What kind of Geopolitical Commission?

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At one point this summer Ursula von der Leyen said her Commission will be “geopolitical”, as opposed to the “political” Commission of Jean-Claude Juncker.

There was no meaning to the adjective back then. There is little meaning to it today. Still, the adjective is growing on the Commission.

First foreign trip of the new President: Ethiopia. To mark the European strategic interest in the continent. But as the EU fights it’s own war on global relevance between US and China, it needs to chose its battles carefully. Africa will be an interesting field to watch.

The challenges are many for the Commission and the whole of Europe. The most important is unity. Brexit et al. do not help. Donald Tusk, the ex-EUCO boss and new head of the EPP says that the fight to preserve or protect the EU’s unity was a constant battle over the past five years. Little changed.

Provided unity is preserved, the outside world is as scary as promising. The same story, but changing. Terrorist threats, trade wars, migration flows, climate crisis, populist leaders and all the other challenges out there are met with business opportunities as new technologies come to the market, new greening of the economy constitutes a major push for innovation in Europe and new trade agreements open new markets.

Will fears dominate hopes? First days tell little of the future, but for the ball to be moved to the external field EU and its Commission needs to play bold and safe at the same time. Not to be reactive but proactive. To look for opportunities where others don’t.

EU is not and won’t be a security power. It’s magic is located elsewhere. Preservation of and expansion of the multilateral system is what EU wants. The not-so-secret weapon of the Union is the strength of its single market. Expansion and deepening into the digital single market will be matched with re-calibrating it on the sustainability tracks.

The more-secret-but-not-totally-unknown EU magic is its regulatory power. It may have lost the 5G battle to the Chinese and the Americans but the other two are nowhere close to the regulatory might of the EU.

Yes, the EU is the soft power. In the times of nationalism and populism and climate change it has been doing surprisingly well, despite the fall backs along the way.

At the end of the day what may determine our future is our free will and determination. I do not know if the Commission has it. But I hope the basic fact that 202 million people voted for this thing back in May means something.

2 Commissioners missing

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Today there were hearings in the European Parliament. Extra hearings following the rejection of the initial candidates for Commissioners from Romania, Hungary and France.

The replacement candidates who did well are the two: Adina-Ioana Vălean of Romania, who is scheduled to be the Commissioner for transport, and Thierry Breton of France, who will be responsible for the internal market. All provided the von der Leyen Commission gets a green light from the European Parliament.

The Breton’s acceptance is a turn-around of the Social-Democrats. Clearly the new President’s magic worked out well with the left-wingers. Yesterday President von der Leyen announced re-branding some of the portfolios in her College:

  • protecting our European Way of Life is changed to promoting our European Way of Life
  • the jobs portfolio will include social rights
  • fisheries to be added to the environment and the oceans

Well played, Ms Ursula.

Still, there is a problem with the Hungarian candidate. Olivér Várhelyi is invited back to communicate with the foreign affairs committee (AFET). By Monday we shall know if there is another meeting necessary. First, Mr Várhelyi is asked to provide written answers.

Apparently, as Politico reports, Mr Várhelyi problems was to convince his interlocutors that he will be independent from the national governments. In particular, one was worrisome: Budapest.

The last missing puzzle is the British Commissioner. The British PermRep, or Ambassador to the EU, has sent a letter last night (13 November) saying that London will not send a Commissioner before the elections in the UK. The vote is scheduled for 12 December.

Can the Commission be voted without the British Commissioner? That’s the question without an answer for the moment. Clearly the lawyers at the Berlaymont have something to work on in the upcoming days.

For the von der Leyen Commission to take office, the entire College needs to be approved by the Parliament. This vote is now tentatively scheduled for the last week of November.

4 Commissioners missing

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For the new European Commission to take office – initially scheduled for 1 November – we are still missing four confirmations and a final confirmation vote in the European Parliament.

Three Commissioners-candidates were rejected earlier by the European Parliament. The French Sylvie Goulard was denied after her hearing. The Romanian Rovana Plumb and the Hungarian László Trócsányi were stopped even before the hearing begun; they were found to have a conflict of interest.

The three capitals were requested to send new candidates. The Romanian candidate was “in limbo” due to a difficult political situation in Bucharest. Finally a new PM Ludovic Orban nominated Adina-Ioana Vălean after consulting Ursula von der Leyen.

The Hungarians downgraded their candidate from a high-profile Trócsányi to the civil servant level, Olivér Várhelyi. Both Várhelyi and Vălean should be acceptable during the next line of hearings in the Parliament.

The French new nominee might prove more problematic to swallow. Thierry Breton is a former businessman; the issue is always delicate with the Parliament’s left wing groups.

Worse for von der Leyen, the delicate gender balance of the initial college (13-14) is now shifting to 12-15; even a female British commissioner would not improve the situation much (13-15).

