The EU’s Compromise President May Have Just Conceded Too Much to Eastern Europe

Billed as a safe pair of hands, Ursula von der Leyen is about to find out that caution can only take her so far.

Ursula von der Leyen speaks to journalists during the first plenary session of the newly elected European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on July 3.
Ursula von der Leyen speaks to journalists during the first plenary session of the newly elected European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on July 3. Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this year, when Ursula von der Leyen was nominated as president of the European Commission, it was the result of a grand bargain among member states and political groups, which were divided over who should get to lead the commission. One of the reasons she was an acceptable compromise was that she was assumed to be a safe pair of hands. As a seasoned politician with the confidence of a broad range of member states—leaders as diverse as France’s Emmanuel Macron and Hungary’s Viktor Orban claimed her nomination as their success—she would be able to steer the European Union to calmer waters after a turbulent few years.

Von der Leyen continued to play the safety card in the allocation of roles within her commission last week, giving both the larger member states and smaller member states some of what they want in the heavyweight portfolios; her vice presidential nominees boast a sensible gender and regional balance. But caution, as a strategy, has its limits. Her failure to make a strong stand on some of the big division issues for Europe today may spell trouble for a commission that needs to look radically different from the one that her predecessor presided over. With inertia around burden-sharing when it came to the migration crisis and a slow response to clear breaches of European values by EU member states such as Hungary and Poland, the last commission did not appear up to the challenges of the day.

Throughout the campaign to nominate von der Leyen, it was apparent that climate change and migration were going to be two major issues for the next commission.

On climate, von der Leyen has responded by elevating the leadership of this portfolio to the level of first vice president under Frans Timmermans. His new role is a recognition that, with 62 percent of members of the European Parliament now representing parties that promised more cooperation on climate change, this is an issue on which voters see a clear role for Europe. And Timmermans is a smart pick to head the charge. He led the Dutch Labor Party’s highly successful campaign for seats in the European Parliament earlier this year, during which he offered a strong message on the environment for non-Green party voters. Timmermans also previously served as Dutch foreign minister and as vice president of the European Commission, so he knows Brussels inside and out.

Von der Leyen’s strategy on migration, though, gives more room for worry. She put migration in a joint portfolio with security, led by the Greek politician Margaritis Schinas, under the title of “commissioner for protecting our European way of life,” presumably in a nod to leaders of Central and Eastern European nations, some of whom have expressed concern about the cultural impact of migration into the EU. Framing the issue that way will be polarizing and has already gotten pushback from human rights groups. Some senior politicians such as David Sassoli, the president of the European Parliament, and outgoing European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker have also questioned whether a title indicating that a European way of life does not embrace migration sends the right message.

Schinas, previously a member of the European Parliament as well as the European Commission’s chief spokesperson, is no stranger to answering difficult questions, which will come in handy when his candidacy is reviewed during European Parliament hearings in October. Schinas is a member of the New Democracy party, which came into power in Greece in national elections over the summer. Faced with a resurgence in arrivals over the past months, increasing fragility of the 2016 EU-Turkey deal that helped reduce numbers of refugees from the peak in 2015, and deteriorating conditions in overcrowded camps on Greece’s islands, he has started to introduce a much more restrictive approach. Among the new measures are plans to abolish the right to appeal rejected asylum applications, which has raised concerns among the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and other organizations.

Schinas’s hearing could therefore become an important moment in defining Europe’s outlook on immigration for the next several years. With a new government in power in Italy, there is some hope that the nations can now come together on a burden-sharing agreement. But some countries are setting themselves up for battle, with one proposed deal including member states being able to buy their way out of the obligation to receive migrants arriving by sea. The proposal looks remarkably like the relocation package that didn’t work in 2016.

If the inflow of refugees weren’t a tricky enough issue, internal immigration could divide the continent even more. Recent surveys conducted by YouGov for the European Council on Foreign Relations ahead of the European Parliament elections in May showed that, although freedom of movement remains very popular across the EU, the challenges of living with its effects are becoming apparent. In Poland, Greece, Italy, and Spain, among others, Europeans are more worried about nationals leaving their country than new arrivals coming in. If not handled carefully, this issue could become a new force driving the EU apart.

Von der Leyen has also sat on the fence on rule of law within the EU, another difficult issue that has led to a relative impasse among EU states in recent years. Poland, Hungary, and their allies have strongly resisted the introduction of European Commission rule of law procedures following regressive measures on the judiciary and democracy. Other member states have feared pushing the matter too hard to avoid feeding the narrative of victimization that the national governments were selling their populations. Here, von der Leyen has appointed one representative of an Eastern state—Vera Jourova of the Czech Republic—and one from a Western state—Didier Reynders of Belgium—to the justice file. Reynders technically reports to Jourova, who will serve as one of the commission’s vice presidents. But, in practice, this division may risk simply kicking the argument down the road.

Meanwhile, von der Leyen raised eyebrows with her appointment of a Hungarian nominee, Laszlo Trocsanyi, to head the portfolio responsible for European enlargement. Members of the European Parliament—particularly from the Socialist and Greens groups—who will get the chance to grill him in his hearing in a couple of weeks have questioned whether it is fitting for a representative of a government that is itself subject to ongoing rule of law procedures with the European Commission to be responsible for accession negotiations. If not carefully managed, this set up could open questions about what the EU really stands for.

Finally, there’s the matter of foreign policy. European voters’ fears about the future are closely tied up in their sense of insecurity in a turbulent world. Josep Borrell, the incoming high representative for foreign affairs, should try to drive a foreign policy that shows that EU can behave as a powerful actor in a changing world. Here, much will depend on the abilities of the commission’s various vice presidents to work together. Borrell’s ability to orchestrate such cooperation is by no means a given. He does not have the status of vice president, and on paper he has no more leverage than his predecessor, Federica Mogherini, whose power was confined by larger member states to working only in areas where there was already consensus in the European Council. Borrell will need to build his own authority and draw on his long history in Spanish national politics in his new role.

With all these challenges on the table, von der Leyen’s commission, born out of compromise, will be tested. Building a Europe of change in a fragmented, volatile political environment will not be possible by sidestepping the difficult, divisive questions. She—and her team—will need to be prepared to tackle them head on. Time will tell if they are.

Susi Dennison is a senior fellow and director of the European Power program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Tags: EU, Europe

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