Last week, incoming president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, unveiled her proposed team of commissioners and the jobs she has assigned them. Von der Leyden, who is German, and the 26 commissioners (one nominated by each European Union member, other than the United Kingdom) will lead the E.U.’s executive body.
The new commission will take office Nov. 1, just a day after the anticipated Brexit date, but the team must first win approval from the European Parliament where a final vote is planned for the week of Oct. 23. Although the Parliament can only vote to approve or reject the commission as a whole, it has leveraged this power in the past to demand the replacement of individual nominees.
Von der Leyen’s proposed lineup has already generated controversy, and the Parliament is likely to demand changes. Critics accused her of pandering to the far right by labeling the commissioner in charge of migration issues the vice president for "Protecting our European Way of Life.” And there are questions why von der Leyen gave the portfolio in charge of promoting the rule of law in E.U. candidate countries and neighbors to a commissioner who has been deeply involved in rule of law controversies in his native Hungary.
The commission plays a very important role
Even in Europe, many European citizens typically don’t understand how powerful the commission is. There’s more to its role than E.U. bureaucracy. The commission proposes all E.U. legislation and serves as the “guardian of the treaties” responsible for ensuring member states comply with E.U. law.
Commissioners are not supposed to be representatives of their home countries: They take an oath to serve the general interest of the European Union and to be independent of any government. Nevertheless, governments often see “their” commissioners as sympathetic friends, and lobby the commission president for powerful portfolios. The president-elect’s choices about how to divide up responsibilities sends important signals about her priorities — and the relative clout of different E.U. governments.
But President-elect von der Leyen’s lineup is sending mixed signals. Some of her choices demonstrate a commitment to issues championed by socialists and liberals. For example, the first executive vice president of the commission, Dutch socialist Frans Timmermans, is taking the lead on Europe’s Green New Deal, including climate change, biodiversity and pollution.
She reappointed Danish liberal Margrethe Vestager to the powerful post of commissioner for competition policy and also gave her responsibility for digital policies. She designated Paolo Gentolini, president of the Italian social democratic party (PD), as the commissioner for economic affairs.
But other choices seem to favor Europe’s far-right and increasingly autocratic member governments. Perhaps her most controversial choice was to label the commissioner charged with migration policy as the vice president for Protecting our European Way of Life. Critics in the European Parliament say the loaded phrase is a nod to xenophobic rhetoric suggesting migrants and refugees pose a threat to the European way of life. These critics are already demanding von der Leyen change the offensive job title.
Hungary’s commissioner has been nominated to protect democracy
The European Parliament is also likely to have problems with von der Leyen’s nomination of Hungarian politician Laszlo Trocsanyi to head up E.U. enlargement and relations with neighboring countries. The president-elect’s specific instructions ask him to focus on “rule of law, the fight against corruption and the role of an independent media and civil society.”
The problem is that the E.U. has opened a sanctions procedure against Hungary for violations of the rule of law, corruption and attacks on independent media and civil society — these are attacks involving Trocsanyi directly.
As Hungary’s justice minister from 2014 to 2018, Trocsanyi helped craft the “Stop Soros” law that criminalized assistance to asylum seekers and migrants and the legal provisions that forced the Central European University to leave Hungary. He also tried to set up a new administrative court system, which would have been largely under his own control and which could have ruled on cases involving human, civil and political rights. The E.U. and rights advocates condemned the plans as a threat to the rule of law and judicial independence. For now, the Hungarian government has suspended these plans.
The controversial appointment raises questions
Why would von der Leyen put such a controversial person in such a powerful position? Some observers have speculated that she is engaging in a sophisticated tactical game — expecting the Parliament will reject Trocsanyi so the E.U. body — rather than von der Leyen herself — will take the blame for rejecting him.
Or there’s a simpler explanation: Von der Leyen is paying back Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party for their help in making her commission president. The European Parliament narrowly confirmed von der Leyen as president in July after a highly contentious process — ultimately she needed the votes of members of Orban’s authoritarian Fidesz party in the European Parliament and of Poland’s far-right governing party (PiS), to secure a majority. In her announcement last Monday, von der Leyen gave both governments’ nominees the portfolios they had requested — enlargement for Hungary and agriculture for Poland.
Ultimately, the European Parliament may demand the replacement of Trocsanyi. Von der Leyen could also decide to reshuffle the team to put controversial nominees in less influential positions. Whatever Trocsanyi’s fate, his nomination itself highlights something important: Far-right and authoritarian member governments are not content simply to have the E.U. stay out of their domestic affairs. They are more ambitious than that.
As I highlight in a forthcoming paper, these governments seek to place their loyalists in positions of power within E.U. institutions to promote their agenda on the European level. Whether they succeed will depend on how the centrist politicians who still dominate the European Union react to the autocrats knocking at the doors of power in Brussels.
R. Daniel Kelemen is professor of political science and law at Rutgers University. Follow him on Twitter: @rdanielkelemen.