualcomm, McDonald’s, and Starbucks and is reviewing Facebook’s new Libra venture.

Ms Vestager has also found herself on the wrong side of the EU’s largest member states: earlier this year, she blocked the proposed rail merger between Siemens and Alstom on competition grounds, triggering the anger of Germany and France.

“It’s a great day for European consumers,” a Brussels insider said.

. Frans Timmermans, 58, first executive vice-president for the Green New Deal: The former Dutch foreign minister will maintain his formal role as commission number two — but he is now one of three executive vice-presidents who will be vying for authority under Ms von der Leyen.

He campaigned as the centre-left candidate to replace Jean-Claude-Juncker in the summer but was ultimately blocked from the top job by group of EU leaders from the rightwing European People’s party grouping.

Mr Timmermans, who had a bruising first term in the commission battling governments in countries such as Poland and Hungary over alleged autocratic creep, will notably oversee EU policy on climate change, pollution and biodiversity. The job is coveted by the Dutch government which is leading Europe’s push for climate neutrality and zero emissions.

. Paolo Gentiloni, 64, economics commissioner: Rome’s former prime minister is among the most senior politicians in the new-look commission.

A pro-European, centre-left former foreign minister under Matteo Renzi, he will take up the economic portfolio in Brussels. It is a controversial pick by the new commission president, who insisted that Mr Gentiloni could bring his experience to a job that has involved policing Italy’s compliance with EU budget rules for much of the last five years.

The Italian faces one of the trickiest tasks of any incoming commissioner. As the representative of a nascent coalition between the anti-establishment Five Star party and his own Democratic party in Rome, Mr Gentiloni will be in charge of policing the eurozone’s budget rulebook, devising new EU tax policies including a carbon border tax, and delivering on the president’s promise to launch an EU unemployment insurance scheme — an initiative that faces resistance from northern European countries.

. Phil Hogan, 59, trade commissioner: Phil Hogan’s appointment to trade was one of the few surprises of the van der Leyen commission.

The current Irish EU agriculture commissioner has been a key player in EU trade negotiations for the past five years, working alongside Cecilia Malmstrom to broker deals with Japan and the Mercosur group of South American countries.

At a time when the farming sector is mobilising against the future opening up of the market, the appointment of the former Irish environment minister as Ms Malmstrom’s successor sends a signal that its concerns will be taken into account. Ireland’s beef farmers were among those most worried about the Mercosur talks. The appointment also hands Ireland’s commissioner a prominent role in designing Britain’s future relationship with the EU after Brexit.

. Margaritis Schinas, 57, vice-president, commissioner for “Protecting the European way of life”: the Greek national is a familiar face in Brussels as the commission’s former chief spokesperson, but his new job title caused immediate controversy.

Critics said the post — which will cover migration and security, as well as employment and education — echoed the rhetoric of the far-right by implying that European cultural heritage was under threat.

Claude Moraes, a British MEP, branded the title “deeply insulting”. Andrew Stroehlein, European media director at Human Rights Watch, said it reflected the “mainstreaming of extremism”.

Ms von der Leyen’s appointment letter to Mr Schinas mentions the need for “workers... equipped to thrive in our evolving labour market”, as well as “well-managed legal migration, a strong focus on integration and ensuring our communities are cohesive and close-knit”.

“The European way of life is built around solidarity, peace of mind and security,” the letter read. “We must address and allay legitimate fears and concerns about the impact of irregular migration on our economy and society.”

. Vera Jourova & Didier Reynders, commissioners for values and justice: The rule-of-law portfolio will be jointly managed by two commissioners. Vera Jourova, 55, the Czech commissioner, will be a vice-president in charge of transparency and values. Belgian Didier Reynders, 61, will be the justice commissioner.

Ms Jourova stays on for her second term in Brussels, with her reputation burnished by her handling of EU privacy scandals and her drive for more self-regulation in the tech sector.

Mr Reynders, a longtime Belgian politician, has enjoyed long tenures as finance minister and foreign minister. In government, Mr Reynders pioneered the idea of a peer-review system among EU countries on their respect for the rule of law — a plan that has been seized upon by Ms von der Leyen as she looks for ways to ease tensions over the issue.

. Laszlo Trocsanyi, 63, commissioner for enlargement: Hungary’s pick for the commission has been criticised by an opposition politician as a “completely unacceptable choice for the Neighbourhood and Enlargement portfolio”.

Mr Trocsanyi, an ally of nationalist premier Viktor Orban, is not a member of the ruling Fidesz party. But as former justice minister in the government, he was an architect of the country’s contentious judicial reforms, including plans for an administrative court under the control of the justice minister.

Budapest has coveted the enlargement portfolio for years, and has strengthened ties with aspirant member state capitals, especially Belgrade. Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic, on a visit to the Hungarian capital last week thanked Mr Orban for “the very best relationship which we have, at least in our contemporary history”.

But Hungary has also drawn criticism for giving asylum to the fugitive premier of North Macedonia Nikola Gruevski, and for blocking the formal relationship between Nato and Ukraine over concerns for the Hungarian ethnic minority.

. Sylvie Goulard, 54, commissioner for the single market and defence: A former liberal MEP, Ms Goulard has spent the last two years working at the Banque de France. She led the way on reforming the EU’s financial services rulebook following the crisis and will now become Emmanuel Macron’s most senior envoy in Brussels.

A German and Italian speaker, Ms Goulard had a shortlived stint as Mr Macron’s defence minister in 2017. She stood down from the role after coming under investigation for the misuse of European Parliament funds — a probe that is still ongoing. Her role in the commission will involve pioneering a European industrial strategy that promotes EU “champions”, overseeing key new legislation regulating platforms like Facebook and YouTube, and exploring how to boost Europe’s “technological sovereignty”.

 

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