Boris Johnson was asked by Ursula to propose a British nominee as soon as possible. Will he comply? Clearly there should be a British Commissioner in a European Commission if the rule of one Commissioner per member state was to be respected. As long as Brexit has not happened there is room for a British Commissioner in the Commission, Juncker or von der Leyen.

Do we need a British Commissioner?

But there is no new Commission without a final OK from the European Parliament to the entire college. The timetable is that next week there should be the missing hearings, and should everything go smoothly, the Commission vote could be scheduled still in November.

Ursula von der Leyen hopes for her College to begin on 1 December.

The Hearings Are Coming Up

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The second to last element in the process of establishing the new European leadership is about to take place. The show will begin as each of the individual Commissioners-nominees will face the European Parliament committee or committees. In the committees public hearings are scheduled.

Here is the itinerary of the upcoming shows:

30 September: Commissioners Sefcovic, Hogan and Gabriel as a starter. Do not expect any major fireworks, all Commissioners are returning to the College, so they should know what to expect and how to swim through the murky waters of EP hearings peacefully.

1 October: the day to watch. There are 6 scheduled hearings of first timers: Schmit, Urpilainen, Wojciechowski, Johansson, Trocsanyi and Kyriakides. These people are so new that the EU services are unsure if the Cypriot Commissioner-nominee is Ms Kyriakidou or Ms Kyriakides. Even her Wikipedia page is unsure. One of the first issues to be addressed.

The hearings to watch are that of Mr Wojciechowski (14:30, AGRI committee) and of Mr Trocsanyi (18:30, AFET committee). Both have a potential to be explosive, as both nominees come from countries against which the Article 7 procedure has been initiated. On top of that there is a pending OLAF case against Mr Wojciechowski and Mr Trocsanyi is a former Justice minister in the Orban government, making him directly linked with the Hungarian rule of law situation.

2 October: Another set of first timers, including Reynders, Plumb, Dalli, Goulard, Ferreira and Lenarcic. Of them the most controversial could be hearings of Ms Goulard due to her recent financial misbehaviour. Also Ms Plumb is a candidate for some serious grilling due to her past in Romania. Mr Reynders is under a police investigation, which is not a particularly happy start for someone who should be dealing with the rule of law. The leadership of S&D has already voiced their concerns on the matter.

3 October: a combination of a returning Commissioner (Hahn) and first timers: Gentiloni, Simson, Sinkevicius, Schinas and Suica. On this day expect fireworks during the Gentiloni hearing (an Italian responsible for Italian debt management… conflict of interest?), the Sinkevicius hearing might be entertaining, as Mr Sinkevicius is to be the first European Commissioner born in 1990s. A millennial in the College. Let’s see what it truly means.

A conflict is already playing out about the Schinas portfolio. Clearly it will culminate during the hearing. “The European Way of Life” and migration portfolio prove to be highly controversial for many in the European Parliament, especially the S&D. On the other hand EPP defends the structure of the portfolio as it is.

7 October: two hearings of two vice-presidents: Ms Jourova and Mr Borrell. All could go well, depending on how Ms Jourova answers the questions related to rule of law of the government which has nominated her in the first place (Czechia). Still, she is a returning and experienced Commissioner. As for Mr Borrell the only issue of concern is his age (72) and the job of the High Representative is a job of three people. Can he manage? The former EP President is also known for his undiplomatic language.

8 October: the heavy weights, or – executive vice-presidents: Mr Timmermans, Ms Vestager and Mr Dombrovskis. S&D has some issues with the “executive status” of Mr Dombrovskis. The ECR has issues with Mr Timmermans. The Parliament might be questioning Ms Vestager on the potential review of the competition policy.

The link to the full schedule is here.

And then we will know if Ms von der Layen needs to make some corrections in the College composition.

The last element is the final approval of the entire College. Then the political part is over and only ceremonial elements remain: to swear in the Commissioners and to formally take the positions on 1 November, or soon after.

There might be also a last minute injection of one more Commissioner: if Brexit is delayed again the UK government has a right to nominate a Commissioner (to be heard and given responsibilities by the President, accordingly).

Ursula’s College: the critical approach

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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.

Habemus papam… not yet

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2 July 2019, a series of tweets of Donald Tusk:

This is the package negotiated by the European Council. No place for Mr Weber. No place for Mr Timmermans. Why?

The European People’s Party got stubborn in their demands for an EPP politician on top of the next European Commission. If Weber was not acceptable for others, than a new name was chosen. By the one and only, dame of European politics Angela Merkel. She truly is a king and queen maker, if this is not derailed (see below).

