The first speeches of the new President of the European Commission – Ursula von der Leyen – and the hearings of Commissioner candidates show us the image of a new Commission, one focused on combating climate change. The strategy for conducting other Community policies will probably involve continuing the work of the outgoing EC, all the more so since the hearings in the European Parliament did not come up with many ideas and they were a spectacle of political opportunism. Candidates usually said what MEPs expected them to.
Ursula von der Leyen, the new President of the European Commission (EC) designated by the European Council and approved by the European Parliament (EP), presented her program in mid-July 2019 – first in a speech before the EP, and then in the form of guidelines for candidates nominated by the Member States as future Commissioners.
She focused on several priorities: A European Green Deal, an economy that works for people; A Europe fit for the digital age, protecting our European way of life, a stronger Europe in the world and finally, a new push for European democracy.
The new head of the EC identifies the challenges facing the EU relatively well. However, she approaches them rather non-creatively and in general terms. Her policy papers and portfolio names are primarily marketing and less strategic in nature.
On the other hand, the hearings of Commissioner candidates in the EP were a missed opportunity for a program-oriented discussion. After all, they have revealed the ideological approach of MEPs (and some future Commissioners) toward European challenges and problems. Therefore, many issues will probably not be resolved effectively, as there is a lack of a proper diagnosis and a coherent strategy adapted to the reality. Furthermore, disputes between the EU countries will hinder the new Commission’s activities.
Climate on the banners
The main goal of the new EC president is climate protection. It is primarily a political challenge, which is to mobilize voters around the cause of further European integration. For many liberal and leftist parties, ecological issues have become an opportunity to gain social support, while at the same time declaring a pronounced pro-European attitude. Furthermore, EU climate and energy policy creates opportunities for Europe’s technological transformation, which can be a stimulus for boosting the economic growth. An additional factor in favor of this policy is the migration pressure from outside the EU, which is partly due to adverse climate change in some regions of the world. Nevertheless, it is a policy that poses a serious challenge to the countries where the energy sector depends on coal. And ones which do not have either nuclear or other technologies that reduce the consumption of coal and hydrocarbons. If these countries are relatively poor, then such a transformation poses a serious investment challenge for them.
The candidate responsible for implementing the European green deal will be Frans Timmermans. His hearing brought about a lot of slogans and very few details. The Dutchman set goals in climate policy that were just as ambitious as von der Leyen’s, i.e. increasing the scale of emission reduction by 2030 by 55% (the EU would currently like to reach the 40% level). They both pointed out the need for establishing a fair transformation fund (for coal-dependent regions). When asked about this, however, Timmermans could not determine where he will get the money for that.
Worse still, the future Vice-President of the European Commission will not control the financial and economic tools that would allow him to implement the „green deal” vision; these will all fall under the competence of other commissioners. Therefore, he will instead focus primarily on promoting this vision, and probably also on disputes with countries that would want to slow down its implementation.
No more social dumping in the EU
Economic and social development will be another of the new Commission’s priorities. The von der Leyen program included several long-known ideas for reforms in the euro area, e.g. completing the banking union, introducing a European bank deposit insurance system, as well as increasing the flexibility of fiscal criteria (which in practice means loosening them in times of economic downturn). Nevertheless, the problem for these reforms is the strong opposition in some countries towards all these solutions. The Netherlands and Northern European countries (the so-called new Hanseatic League) with the support of Germany have recently limited the scope of planned investment funds for the euro area under yet another EU long-term perspective. The strong differences of interests between individual member states are still a challenge for further reforms of the monetary union.
Most of the initiatives presented by von der Leyen were already planned by Juncker’s Commission. This applies to, i.a., establishing common rules for taxing the largest Internet corporations within the EU, should the negotiations on this matter fail in the framework of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Another earlier proposal is to introduce a common consolidated tax base, i.e. deepening the process of tax harmonization for enterprises. However, this concept is still not supported in all Member States.
The new EC will also promote the European Pillar of Social Rights, including the introduction of a minimum wage and basic income (called ‘the civic income’) in all EU countries. Like the tax harmonization proposals, these are favorable for countries with a high level of income and taxation, and less so for those that base their economic competitiveness on low production costs.
