EPP set to lose influence in von der Leyen Commission

EPP Group leader Manfred Weber (L) waits with German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen (R) for the beginning of an EPP faction meeting at the European Parliament, in Strasbourg, France, 3 July 2019. [Photo: EPA-EFE/PATRICK SEEGER]

If Ursula von der Leyen is approved as European Commission president this week, her own centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) may actually lose influence in the next EU executive, given the political affiliation of the candidates likely to form the bulk of her senior staff.

Von der Leyen is under pressure from the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and Liberal Renew Europe groups in the European Parliament to award Dutchman Frans Timmermans and Denmark’s Margrethe Vestager senior vice-presidency roles in her Commission.

The German needs the votes of the S&D and Renew in order to get the nod from Parliament to take over from Jean-Claude Juncker but risks falling short of a majority or relying on support from Eurosceptics.

Liberal leader Dacian Çiolos told von der Leyen in an open letter that “we expect no differentiation of status between Mr Frans Timmermans and Mrs Margrethe Vestager”.

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But if she is indeed anointed as the new president and makes good on her Timmermans-Vestager pledge, the EPP’s broad influence over Commission policies may be narrower than in the previous executive.

Another vice-president position, that of EU foreign policy chief, is on track to go to Spain’s Josep Borrell, as part of a deal reached earlier this month by the EU’s 28 heads of states and governments.

Slovakia’s Maroš Šefčovič is also expected to continue in his vice-presidency role in order to address geographical balance concerns. Both are members of the S&D group.

Italy also expects to land a vice-presidency position as a reward for supporting von der Leyen’s candidacy. Giuseppe Conte told Italian media that Rome wants its nominee to handle the competition portfolio.

Bloomberg reported last week that Conte will put forward Giancarlo Giorgetti, a leading member of Matteo Salvini’s Lega party, bringing the potential number of non-EPP vice-presidents to five, pending Parliament approval.

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Juncker had a team of seven higher-ranking Commissioners at the start of his mandate, after putting his faith in Timmermans, Šefčovič and Federica Mogherini (all S&D), Andrus Ansip (Renew), and Valdis Dombrovskis, Kristalina Georgieva and Jyrki Katainen (all EPP).

Latvia’s Dombrovskis, the Commission’s single currency chief, gave up his MEP seat to stay on at the EU executive and will presumably expect to retain his vice-presidency.

His prime minister, Krišjānis Kariņš, has given the nod to Dombrovskis for another five years. Kariņš was incidentally one of the EPP’s two negotiators during the Council’s top jobs talks.

EU politics expert Jon Worth said that “the EPP is paying a high price for insisting it still must get the Commission presidency, by ditching Weber and trying to assemble support for von der Leyen”.

He also added that the concessions she is having to make on policy, most notably climate action, might mean that “she’s a centre-right figurehead forced to pursue centre-left policies”.

Too many cooks…

If von der Leyen sticks to the Juncker structure of seven vice-presidents, that leaves only one spot open. A high-ranking Commission source told EURACTIV that more than seven VPs would “start to look a bit unwieldy”.

Three factors could pose an obstacle to the EPP landing that last slot, chief among which could prove to be French President Emmanuel Macron, one of the main architects of the jobs package that saw von der Leyen get the EU leaders’ nod.

Macron is reportedly insistent that his pick for Commissioner, who has yet to be revealed, also be a vice-president.

That could end up being Pascal Canfin, who last week was voted in as head of the Parliament’s influential environment committee, or evergreen top-job-name Michel Barnier.

The latter option would give the EPP an extra horse in a race that “we expect to be well-represented in,” according to a source in the centre-right political family.

But the two other obstacles to the EPP’s ambitions are gender and geographical balance. Under the above scenario, Vestager would be the only female senior Commissioner and only two, Dombrovskis and Šefčovič, would hail from non-Western European states.

Although von der Leyen has asked member states to propose two candidates, one male and one female, it looks unlikely that many will do so, given that more than ten Commissioners-in-waiting have already been named, many as part of government-forming agreements.

Bulgaria’s Mariya Gabriel, the current digital Commissioner, is the only national pick made public who would seemingly satisfy both geographical and gender criteria and give the EPP another senior post.

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Initial battle lines were drawn between member states over who will replace Jean-Claude Juncker as European Commission President on Tuesday (28 May) as EU leaders met to discuss “no names, just process”, in preparation for a decisive summit in June.

MEPs will vote on Tuesday (16 July) on von der Leyen’s candidacy. There is only one round of voting and the German candidate will have to secure an absolute majority of roughly 374, depending on how many lawmakers have taken up their seat by then.

If she passes the magic number, her choice of Commissioners will also face hearings by relevant Parliament committees. In 2014, Slovenia’s pick for the energy union vice-presidency, former PM Alenka Bratušek, was rejected by the industry and energy committee.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic and Frédéric Simon]

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