The Irish Times view on the new European Commission

Ursula von der Leyen’s balancing act is quite an achievement

European Commission president  Ursula von der Leyen  announces the names of new European commissioners on Tuesday  at the European Commission in Brussels. Photograph: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen announces the names of new European commissioners on Tuesday at the European Commission in Brussels. Photograph: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty

 

Ursula von der Leyen had set herself what many saw as an impossible task. The European Commission, which the president-elect will lead from November 1st, would reflect the EU to a greater degree than its predecessors: she promised gender balance, a balance geographically between east and west, and a balance too between the EU’s principle political parties.

In announcing her proposed allocation of portfolios and titles to the next commission’s 26 other members yesterday, Von der Leyen could point to quite an achievement: an unprecedented gender balance – 13 women to 14 men and a distribution of vice-presidencies that brought in representatives of the Czech Republic, Latvia, Slovakia and Croatia to the expanded eight vice-presidencies. At the last summit, the central and eastern Europeans had felt aggrieved at their exclusion from the EU top jobs.

[Phil Hogan] has acquired a reputation in Brussels as a canny and tough negotiator and his nomination by Von der Leyen represents an implicit recognition of a safe pair of hands

And the political parties that make up the mainstream of the European Parliament – the Socialists and Democrats, the European People’s Party, and Renew Europe – have been given representation in the “political” commission that reflects their weight in both the European Parliament and among member states.

More important, however, than such symbolism is the welcome signal that the political direction of the new Commission is shifting. The two top VPs, Frans Timmermans and Margrethe Vestager, both also outgoing, get special responsibility for co-ordinating work on preparing the EU for the challenges of climate change and carbon neutrality by 2050, and of the digital economy.

EU trade commissioner nominee Phil Hogan: Photograph: Reuters/Francois Lenoir
The nomination of Ireland’s outgoing Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan to responsibility for trade – and hence for steering the post-Brexit talks with the UK on its future relationship with the EU – is particularly welcome. File photograph: Reuters/Francois Lenoir

Vestager’s reappointment to competition, where her robust policing of anti-competitive practices of some of the world’s biggest companies, has ruffled many feathers, is to be applauded although Dublin may demur. And there was barely a mention of Brexit. It’s on the agenda but Brussels and the EU have other matters on their plate.

The nomination of Ireland’s outgoing Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan to responsibility for trade – and hence for steering the post-Brexit talks with the UK on its future relationship with the EU – is particularly welcome, however. He has acquired a reputation in Brussels as a canny and tough negotiator and his nomination by Von der Leyen represents an implicit recognition of a safe pair of hands and an acknowledgment that Irish policy on the future relationship is, and is likely to remain, in lockstep with that of the EU.

Commissioners lose their nationality when they assume office, or are supposed to, notionally serving only the common interest of the EU. “You are Europeans first,” Von der Leyen told each of her nominees, “no longer representatives or messengers from your countries…. Decisions will be arrived at in the college.” But Ireland’s preoccupations and sense of urgency on the trade front will certainly help inform Hogan’s work.

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