BRUSSELS — Europe’s new boss on Tuesday unveiled a power team notable for its gender balance and a few eye-catching picks.
Ursula von der Leyen’s appointment of the 26 Commissioners, pending confirmation by the European Parliament, highlights the usual horse-trading between European Union capitals as well as the considerable challenges to the bloc’s present and future. The Continent heads into a new decade with its economy stalling, an unpredictable American ally to the west and a rising China and hostile Russia on its Eastern horizons. The political aftershocks of a four-year-old refugee crisis continue to be felt and next up – with breaths held world-wide — is the departure of Britain from the elite multinational club by Oct. 31, or maybe not.
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Von der Leyen last month signaled her ambitions for Brussels in an aggressive policy plan, first revealed by POLITICO. The former German defense minister and the first woman to hold the job of European Commission president wants the EU to counter President Donald Trump on trade policy and fight off competition from American and Chinese tech giants, while pitching Brussels as the world’s “guardian of multilateralism.”
To help her get there, von der Leyen has created three new “executive vice president” positions for climate, digital and economic issues. She has created, for the first time, a department to oversee defense and space policy — which may be seen in Washington as a challenge to the U.S.-led NATO alliance.
Of the 14 men and 12 women on Tuesday charged with realizing that vision, 18 are first-time commissioners. And if the past is any judge, many will have minimal impact beyond their narrow portfolios. But for the world beyond the Brussels bubble, who matters most is best summed up by three V’s and a Phil.
Phil is for Phil Hogan, an Irish farmer who has battled to modernize the EU’s agriculture policy and now takes on trade policy. In addition to antitrust, this is the one area where the EU yields most direct power. He’ll be a regular in Washington, pushing back on the Trump administration’s efforts to weaken the World Trade Organization, which the Europeans see as a pillar of the trade order. He’ll also be looking to add to the EU’s list of more than 60 countries with which it has trade agreements.
Besides the German in the biggest chair in Brussels, the V’s include Valdis Dombrovskis, a former Latvian prime minister — high on technocratic know-how and low on charisma — who retains his previous portfolio overseeing financial regulation and indirectly a big say over economic policy. (The real economic power player is the head of the European Central Bank, pending her likely confirmation by Parliament in Brussels, the Frenchwoman and current International Monetary Fund chief, Christine Lagarde.)
The other V is arguably the biggest star on scene here: Margarethe Vestager, A.K.A. Silicon Valley’s biggest nightmare. Or, as Trump once called her, “tax lady” (not a compliment), after she sent Apple a $14 billion bill.
Starting in November, Vestager will keep her competition cop job and gain new powers as an executive vice president to do what it takes to get “Europe fit for the digital age.”
A key challenge in Vestager’s quest to rein in alleged tech excess will be her ability to form strategic relationships with U.S. antitrust authorities.
On their own, Vestager’s fines and merger decisions are now priced into shareholder calculations around the world. Shareholders think even a multi-billion-dollar fine is a slap on the wrist for the largest tech companies that does little to fundamentally alter business models or profit margins. Only stronger transatlantic coordination and EU or U.S. court-ordered company break-ups are likely to shift that dynamic.
Besides Hogan and Vestager, the European who’ll spend the most time in Washington will be the continent’s firebrand foreign policy chief, the Spaniard Josep Borrell.
The most contentious file in U.S.-EU relations today is Iran. After Trump pulled out of the Obama-era nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions on Tehran, the Europeans have struggled to keep the agreement alive — with little to show for it. The Europeans have also proved reluctant to embrace America’s more hawkish approach to Beijing.
In a not so subtle jab at the Trump administration, von der Leyen also promised a “European Green Deal,” putting Frans Timmermans, a social democrat and the current No. 2 at the outgoing Commission in charge of it. Using language that could come straight from the playbook of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the center-right von der Leyen said, “At the heart of it is our commitment to becoming the world’s first climate-neutral continent. I want Europe to be the front-runner.”
Other prominent women in the new Commission include Věra Jourová, of the Czech Republic, who will be in charge of managing rule of law concerns that have persistently cropped up in
Eastern Europe in recent years, and Sylvie Goulard, a former French defense minister and negotiator of German reunification in the 1990s, who will be commissioner for the internal market and a new defense and space department. Dubravka Šuica, a former mayor of Dobrovnik in Croatia, will be vice president for democracy and demography, while Kadri Simson, of Estonia, will serve as energy commissioner.
The selection of Jourová, representing one of the Visegrad Four nations of Central and Eastern Europe, carries special significance given still-simmering tensions between Brussels and two of the V4, Poland and Hungary. The two countries have been accused of undermining core EU principles on rule of law and democracy. Each country is led by a right-wing ruler whom the Trump administration views as a close ally in Europe. While both in recent months have tried to paper over disagreements with Brussels, the potential for flare-ups remains high.
See the full list of commissioners here.