Ursula von der Leyen has lost her balance — at least a bit.
When the European Parliament narrowly confirmed von der Leyen as the next European Commission president in July, MEPs expected a College of Commissioners with an equal number of conservatives and social democrats — nine each from the EU’s mainstay center-left and center-right parties.
Von der Leyen also promised to form the first-ever Commission with an equal number of men and women.
But a series of unexpected developments, including the collapse of the Romanian government, as well as the Parliament’s rejection of three Commission nominees — two of them women — have knocked von der Leyen off-balance in terms of both party affiliation and gender parity, with conservatives outnumbering socialists, and men outnumbering women.
The numbers are only slightly off, at the moment by just one more conservative and one more man than anticipated. Yet rising anger in the Parliament, particularly among social democrats, is complicating von der Leyen’s efforts to secure confirmation of her final three nominees so that she can take office — something that was supposed to happen last week.
Von der Leyen, who was in her native Germany this week for several events, expressed confidence in her proposed team despite the shift in numbers, and aides said they still believed there was a chance Parliament would confirm the new nominees and the Commission could take office on December 1 — a timeline others see as overly optimistic. But mostly she and her team stressed that the political changes stemmed from shifts in national governments outside Brussels’ control.
“Initially, I presented a gender-balanced College,” von der Leyen said in a statement Wednesday. “Like always the hearings brought changes. Now we will presumably come out with gender-balance-minus-one. Since my election there have been changes in the government in Italy and Romania. This is all reflected in the composition of the college. All in all, a college of dedicated men and women, that wants to serve Europe and I’m proud of.”
The elusive balance, however, is hardly the president-elect’s only hurdle.
Some MEPs are expressing misgivings about the Hungarian nominee, Olivér Várhelyi, being in charge of neighborhood and enlargement policy given Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s close ties with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as well as Hungary’s perceived meddling in politics in the Balkans and its at-times contentious relationship with Ukraine.
Other MEPs said they are concerned about the overly broad portfolio of the French nominee, Thierry Breton, who is set to oversee the EU’s internal market, as well as industrial policy, defense and space. Breton, while officially the pick of French President Emmanuel Macron and his liberal Renew Europe group, has a long history of political ties to French conservatives.
Some MEPs from the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) said they sensed an erosion of the pledges made by von der Leyen during her confirmation process and a feeling that she and her conservative European People’s Party (EPP) were trying to reassert dominance in the EU institutions.
They also suggested there were signs that von der Leyen was moving away from some of the positions of Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans, the Dutchman who was the social democrats’ candidate for Commission president and who will stay on as von der Leyen’s most senior executive vice president.
“At the first presentation of the von der Leyen Commission, we were happy that there was a gender balance and that there were 10 S&D commissioners,” said Agnes Jongerius, head of the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA) delegation in the European Parliament. “And also that in her address to Parliament, she used quite a lot of language which we recognized from the Frans Timmermans campaign — like a minimum wage or the new Green Deal.”
That outreach had helped some socialists move past their anger at the European Council disregarding the Spitzenkandidat, or lead candidate, process by which they believed Timmermans was the rightful winner of the Commission presidency — after the EPP candidate, Manfred Weber, was unable to secure support of a majority of EU heads of state and government.
But von der Leyen’s surprise appointment of a conservative, Valdis Dombrovskis, as a third executive vice president, along with Timmermans and Danish liberal Margrethe Vestager, angered many social democrats, including Timmermans, who had expected von der Leyen to be the sole conservative in a triumvirate at the top of the EU’s executive body.
“There was of course still bitterness over the fact that the Council had been pushing aside the whole Spitzenkandidat process, but von der Leyen’s program and the way she addressed our issues in her speech in the Parliament and the fact that she took 10 S&D commissioners on board was a hopeful sign,” Jongerius said.
But now, “the mood has changed,” she said.
“There are some discrepancies between her speech to the Parliament and the mission letters to the different commissioners. For example, the fact that Valdis Dombrovskis is overseeing a lot of work of key S&D commissioners, such as Nicolas Schmit, Elisa Ferreira, Paolo Gentiloni, was something quite difficult to swallow.”
A complicated pairing
Other MEPs find it hard to digest the prospect of a Hungarian running the EU’s neighborhood and enlargement policy, even one as well-schooled in the ways of Brussels as Várhelyi, who is currently Budapest’s ambassador to the EU.
Those concerns seemed to be highlighted on Wednesday when Hungary helped delay a legal decision by EU ambassadors needed to implement sanctions against Turkey. The Hungarians said a formal decision was needed in Budapest but a visit by Erdoğan to the Hungarian capital on Thursday was seen as a major reason for Hungary’s “no” vote.
Várhelyi’s confirmation “will be a struggle,” said one MEP from the EPP, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
An official close to von der Leyen’s transition team noted that commissioners are EU officials, serving the Union, and no member of the College is in a position to pursue national policy.
“There is no such thing as saying Hungary has got the enlargement portfolio,” the official said. “To think that a commissioner of any nationality can simply implement national policies disregards the political reality.”
That said, some MEPs openly voiced their misgivings about Várhelyi.