A similar situation occurs with regard to the regulation concerning posted workers, which was to replace the so-called social dumping, thus eliminating the possibility of employing cheaper workers, e.g. from Central Europe in countries with higher wages and social protection standards. During the hearings, the Luxembourg candidate for the labor portfolio – Nicolas Schmit – clearly emphasized that he would not agree to social dumping in the EU. At the same time, he recognized the introduction of a European minimum wage as his highest priority.
In search of European champions
Von der Leyen considers technological sovereignty to be an important goal. This means building the strength of European Internet and telecommunications corporations in international competition. This task will be carried out by Vice-President Margrethe Vestager, responsible for the Europe fit for the digital age portfolio. Much like Timmermans (and a few others), she will continue her work in the EC. Moreover, she would be dealing with precisely the same area as before, i.e. antitrust activities. It is expected that the Dane will further limit the dominant position of US Internet corporations in the internal market.
Moreover, she should support European champions in this area, which, however, may clash with her simultaneous mandate to protect competition in this market. During the hearings, she was asked about this contradiction, but she could not provide a convincing answer as to how she plans to resolve it. She lacked a strategic vision of how she intends to support the European digital industry against the global giants, while at the same time protecting smaller European businesses as a part of competition protection.
Again, this is a reflection of a dispute among the EU members. For instance, France and Germany are pushing for relaxing the competition regime and supporting European champions by means of the EU instruments. The Netherlands and the Nordic countries (including Denmark) do not agree to this, as they are concerned about the position of their own enterprises in the internal market should several large corporations dominate it.
Straddling between USA and China
Neither von der Leyen herself, nor several candidates interviewed to deal with key economic issues had a geoeconomic perspective, i.e. one that combines strategic economic policy issues with geopolitical challenges. In particular, there is a lack of a more systematic assessment of the strategic relationship with China and the US in both spheres simultaneously, i.e. the economy and the geopolitics.
For example, „technological sovereignty” means readiness to compete with US and Chinese corporations, but also has obvious geopolitical effects. For instance, the new president of the EC announced the introduction of common standards for 5G networks. This is a statement with a very high level of generality. Moreover, these standards are unlikely to stop Member States that are increasingly accepting Chinese 5G technology, sometimes ignoring security-relevant aspects altogether. This is what happened in Germany recently. This causes immediate dissatisfaction in the US and decreases the scope of intelligence exchange between the allies. This way, the EU’s growing dependence upon Chinese technologies deepens the transatlantic geopolitical animosities.
The same is true of the intensifying trade war between the EU and the US. The new EC is in a fighting mood. It is preparing to introduce sanctions against the Americans, resulting from the dispute within the World Trade Organization (WTO) regarding subsidies for the aviation industry. At the same time, the idea of increasing the possibility of retaliatory sanctions, even outside the WTO regime, is being considered. The United States are the target again, which may once more weaken transatlantic ties. This is also in conflict with the declarations made by von der Leyen herself, saying that she intends to reform and even strengthen the WTO.
A European army instead of NATO?
President von der Leyen wants to defend the multipolar world order, while building a stronger position for the EU. Although she approves of NATO’s role in Europe, she advocates actions that create a „real” European Defense Union. In her speeches and guidelines for the new Commission, I found no answer as to how she intends to reconcile the cooperation of these organizations, reduce the growing tensions and even competition, prevent the unnecessary duplication of funds between them, and thus wasting resources as a part of this cooperation. The increasing ambitions of the European defense are triggering concern in the US, which does not inspire optimism, given the deteriorating transatlantic moods on other fronts. During the hearings of candidates for the new Commission, there were more grandiose slogans than strategic visions of arranging mutual relations.
Ursula von der Leyen described her Commission as one focused on geopolitics. It is hard not to consider this slogan too ambitious. Not only because it is not supported by a solid diagnosis of the geopolitical context, but also because of the conflicts of interest between the primary actors in this field, of which surely neither the EC or the EP are a part of.
For example, von der Leyen supported the prospect of EU expansion to the Western Balkans. Such a decision has an obvious geopolitical context. If the EU does not include this region in its sphere of influence, then China and Russia will intensify their presence there. Nevertheless, the accession process is being blocked by some Member States, especially France.
