At the close of July and throughout August, political Brussels usually aestivates. Not so this year. Both, in the Berlaymont building and across EU capitals, officials are working on staff decisions and work programmes for the upcoming five years.
A Summer Dream
Brussels, 1 November 2024: Ursula von der Leyen, just turned 66 years old, hands over the office of the President of the Commission to Margrethe Vestager, 56. The Danish Liberal has won the European elections as the joint Spitzenkandidat of Liberals, Christian Democrats and Greens. The liberal trend is also affecting EU member states: Poland is facing a landslide victory for the people’s forces in the forthcoming parliamentary elections, after Donald Tusk’s narrow victory against the conservative PiS party in the 2020 presidential election.
Viktor Orban’s star in Hungary is visibly fading: he is still in power, but missed the absolute majority in the 2022 parliamentary elections by a wide margin. His opponent is Anna Donáth, opposition leader and leader of the liberal party Momentum, which is stable at just under twenty percent and rising. Some Hungarian experts already see Donáth as the future prime minister of the Magyar Republic. In France, Emmanuel Macron sits firmly in the saddle for half of his second term in office. What about Germany? A few weeks ago, after a hot summer election campaign, the Jamaica coalition was confirmed. This time, nevertheless, there was a changed balance of power, with Liberals and Greens switching positions. Now, Christian Lindner and his FDP have crossed the finish line as the second strongest force at almost 19 percent.
Did the author spend too much time in the hot summer sun? By no means. It is just the following: Speculation expands the scope for shaping future policy. It is precisely this business, that Ursula von der Leyen will train herself in over the summer. She has to find initial answers to many questions: How will the new EU Commission be composed? Whom can she count on, whom does she have to count in? What role does the European Parliament (EP) play? How will the interaction of Heads of State and Government in the Council develop? What will be trending topics for her Commission? For the time being, only one date is reasonably fixed: in November, the EP elects the complete Commission, which can only be adopted or rejected as part of the overall package.
Wrestling with the Member States
Over the summer, von der Leyen will now initially be busy, calling the governments of the Member States, in order to fill the 27 Commissioner positions. Some governments have already nominated their candidates, whilst the rest have until August 26th to submit their proposals. The President of the Commission wants 14 male and 14 female candidates. A first test for von der Leyens’ assertiveness: Only five of the 15 nominations to date are women. In September, the Commission candidates will then be subjected to intense hearings in the EP, for which the political groups are already preparing themselves these days. Experience has shown that in this procedure, the EP fails one or two candidates. In addition, von der Leyen will influence the selection through direct exchange with national governments. Later on, she will show her favour in the procedure by tailoring the areas of responsibility to the individual Commissioners.
It is not only the 27 top jobs in the Commission, which are up for competition. In addition, the direct advisory staff, the so-called cabinets, will also have to be filled. What is at stake here is above all a balanced relationship between the confidants whom the Commissioner’s candidates wish to bring along from their home countries and the career officials from the European services. We are speaking of long lists, on which governments, EP groups, leading officials in Brussels, as well as those in the run for the cabinets, seek to exert influence. The personnel mikado will tie up many forces and in the end produce some surprises. As always in in politics: Everything is connected and nothing is agreed on, until everything is agreed.
Leadership with Variable Majorities
After all, t’s not just about positions and personnel. Content, topics, as well as strategies for the EU 2019 to 2024 are also on the summer desk of Brussels actors and Member States. From a liberal point of view, a magic square can be spanned for an EU work programme covering the following topics: Economy, security, climate and institutional policy. Von der Leyen presented her political guidelines and spelled them out in her speech last week in Strasbourg: “A European Green Deal, an economy that works for people, a Europe fit for the digital age, protecting the European way of life, a stronger Europe in the world and a new push for European democracy”. There is something for everyone. The almost twenty-page document must now be specified, expanded and operationalised for the structures of Brussels bureaucracy.
The balancing act between the interests of the member states and those of the European Parliament will have to be mastered repeatedly. It is not possible to know whom exactly von der Leyen was elected by, since the election was secret. However, it can be assumed that her last-minute left-turn, at least on some issues during her speech, has cost her votes in the conservative camp in order to win votes among parts of the Liberals, Greens and Social Democrats. This tactic will not work out again without further ado, and yet she has to deliver.
However, von der Leyen, by combining staff and politics, has enough horses in the race to serve respective interests and win votes for the Commission election. This approach, which could be described as “variable majority management”, will also be characteristic for the coming years. In the European Parliament, the “grand coalition” has been broken and majorities can only be formed with the involvement of liberal and Green MEPs.
It is now important for the Liberals to be represented in race for positions across the entire Brussel apparatus. In terms of content, the Liberals’ status as a conceptual party will be in demand over the next five years. They must contribute, in a good balance of emotion and rationality, to keeping Europe on a course of progress: through open markets, openness to new technologies and optimistic self-assertion of the European Way of Life, with its unique blend of freedom and rule of law.
Optimism is Essential
The EU today, with its mix of challenges consisting of Brexit, so-called “Article 7 proceedings” against Poland and Hungary, its nervous neighbour Russia, a misleading US president and the long-term issues of climate and migration, appears to many people as a dark snapshot. However, in the next five years there will be many points of departure for change: At least 26 elections to national parliaments and/or presidencies will take place in the member states by 2024. It is therefore conceivable that the composition of the Council of Heads of State or Government will change, perhaps even substantially. There will be new coalitions, and political priorities in individual countries may change. That too will influence the work and course of the European Union.
During von der Leyen’s term of office there will be two American presidential campaigns, China and its power will continue to grow, and in 2022 Vladimir Putin will be 70 years old. Enough uncertainties to keep the EU under tension in the global context. Nevertheless, there are also plenty of opportunities to readjust Europe’s course optimistically and with liberal force, where necessary, and to stabilise it where it is worthwhile. True to the eternally young wisdom: you overestimate what you can achieve in a year, but you underestimate what you can achieve in five years. That is why we are now setting the course, in the Member States and in Brussels, for the next five years, to continue to work hard on the liberal course and then, see above, 1st November 2024.
Regional Director of the European Dialogue