“I have serious concerns about the choice of von der Leyen to put forward Olivér Várhelyi for the enlargement and neighborhood portfolio,” said Dutch MEP Kati Piri, from the S&D group. “The Hungarian government he is fiercely defending is responsible for serious rule of law violations and has stances on neighboring countries which in no way reflect EU values and principles.”
Piri noted that Hungary is facing formal disciplinary proceedings in the Parliament for undermining core EU values, and that Orbán has sheltered the fugitive former prime minister of North Macedonia, Nikola Gruevski, has voiced support for Turkey’s military incursion into Syria, and has shown overly cozy ties to Putin.
“If Commissioner-designate Várhelyi during the hearing does not distance himself in clear terms from Viktor Orbán and his government’s actions, he will face a strong opposition from the S&D group,” Piri said.
Tanja Fajon, a Slovenian MEP from the S&D, also expressed doubts about Várhelyi, saying he could prove a more problematic choice than the first Hungarian nominee, László Trócsányi, who was rejected by the Parliament’s legal affairs committee.
“I am worried about the Hungarian Commission nomination of Mr. Várhelyi and VDL’s decision on his portfolio, who is in some respect an even worse pick than Mr. Trócsányi,” said Fajon. “In order not to jeopardize the future Commission, the president-elect should have asked for a less controversial candidate from Hungary and I believe many MEPs will have difficulties voting in favor of his nomination.”
Hungarian MEP Katalin Cseh, who serves as vice chair of the Renew Europe group, said that the portfolio assignment was a mistake.
“Giving Orbán’s candidate the portfolio for enlargement is a bad decision,” Cseh said. “When we said ‘no’ to the previous candidate, László Trócsányi, we already made it clear: The person who gave asylum to Nikola Gruevski and let Russian arms smugglers escape the country cannot be an EU commissioner. But the same concerns apply to any Orbán candidate getting the enlargement portfolio. The EU’s official weakest link in the rule of law, a country currently under Article 7 procedure, cannot credibly ensure accession countries’ compliance with European values.”
The rejection of any of the three remaining nominees risks delaying the start of von der Leyen’s Commission until early next year, given the Christmas holiday and the limited window for Parliament to conduct further hearings.
Breton the businessman
The French nominee, Breton, is a wealthy businessman, and stands to face tough scrutiny for any signs of conflicts of interest. The official close to the transition said Breton would keep his pledge to divest all of his investments, potentially easing his path to a swift confirmation.
The Romanian nominee, Adina-Ioana Vălean, who is slated to get the transport portfolio, may face an easier time as she is an MEP. Some Romanian politicians, however, have complained that the country’s new prime minister, Ludovic Orban, bypassed the normal process of consultations in Bucharest, in the rush to send von der Leyen new names.
Even if the French, Romanian and Hungarian picks are approved, von der Leyen could still find herself waiting for London, which is obligated to send a British commissioner despite Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s effort to carry out Brexit.
Von der Leyen’s team has expressed confidence that Johnson will abide by a recent European Council decision to extend the Brexit deadline to January 31, which also called on the U.K. to name a commissioner and not to obstruct the functioning of the EU institutions. EU legal officials, however, are working on potential solutions if London does not comply with von der Leyen’s request.
In any event, officials said Brussels would find a way to prevent the new Commission from being delayed solely by the U.K.
The bigger obstacle at the moment seems to be the anger among social democrats, some of them animated by the fractures in Germany’s governing coalition in Berlin, others simply frustrated by what they perceive as false promises by the president-elect when it comes to the power to be wielded by Timmermans in his role overseeing the so-called European Green Deal on climate policy.
Several MEPs said they were torn between wanting to get the new Commission going and their unhappiness over how the College has shaped up.
“Timmermans is isolated by two conservatives — the president von der Leyen and Dombrovskis — and the liberal Vestager,” said Eric Andrieu, a French socialist MEP. “I’m afraid we will get squashed.”
Jens Geier, a German socialist, said he was less concerned that the socialists had lost a commissioner seat, as a result of the change of government in Bucharest, than about how von der Leyen had elevated Dombrovskis, a former Latvian prime minister who will oversee financial and economic policy, into a powerful executive vice president job.
“I believe, the problem with the balance is the issue of Dombrovskis,” Geier said. “Von der Leyen has given the same executive vice president portfolio to a Christian Democrat — and it’s him managing the cash. That puts the whole operability of the Green Deal and the industrial transition into question. At the end you will need money for politics — a lot of money for EU countries to manage the industrial transformation — and a Green Deal with financial restrictions won’t be possible. The concern is that Dombrovskis will take on a braking role at this point.”
While Dombrovskis will oversee financial services policy, proposals on how to spend EU funds are the realm of incoming Budget Commissioner Johannes Hahn, a veteran Austrian politician who is also a member of the EPP.
Timmermans himself said earlier this week that “I have some worries about the political balance, which had already shifted a bit towards the EPP by earlier measures.”
Geier said: “Timmermans’ message is: If I have to make a policy here as it was assigned to me, I can’t be shackled from all sides. Now it’s enough.”
Maïa de La Baume, Jacopo Barigazzi and Carmen Paun contributed reporting.