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European Commission: 'Team Ursula' gears up

November 27, 2019

The European Parliament will vote on the new commission on Wednesday, after a month's delay. President-elect Ursula von der Leyen wants it to be "geopolitical," green and cost-effective.

Ursula von der Leyen holds a speech
Image: Reuters/A. Hilse

It hasn't been an easy start for Ursula von der Leyen's team: The European Parliament rejected three candidates from France, Romania and Hungary, whose governments then had to find replacements. French President Emmanuel Macron was particularly irked by the delay, which he blamed on von der Leyen.

So the new commission was not able to start its work in Brussels as planned on November 1. It is now due to start officially on December 1.

Read more: Who is Ursula von der Leyen?

There have also been legal uncertainties since the UK has refused to name a commissioner. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that the UK has to wait until after the general election on December 12. After all, Brexit is due to happen on January 31.

EU lawyers have concluded that Ursula von der Leyen can start her work with 26 commissioners. As one EU diplomat put it, "We're going ahead as there is no precedence. Brexit is new territory for everybody." Nonetheless, just in case, the EU did launch legal proceedings against the UK for breaching its treaty obligations; the UK government might eventually have to defend itself before the European Court of Justice. If Brexit does not happen, the UK will still be able to nominate a commissioner for whom von der Leyen will have to find a job.

3 classes of commissioner: 3 + 8 + 15

Ursula von der Leyen's team has come up with a complex model to allocate tasks in the new commission. The idea is to represent all the interests of the small and big member states, those of the north and of the east, the poor and the rich. It seems that the right balance has been found. Von der Leyen appeared convinced when she presented her concept in September.

She will have three executive vice-presidents: Valdis Dombrokvskis (Latvia), Frans Timmermans (Netherlands) and Margrethe Vestager (Denmark). The latter two both wanted the job of commission president themselves and could be envious that von der Leyen, who has little experience in European affairs, got it instead.

There will be five more vice presidents with imaginatively named portfolios. Margaritis Schinas (Greece), formerly commission spokesperson, will run the "Promoting the European Way of Life" department, which encompasses education, labor and migration. Von der Leyen was forced to rename the portfolio that she initially called "Protecting our European Way of Life" after heavy criticism from the left that it pandered to right-wing populism and was misleading.

Read more: How the EU's resettlement plan is failing to meet its goal

Frans Timmermans will be responsible for the "European Green Deal," i.e. environment and energy policy, which will be one of the commission's main focuses. Von der Leyen has said that a new Green Deal for Europe will be announced before her first 100 days in office are up.

Oliver Varhelyi
Oliver Varhelyi was accepted by the EU Parliament after Hungary's first choice was rejectedImage: Getty Images/AFP/J. Thys

Josep Borrell (Spain) will be the commission's new "foreign minister." He will be tasked with developing the EU's defense union, along with designated Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi (Hungary) and Jutta Urpilainen (Finland), responsible for international partnerships. Varhelyi will have to find a way of reopening EU accession talks with the Western Balkan states, which France has so far vetoed, alongside the Netherlands and Denmark. Urpilainen will build up cooperation with African states, especially in view of trying to stem migration to the EU.

Von der Leyen wrote in her mission letters to the designated commissioners that her commission would work on the basis of collegiality, transparency and speed. She also said that it would be a "geopolitical commission."

Female but not equal

Von der Leyen was not able to hold an early pledge: delivering gender equality. Nonetheless, the commission is more female than it has ever been, with 12 female commissioners, and she is the first woman to have her job. The new commission will also boast the youngest commissioner ever: Virginijus Sinkevicius, hitherto Lithuania's minister of economy, has just turned 29. He will be responsible for the "Environment and Oceans," also one of the main focuses for the next five years.

Ursula von der Leyen and her husband Heiko
Von der Leyen plans to spend her weekend at home with her husband Heiko Image: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Hollemann

Known for her tendency to work long hours, von der Leyen wants to break another record: She will reduce accommodation and security costs by sleeping in her office, just as she did as German defense minister. A room on the top floor of the commission's main Berlaymont building has been refitted with a shower for just this purpose.

On weekends, von der Leyen will do the same as many EU functionaries. She will go home, to her husband near Hanover.

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Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union
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