Background to von der Leyen’s nomination

On 2 July, after three rather lengthy EU summits, the EU28 leaders surprisingly proposed German Christian Democrat Ursula von der Leyen (formerly German Defence Minister) as their candidate for Commission President (subject to the European Parliament’s approval).

In agreeing to nominate von der Leyen, the EU28 agreed on the following division for the other EU top jobs:

  • Council President and President of the Euro Summit (replacing Donald Tusk on 1 December): Belgian Liberal Charles Michel (outgoing Belgian Prime Minister) – his nomination is confirmed and his mandate will be two and a half years (renewable once)
  • European Central Bank (ECB) President (replacing Mario Draghi on 1 November): French Christian Democrat Christine Lagarde (International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director until 12 September) – her appointment needs to be confirmed by the Parliament and ECB Governing Council
  • High Representative and Commission Vice-President: Spanish Socialist Josep Borrell Fontelles (currently Spanish Foreign Affairs Minister) – his appointment needs to be confirmed by the Parliament

Furthermore, the European Parliament voted to appoint Italian Socialist David-Maria Sassoli as Parliament President, which also came as a surprise to many. His term will last for two and a half years. The role of the Parliament President is historically symbolic but previous Presidents, such as German Socialist Martin Schulz, have worked to strengthen its inter-institutional significance.

Building support for her nomination

Between 2 July and the vote in the European Parliament on 16 July, von der Leyen worked to build support for her nomination as Commission President. She quickly set up a transition team (comprising senior Commission and German government officials), an office in the Commission’s Charlemagne building (adjacent to the Berlaymont, where she will sit come November) and exchanged views (and letters) with the main political groups in the European Parliament, with the aim of building a majority in her favour ahead of the vote. Although von der Leyen is not new to Brussels (she was actually born and raised there, as her father was formerly Head of Cabinet to Competition Commissioner von der Groeben and served as Director-General for DG Competition), she faced an uphill challenge, with many Parliamentarians, particularly from the Socialist and Greens groups, frustrated with the fact that she had not campaigned in the EU elections as a Spitzenkandidat. Von der Leyen thus worked with the different groups to fine-tune her political priorities, which she presented during her opening statement on 16 July prior to the vote (and has subsequently elaborated in her ‘Political Guidelines: for the next European Commission 2019-2024’).

The implications of these priorities for business will be the subject of a dedicated podcast, due to be published shortly on our election portal, but we wanted to highlight a few key themes in the context of this blog post.

  • Digitisation: Von der Leyen has committed to proposing legislation for a coordinated European approach on the human and ethical implications of AI (in her first 100 days in office) and a Digital Services Act to “upgrade our liability and safety rules for digital platforms, services and products”. She also emphasised the need for investment in research, the joint development of standards for 5G networks and to ensure that “taxation of big tech companies is a priority”.
  • Sustainability: Von der Leyen’s first stated ambition is a “European Green Deal”, which would include inter alia enshrining the 2050 climate-neutrality target into law, an extension of the Emissions Trading System (ETS) and a Carbon Border Tax. This would be combined with a Sustainable Europe Investment Plan and the inclusion of a sustainable development chapter in every new trade agreement concluded during her mandate. This green drive was no doubt motivated by the need to gather the support of the Socialist and Greens groups.
  • Brexit: With her mandate due to commence on 1 November (one day after the current expiry date of the extended Article 50 period), von der Leyen clearly stated, “the Withdrawal Agreement […] provides certainty where Brexit created uncertainty: in preserving the rights of citizens and in preserving peace and stability on the island of Ireland. These two priorities are mine, too. However, I stand ready for a further extension of the withdrawal date, should more time be required for a good reason. In any case, the United Kingdom will remain our ally, our partner and our friend.”

Following a debate in the European Parliament on 16 July, von der Leyen was endorsed by 383 out of 747 MEPs (only 9 votes over the absolute majority required). This was not the overwhelming support that she would have desired but the fact that she did not command a greater share of the vote does not necessarily mean that this Commission will have difficulties when it comes to pushing through policies or that she will be a weak Commission President. On the contrary, this might rather indicate that a pro-European majority could carry forward the key policies for this legislative mandate without relying on the support of Eurosceptic groups. It is interesting to note here that von der Leyen reportedly (the vote was by secret ballot) reached the absolute majority required through inter alia the support of Eurosceptic parties such as Italy’s 5 Star Movement and the Polish PiS (both in government in their respective countries).

That being said, we have in fact already seen signs that this pro-European majority can work together to bypass the Eurosceptic groups. During the constituency meetings of some parliamentary committees, such as the Economic and Monetary Affairs (ECON) Committee, the four mainstream groups managed to prevent Eurosceptic MEPs from taking up chairmanship positions by applying what resembles the ‘cordon sanitaire’ strategy (used in some Member States as a shield against the rise of far-right parties). While this pro-European majority seems strong enough to ensure that the Commission’s agenda does not get side-lined by Eurosceptic forces, we anticipate that it will take more time to reach an agreement that commands the support of the four pro-European groups. In addition, with the Eurosceptic groups already feeling the impact of this pro-EU coalition, there may be a greater incentive for them to work together on issues that are most critical for them, such as migration. They may still therefore succeed in pushing certain aspects of the Commission’s agenda to the right.

The von der Leyen Commission

Now that the Parliament has endorsed von der Leyen, she will have to form her Cabinet and work together with the EU28 Member States to build a College of Commissioners.

In his press remarks following the EU summit in July, outgoing Council President Tusk said, “the European Council took note of Ursula von der Leyen's intentions to nominate Frans Timmermans (currently the Commission First Vice-President in charge of interinstitutional relations and the rule of law) and Margrethe Vestager (currently Competition Commissioner) as the highest-ranking Vice-Presidents of the Commission.” The two were high in the running for the nomination for Commission President and are rumoured to receive horizontal portfolios, which could encompass responsibilities around industry/economy for Timmermans and competition/trade for Vestager. At this stage, however, this is still speculation.

In terms of Josep Borrell Fontelles’ nomination as High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Commission Vice-President, the formal appointment requires the agreement of the von der Leyen and, as a member of the College of Commissioners, the consent of the Parliament. Like all the other 26 Commissioners (excluding the President), Borrell will also have to undergo a Parliamentary hearing where relevant MEPs will quiz him on his priority issues and decide at the end of the meeting whether to endorse his appointment.

It is worth noting here that, as Michel, Lagarde and Sassoli will not be taking up positions in the Commission, Belgium, France and Italy would still get to nominate Commissioners. Germany and Spain, however, would not.

Related to von der Leyen’s endorsement, Commission Secretary-General Martin Selmayr has reportedly resigned and will leave his post in the coming weeks. Selmayr is a German national and there is an unwritten rule that the Commission President and Commission’s top civil servant should not hold the same nationality. Selmayr was a controversial figure and his resignation might have helped von der Leyen get the support she needed, especially from the left-wing parties.

Next steps:

  • 10 September: Deadline for Member States to nominate candidate Commissioners
  • 23 September – 4 October: Candidate Commissioners to undergo Parliamentary hearing with relevant committees
  • 17 – 18 October: EU Summit
  • 1 November: Official commencement of the von der Leyen Commission’s mandate (unless delayed due to difficulties regarding appointments)