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Ursula’s College: the critical approach

Ursula von der Leyen is proud. Her College is gender almost-balanced. There are 27 members, 14 men and 13 women. There were never as many ladies in the European Commission college.

Yet, is this truly her College? Yes, she asked for female candidates. She also asked for two candidates to chose from. In the past presidents Barroso and Juncker were able to change individual candidates in order to increase “the female quota”. This time round there was no need to increase the number of ladies – hence this time round there was no questions about replacement.

But why there was no question “where is the second candidate” from Ms von der Leyen to the governments, including the one in Paris? Only Bucharest sent two candidates to chose from.

Instead there were some secret negotiations between Madame La Presidente with the national leaders about the portfolios and the names. At the end of the day we got this:

New European Commission’s official graph

On the basis of this graph we can work out what Ms von der Leyen has been talking with the national leaders about: how to accommodate their desires.

This is the main problem of the incoming college: will it truly be interested in pursuing the European interest – otherwise known as “mission impossible”? Or will the job be to manage the desires of the member states?

In the graph there are 27 names. The President and three Executive Vice-Presidents look like a true political leadership between the new, yet a national heavyweight of von der Leyen, and politically experienced, competent and embattled Timmermans and Vestager. The fourth is a secret-weapon-come-handy: a former Latvian PM who proved to be an effective Commissioner. One lobbyist opinion of him I have heard this month: “He gets things done”.

Still, the liberal Vestager and the social-democrat Timmermans are said not to be in the seventh heaven as apparently there were expectations there would be three people in the leadership representing three main parties of this “ruling coalition” between the EPP, S&D and Renew Europe. Instead Mr Dombrovskis “represents” the EPP and the President is somehow above the party petty politics.

Mr Dombrovskis represents also the Central and Eastern Europeans. This is a regional perspective on the College, which nominally should not be. The treaties are silent about a geographical balance in the College as long as there are as many members of the College as there are member states.

This Council-like perspective (geographical, “Central and Eastern European”) is worrisome. The Commission should be, as the treaties say, “completely independent”, which means that “the members of the Commission shall neither seek nor take instructions from any Government or other institution, body, office or entity”.

NO INSTRUCTIONS FROM THE GOVERNMENT

COMPLETE INDEPENDENCE

Mr Dombrovskis, however, is not a problem. He is a proven solid Commissioner who is able to think independently and be effective. Much could be expected of him.

The real worry is elsewhere. Is this a Ursula von der Leyen Commission or a member states Commission? Is this a patchwork of national interests-Commission, a mini-European Council, or is there a chance to turn this group of accidental people into a collective, European team?

Jean-Claude Juncker talked his Commission was “political”, meaning his. The President is responsible for activities of all the Commissioners, for their views, for what they say and how they perform. This is why the President has the power to fire a Commissioner. Ursula von der Layen says hers is the “geopolitical Commission”. For now, the adjective needs filling in with a meaning.

At the same time I hear among the Commission services people that all is “in the mission letter”. Yes, there are the mission letters that the President has addressed to all the Commissioners.

Yet somehow many people do not rest assured. Hopefully “not yet”, but worrisomely it seems the next College might migrate away from the Union interest into some sort of a coalition of national interests. This would be very worrisome.

This is an accusation that Eurosceptics like the Polish government’s Law and Justice (PiS) politicians have had against the Commission for years: that it represents the interests of a few, largest and most relevant nations.

On the other hand, in the past the services people were also kept out of the loop at this time in the process. The process is political and the Commission needs to go through a delicate process of being chosen. Once the confirmation is there, life should be normal, again.

Below the Executives: the Others

Below the Executives there are the 23 “other Commissioners”. Some of them will be very relevant, among them Phil Hogan responsible for trade, Paolo Gentiloni responsible for economy, and Kadri Simson for energy. There is also the VP/High Representative Josep Borrell, as well as the Sylvie Goulard’s portfolio internal market and a few others.

