On 1 December, finally, the new European Commission will take office, after much back and forth with especially the European Parliament on who the chosen 27 will be. Candidate Commissioners were grilled, sometimes repeatedly, on their plans and commitment to Europe with three Member States having to field a new and more suitable candidate (France, Hungary and Romania).
Nevertheless, the College of 27 Commissioners was voted through today with a healthy majority by the MEPs (461 in favour, 157 against and 89 abstentions). These numbers were significantly better than the vote approving von der Leyen as Commission President, where she scraped through with a margin of only 9 MEPs.
So now the Commissioners can finally get down to business and make headway on the priorities and initiatives that they will champion. A number of draft planning documents have been leaked and circulated in Brussels for months now, but the final word on which initiatives to take to the next level rests with the new political masters. One thing is clear: this Commission shows no lack of ambition, pledging to take action on issues close to the heart of the European electorate. Whether that is climate change, data ethics, corporate taxation, ‘leaving no region or individual behind’ as a result of the digital and climate transition, and strengthening ‘an economy that works for the people’.
When it comes to business, this Commission also sees a clear role for itself in forging a place for Europe that will guarantee its relevance vis a vis other major world powers. This includes a renewed EU Industrial Strategy which promises to impact trade policy as well as competition enforcement. In the words of von der Leyen “My Commission will not be afraid to speak the language of confidence. But it will be our way, the European way.This is the geopolitical Commission that I have in mind, and that Europe urgently needs.”
So what’s next?
With the mandate formally beginning on 1 December, the new College of Commissioners is expected to meet for the first time on 4 December. This meeting is of the utmost importance since the nomination of many key posts such as the next Directors General of for instance DG Competition and DG Financial Services and Markets are rumoured to be decided then.
Incoming Commissioners are forming their teams, and more and more preeminent political figures are joining their respective cabinets, which make them even more a central place of influence, especially for the 3 Executive Vice Presidents (EVP). EVPs will also have no less than 10 advisers in their Cabinets, more than ever before, highlighting the crucial role they will play in coordinating the political choices of the new College.
The Directors General, who according to common practice should possess a different nationality to their Commissioners, will play a decisive role in such a political Commission. For the three EVPs, who will have double portfolios, their respective Directors General will be crucial to managing the day-to-day work of the different units and driving the policy agenda forward.
And what now for business?
Right off the bat, business will have to contend with two flagship initiatives that promise legislation touching companies in many if not all sectors of industry. As part of the ‘first 100 days’ initiatives with which von der Leyen intends to firmly convince Europeans of her ambitions, we will see proposals on a new ‘European Green Deal and a ‘Legal Framework for Artificial Intelligence’.
Already on 11 December 2019, the new College is planning to sign off on EVP Timmermans’ European Green Deal package. It is supposed to encompass the first-ever ‘European Climate Law’, that will set Europe on a path to become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. Taxation, including of companies, will be an integral part of the Deal. As incoming Economics Commissioner Gentiloni stated in his Parliamentary hearing: “I will assess a range of measures, including updating the Energy Tax Directive to align it with environmental objectives and working on a carbon border tax at an EU level.”
The Legal Framework for AI is expected right at the beginning of 2020. Even if the EU until now has taken a sand-box approach to many new technologies, Brussels feels vindicated for the strict stance that it took on personal data under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Now the Commission will aim to once again set an ethical standard on AI for the world. As von der Leyen said today: “As we did with the GDPR, we set the framework for the world, we can do that now for Artificial Intelligence. Because we here in Europe put people at the centre, not markets or money”. The new package is said to aim for EU-wide rules on AI-powered goods and services, including civil law liability for damage caused by AI applications, for sector- and application specific rules as necessary via voluntary initiatives and finally for an independent oversight to ensure enforcement and provide guidance. The start of all this will be a Commission White Paper, which business will be invited to respond to.
And this is only the start. Throughout 2020, the new Commission will decide on a plethora of initiatives in other fields, ensuring Brussels will remain a decisive legislative body for business, and one which will more than ever try to export its vision and philosophy around the globe.