Despite the fact that the external context for the expansion seems clear, the intra-European geopolitical factor seems much more important to Emmanuel Macron. In the event of expansion, Berlin will find new allies in EU politics, and thus will weaken the position of Paris.
Ideological casting instead of an interview
With a few exceptions, the candidates did not present any new substantive proposals, but rather some high-flown ideas. It sometimes seemed like instead of having a strategic discussion, they were checked ideologically to see if they were suitable for working in the Commission. For instance, Dubravka Šuica, having a smack at the „democracy and demography” portfolio, was asked how she wanted to solve the problem of an aging society. She primarily focused on immigration from outside the EU. Despite the fact that she had been dealing with family policy in her native Croatia, she turned away from such ideas during her hearing, claiming that she did not intend to deal with improving the birth rate in the EU. When asked whether democracy in the EU should not mean protecting the competences of national democratic communities, she decided that she did not agree with the questioner (although in fact she dodged the question). During her hearing, much was said about European democracy. However, no one asked about Spain, where demonstrations are being dispersed and inconvenient politicians are being jailed. This is probably the only member state in which European arrest warrants are being sent after the political refugees. Moreover, Spanish politicians demand their exacerbation, as they proved to be ineffective in the hunt for Catalan leaders. To this day, three MEPs from Catalan groups cannot take up their seats as a part of European democracy.
In turn, the Italian candidate, Paolo Gentiloni, emphasized several times over that he would not be a representative of any government or national interests. Whereas, Maroš Šefčovič considered it completely understandable that the new Commission would allow the Parliament to take legislative action. The MEPs must have surely liked it, although it is against the European law. This did not bother Šefčovič, who assured of the need to respect the rule of law.
Margaritis Schinas, the former Commission spokesman, will be responsible for the portfolio of „protection of the European way of life” (quite a controversial name), i.e. migration policy. When asked who he intended to defend Europe from, he replied that it should be protected from those who are reluctant to save and receive the immigrants, thus rejecting the vision of an open EU.
Apparently, neither von der Leyen nor Schinas have drawn conclusions from the migration crisis. That is why they repeated the same ideas that have been causing violent disputes between Member States for many years now, and have not yet brought the expected results. Nevertheless, both politicians highlighted the need for introducing a European asylum system as well as a reform of the Dublin system. The new EC will probably also have to deal with relocating the illegal immigrants (so not only the refugees), which some countries demand and which the vague slogan from the chairwoman’s program, i.e. the New Deal on Migration and Asylum Seekers, seems to herald.
Again, the primary issue in this regard is the disagreement between Member States, which remain the leading decision-makers here. This was confirmed by the hearing of the Swede Ylva Johansson, responsible for the internal affairs. She could not provide any detailed answers to the questions regarding reforming the EU’s migration policy. How was she supposed to know them, since such details can only be determined by national governments, provided they can get along with one another.
Hearings in the EP were a political spectacle, which was full of banalities, usually well-known ones, instead of a strategic discussion about specific plans. Few new ideas have come up, which must be surprising given the scale of the challenges and the EU’s failures to date. Worse yet, even the ideas that have been presented do not necessarily have to be implemented. This largely depends on the consent of national governments. The hearings in the EP were a spectacle of political opportunism, where candidates usually told what the majority of MEPs expected them to. That is why there was much European ideology and references to values involved. There was also a lot of hypocrisy and double standards.
After the hearings, I come to the conclusion that we are in for a continuation-focused Commission, primarily drawing on the legacy of its predecessors from Jean-Claude Juncker’s council, as well as a catalog of ideas that were being tossed around by Macron and Merkel for the last several years. It will probably be a politically weak Commission, with little autonomy as regards the major member states. However, the EP will not provide it with strategic support. It is currently a strongly politicized and divided institution, which puts party disputes over historical challenges. Moreover, the parliamentary elites are increasingly moving away from reality. They confuse ideology with strategy, which should, after all, be effectively implemented in practice. This means that the Parliament is increasingly marginalizing itself, although it is also overlooked by the national governments in strategic decisions.
Polish version is available here.
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The publication co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland as part of the public project "Public Diplomacy 2019" („Dyplomacja Publiczna 2019”). This publication reflects the views of the author and is not an official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.
prof. Tomasz Grzegorz Grosse