Von der leyen’s new eu commission: slightly plucked

The new, confirmed EU Commission is not quite as female as planned. Men will continue to pull the strings in Brussels, for example in climate policy.

Not everything went as planned: EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen Photo: Philipp von Ditfurth/dpa

More feminine, greener and more powerful: This is what the new EU Commission, with which Ursula von der Leyen is starting out in Brussels, was supposed to look like. But when the team confirmed by the EU Parliament on Wednesday begins its work on December 1, four weeks late, some things will be different than planned. Von der Leyen had to cut back.

The first German Commission president since Walter Hallstein narrowly missed her biggest goal – gender parity. Among the 27 commissioners, only 12 are women, but 15 are men. Two gentlemen – Dutchman Frans Timmermans and Frenchman Thierry Breton – have also landed particularly important posts.

Timmermans will oversee the "Green Deal" and put the EU on course for a "climate-neutral economy." Breton is to make industry fit for competition from China and build up a European defense sector. Only Denmark’s Margrethe Vestager gets similar power – she oversees competition and digital policy.

Von der Leyen, on the other hand, has had to concede some ground. Three of her candidates failed at the hearings in the European Parliament – a record. After voting no to Frenchwoman Sylvie Goulard, the German CDU politician had to listen to a telling off from France’s head of state Emmanuel Macron – a first.

Doubts about steadfastness

Since then, many in Brussels have doubted her steadfastness. Von der Leyen could become too dependent on Macron, who proposed her for the Brussels post in June, the concern said. Chancellor Angela Merkel is also likely to try to influence her longtime close party friend.

First, however, von der Leyen has another problem: The green climate label, of all things, is causing trouble. Within a hundred days, it was announced, the new EU Commission would get the "Green Deal" off the ground. But now the European Parliament wants to declare a "climate emergency" and thus increase the pressure.

Before Christmas, rather than in the new year, von der Leyen must present a climate package, demands liberal French MEP Pascal Canfin, who initiated the Parliament’s "state of emergency" resolution. December 11, just before the last EU summit of the year, would be a good date.

Canfin also immediately drew up a list of demands. The action plan should not be limited to climate policy. Rather, it must also include other "dimensions" such as biodiversity or health. In addition, von der Leyen needs money – a lot of money. "So far, 200 billion euros a year are missing," Canfin calculates.

Tight EU budget

But where is this money to come from? The EU budget does not provide the necessary funding, says outgoing German Budget Commissioner Gunther Oettinger. The CDU politician had recently clashed with the German government because Berlin rejected his draft for the EU financial framework for the years 2021 to 2027.

So will von der Leyen fail because of Germany’s austerity policy, of all things? This could be decided as early as the beginning of next year, when negotiations on the future EU budget enter the hot phase. However, a decision is not expected until the second half of 2020, under the German EU presidency.

Then, at the latest, it will become clear how much room for maneuver von der Leyen really has. Chancellor Merkel also has the power to wave the Green Deal through – or to trim it down. So far, the chancellor has tended to put on the brakes. Macron, on the other hand, is pushing for haste, and the next conflict is already lurking there.

And what about the clout promised by the new EU president? "Europe must learn the language of power," von der Leyen demanded in a speech marking the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The new EU Commission will think and act "geopolitically" – and stand up to China, Russia and the U.S. where necessary, she said.

Powerful instruments

What this will look like in practice, however, is unclear. Only in trade policy and competition law does the EU Commission have powerful instruments at its disposal. When it comes to military "hard power," however, it is largely powerless – as the dispute between Macron and Merkel over NATO has shown.

Macron called the alliance "brain dead." Merkel disagreed, von der Leyen remained silent. Nor has anything been heard on this subject from the new EU foreign affairs representative Josep Borrell, a Spaniard.

Nevertheless, Borrell also wants to strengthen the EU. But he serves two masters – the EU Commission and the Council. In the end, the member states could have the final say in foreign policy, as is so often the case in Brussels. Von der Leyen would then probably lose out – or remain silent.