Still, the distance between the Executives and the Others seems relevant for the years to come. By the same token, Señor Borrell aside, all other VPs are rather equivalent to a “minister without a dossier” status, as they shall not have Commission services directly under their command. Unless their theme becomes relevant and uncontested, they risk marginalisation. Take VP Jourova, whose task includes one of the hottest potatoes in town, the rule of law. Yet there is also the Commissioner-to-be Reynders (Justice) and the legacy of another College member, Frans Timmermans.

This makes a lot of people of the opposition and judges in Poland worried that the rule of law, instead of gaining momentum, risks actually to be relegated from the list of political priorities. I do not share the worries, instead I do expect new synergies. Those sceptical should remember that it was not Mr Timmermans who led a ride against the PiS government (this is how he is portrayed by the ruling party in Warsaw), but it was a Commission-led process in which Mr Timmermans found a political role. As long as the rule of law issues do not go away, they shall continue to be addressed. And should the Commission fail in the task, the Parliament is there to remind the College about its role.

The Parliament Hearings

The hearings will begin on 30 September. There are two issues at hand right now. First is the empty discussion about the title of a portfolio for Mr Schinas, “Protecting Our European Way of Life”. I view the discussion empty because however relevant it may sound for the left-wing politicians, shouldn’t more relevant be what the Commissioner-to-be plans are for how he wants to protect the European way of life? What his approach to migration will actually be?

And the job title should be a secondary, not a primary issue for the criticism.

The second is looking for a new “victim” the European Parliament can reject. In 2004, 2009 and 2014 there were victims of excessive self-belief and ignorance. This time there might be a political game involved, too. The strongest candidate to be a victim ahead of the hearings is Mr Trócsányi (to be heard on 1 October, 18:30), a Hungarian candidate for the portfolio of Neighbourhood and Enlargement. His main vulnerability on paper is that he was Mr Viktor Orban’s justice minister, overseeing all the judicial reforms undermining the rule of law in the country.

Left-leaning commentators and politicians already ask if Mr Trócsányi shares the EU values and how he envisages to promote the EU value of rule of law in EU neighbourhood and in Eastern Europe.

Hungary is in the procedure of Article 7 of the Union Treaties accused of violation of Union values.

Another potential “victim” of the hearings might be the Romanian candidate Rovana Plumb. There is a corruption scandal allegations against her going back to 2017.

Financial problems are also with the French and Belgian candidates. Yet, the podium of the “weakest links” belongs to the Polish candidate Janusz Wojciechowski.

Mr Wojciechowski’s weakest points are two: first, he is a PiS candidate. All PiS candidates seem to lose in a political vote this Parliament: Ms Szydło, former PM, failed twice to be elected chairwoman of the EMPL (employment) parliamentary committee, and Mr Krasnodębski, a former EP VP, lost his seat to an unattached countercandidate.

The other weakness of Mr Wojciechowski are his financial problems, which are examined by the anti-money-laundering agency OLAF. To have an OLAF case pending – and the news broke earlier this month – is rather disqualifying in its own right. For now the official Commission response? “Innocent before proven guilty”. PiS members applaud.

Still he has some chances. First of all, Mr Wojciechowski was not in the PiS government (like the Hungarian candidate). Instead he has hid himself in the Court of Auditors as a member of the Court. Even though he lost an opinion vote in the Parliament, the Council confirmed him to the position. In the Court he worked also on agricultural issues. And the portfolio is a perfect match for the Warsaw government: agriculture is relevant in Poland politically, and the issue no. 1 is to equalize the payments between Eastern and Western EU farmers. A Polish agricultural Commissioner could have an ambitious and realistic goal. A surprising, win-win in sight?

Another window for Mr Wojciechowski is the committee. AGRI is not as party political as some other committees and it is presided over by a German EPP politician. The EPP is known not to share the “cordon sanitaire” against the Law and Justice politicians.

We shall know more after his performance in the committee on 1 October 14:30.

But if the European Parliament truly wants to have something to say politically this season, there should be blood this October.

About the Author

Piotr Maciej Kaczynski
I talk, I write, I speak, I study, I analyse, I teach, I hike, I run, I travel, I learn, I care. This e-home will be developed gradually. You can find information about me and about my publications and other activities.

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