Ursula von der Leyen’s off to a Tough Start

Following the European Parliament’s approval of the new Commissioners last Wednesday in Strasbourg, Ursula von der Leyen will have taken office 1 December 2019 as the first female President of the European Commission.

In her opening statements, the new President of the European Commission chose to refer to many of the commitments she had already made during the Parliament’s plenary session in July. She stressed that proper investment and regulatory frameworks will be put into place for Europe to provide international leadership on a series of critical issues, such climate change, growth, inclusion, innovation and digitalisation, but also the protection of democracy, European values, citizens’ rights and the rule of law.

The new Commission is due to have started its five-year term on 1 December, one month later than expected, following the Parliament’s rejection of three of von der Leyen’s initial nominees – the Romanian, the Hungarian and, most significantly, the personal choice of President Emmanuel Macron for the French Commissioner.

In breach of decades-old all tradition, the new Commission will not be able to rely on a majority coalition of the two main political groups, the centre-right European People’s Party and the centre-left Socialists & Democrats, but will need to appeal to the liberal-centrist Renew Europe group or seek ad hoc support from a range of parties further to the right or left, including the Greens, who abstained from the vote on the new Commissioners College.

Trust to the new Commission might put to the test much earlier that one would think given von der Leyen’s wish to deliver during her first 100 days in office on a series of policy promises that she made last July to win her confirmation vote. This does not only include the famous Green Deal for Europe, but also legislative initiatives on a fair minimum wage, gender equality and the ethical use of artificial intelligence.

As former German minister for defence actively supported by French President Macron for the European Commission’s presidency, Ursula von der Leyen is caught in the crossfire between Berlin and Paris, with Macron and Merkel making contradictory statements on record as their teams back home are working to patch up serious disagreements on major issues, including EU expansion into the western Balkans, NATO and EU security policy, as well as the future of the Eurozone.

If one takes into account other intra-European divisions, such as the controversial issues of migration and asylum policy, respect of the rule-of-law, the effects of Brexit and tensions with the US, it seems highly improbable for von der Leyen to deviate from the crisis-response mode that outgoing President Jean-Claude Juncker has spent the last five years in.

Von der Leyen’s first big fight about the EU’s next Multiannual Financial Framework will determine to a great extent the fate of many of her policy plans. Ambitious objectives such as the Green Deal and her call for a 30 per cent spending increase on EU foreign aid programmes will require equally ambitious levels of funding.

However, the biggest threat to Ursula von der Leyen might come from the new Commission President herself. Making too many promises to too many sides might result in member-state governments wanting to set the terms of the discussion instead and marginalise the first-ever Commission led by a woman.