With Mr Macron on board (Lagarde!), Mr Sanchez got what he wanted from the start (Borrell!), and the EPP happy too there is a relieve in the European Council and dissatisfaction elsewhere. It matters that Mr Timmermans and Mr Rutte (PM of the Netherlands) come from different political families; Mr Rutte did not defend Mr Timmermans as a Dutch candidate.

The liberals and centrists of the European Council wanted the leadership of EUCO, and this is what they got. Read the small print: Mr Charles Michel is the only one ELECTED today. All the other ones are nominees and a proposal.

Hence the ball moves to the European Parliament. This is what the S&D communicated soon after the EUCO decision:

Yes, the European Council did not elect the next European Commission President. The European Council proposed a candidate that will or not be elected by the European Parliament.

Welcome to Strasbourg.

The Parliament is welcoming. It has postponed its deadline for candidates for the presidency of the House to give the European Council more time that it clearly needed. But the outcome of it is unclear.

Will Ms von der Leyen reach the 375 mark? Let’s see what happens. To throw the Spitzenkandidaten system under the bus the way the European Council did at the end of the day is a blow to the European Parliament firmly believing in the process. Hence the decision of the Social Democrats to be sceptical. Also since they were so close just 48 hours before…

As S&D has every right to be disappointed, the question is if there will be a majority in the Parliament able to defend the European Parliament’s future of the Spitzenkandidaten system. Mr Weber said at the EPP meeting tonight: “Macron and Orban killed the Spitzenkandidaten system”. Can it be revived?

The Greens’ are growing their dissatisfaction, too. Bas Eickhout, a leading EP Green tweeted:

Fan fact, the EUCO decision was not unanimous. Germany abstained… Quite a dame Angela Merkel abstaining from voting for a German CDU minister. Or, is she making a statement saying “I win a small war but I might be losing a big war on Spitzen-candidates and I want to remind you that this war is not over quite yet”?

The Polish take

The Poles are ecstatic. Last time the Polish Law and Justice (PiS) politicians were happy about EU? Never. Last time the PiS politicians were as supportive of an EU federalist politician? Never. They are simply happy Mr Timmermans is not the Commission President.

Where is an Eastern European? Absent. Some say this could be compensated at the level of the vice-presidents of the Commission, which is a weak compensation. Ms Merkel is better at the press conference: “There is a prospect of an Eastern European for Parliament president”. There is one at the moment, but it is 8:30 PM and there is still time for new ideas. For the moment Mr Jan Zahradil is ECR’s candidate for the EP’s top job. Was this Merkel’s endorsement for Zahradil? Somehow I am sceptical.

Et alors?

This is a good deal. Two women, all federalists, all competent people. 27 votes in favour of Ms von der Leyen with 0 against and 1 friendly abstention.

This is a bad deal. This is a deal disrespectful of the Parliament’s Spitzen-candidates system. The candidate was not presented in the campaign. Citizens have a right to feel cheated, as the next Commission President is supposed to be running on an increased legitimacy given by the citizens to the Union during the elections process. Instead the President-candidate runs on the European Council legitimacy. For now, that is.

Yes, Ms von der Leyen, maybe we should call her UVDL for short, is a President-candidate for now. She will be President-elect when she receives 375 votes or more in the European Parliament. She will be President once her College is approved later this year.

This process brings me with a few reflections. First, the party politics dominates the European political stage much more than national interests or institutional arrangements, for now at least. This is a sign of maturing of the system.

Second, there is a need to rethink the Spitzenkandidaten process ahead of 2024 and 2029. Clearly the 2009/2010, 2014 and 2019 experiences are rich to draw conclusions from.

Third, it is a pity that the Central Europeans are nowhere to be seen. This solution is a proof that CEE countries, especially Poland and Italy lose power and influence. Mr Morawiecki at the press conference said he was confident that the region will be well represented. But how?

He also supported de-politicisation of the Commission, presented himself as a part of a compromise. This is a positive step in associating Law and Justice for being co-responsible for the European Union and its independent institutions in the future. The vote for UVDL is an investment into building trust of countries like Poland, but also Hungary and Italy.

But Mateusz Morawiecki would not be himself if he did not attack Mr Timmermans again calling him a radical candidate of the extreme left. Personal attacks like this make heroes, do not bury enemies. The popularity of Martin Schulz was built on an offence against him by Mr Berlusconi back in 2003.

Fourth, what will be the role of the conservative, very conservative or sovereignist commissioners arriving from Poland, Italy and Hungary in the new Commission? Prime Minister Conte just said Italy will have a vice-president of the Commission responsible for the competition portfolio. Let’s see how this goes in due time, especially since it is to be La Lega’s candidate. Interesting.

Fifth, something for tomorrow: who will be the next President of the Parliament?

Once we know this we can ponder on how Ms Ursula can get her 375 yeses in the Strasbourg chamber.