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Lively webinar evaluates vices and virtues of new European Commission

Date of news: 18 May 2021

It has been almost eighteen months since the new European Commission, led by Ursula von der Leyen, took office. How to assess its performance so far? How does it fulfil its core roles and what challenges lie ahead? Questions like these were discussed in the webinar ‘Next Generation EU – Next Generation European Commission?’, organized by research Hot Spot EUROPAL.

“There are many disadvantages to the pandemic, but one advantage is the fact that we can organize these webinars”, said Ellen Mastenbroek at the beginning of the meeting. She is professor of European Public Administration and co-hosted the webinar with Henri de Waele, professor of International and European Law.

First keynote speaker Hussein Kassim, professor of Politics at the University of East Anglia, called the appointment of Ursula von der Leyen “historic”. Not only is she the first female Commission president. “Her appointment is also significant because she was not a Spitzenkandidatin, had not been a prime minister and therefore had no experience in the European Council.”

Von der Leyen is not a change candidate, argued Kassim. “There has been strong continuity in the organization of the Commission and the programmatic approach. But she has her own style. She prefers for example a hands-on involvement. And although she had limited discretion in who she could appoint, she ensured a 50-50 gender balance in all cabinets. In terms of legislation the Green Deal, one of her six priorities, got off to a pretty impressive start. Of course there have been some mishaps but her performance has mostly been strong.”

Politicization

Anchrit Wille, senior researcher at Leiden University's Institute of Public Administration, also assessed the performance of the Commission so far. “A review of a five-year mandate should take a long-term perspective to rightly judge the vices of virtues of this Commission”, she said. “During the past two decades the Commission has gradually become more politicized and the Von der Leyen Commission is part of this trend. This politicization is visible in the context in which the Commission operates, at the institutional level, and in the way the Commission runs its tasks and powers.”

The context for example was mainly determined by two developments: Covid-19 and the power struggle with the other main EU institutions: the Parliament and the Council. “These institutions need each other as partners, but there are also rivalries and tensions.” The trip to Ankara of Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen – popularly known as sofagate – has become a symbol of disunity between the institutions. “It illustrates the politicized inter-institutional environment in which the Commission has to operate.”

Sensitivities

“This politicization means that the role of the European Council has increased enormously”, added Michael Stibbe, EU advisor to Dutch prime minister Rutte. “If the Council meets more often, this by definition influences the direction and the work of the Commission. It also means that the Commission, maybe more than in the past, has to continuously position itself vis-a-vis the leaders of the member states who want policy answers.”

Stibbe stressed two aspects. First, the Commission will always be very attentive to the issues and sensitivities of the member states. “When the Commission puts a proposal on the table, it should be the middle-of-the-road answer to the challenges we are facing. The Commission does an admirable job to understand what the sensitive issues are and to find a way to proceed with legislation, with as much support as possible.”

Secondly, there is a hybrid element, for instance in the area of justice and home affairs. Regarding for example migration the Commission has some competence but other areas are exclusive member states’ competences. “The Turkey deal in 2016, where the Netherlands and Germany together with the Commission ironed out a package with the Turks, is a classic example of this hybrid model. Competences of member states and the Commission went hand in hand to reach a solution.”

Follow-up

According to Adriaan Schout, professor of European Public Administration at Radboud University, the Commission pays too little attention to what member states can do regarding implementation and enforcement. “Is this not one of the big elephants in the room, that the Commission is staying away from the member states, their administrations, and their integration in the European Union?”

Schout added that the question ‘what is the Commission’ leads to different answers in different countries. “The Dutch have a technocratic, liberal, and limited view on the Commission. We see it as a facilitating body. In Germany they see the Commission as a civil service with a submissive president. In Italy and Greece it is different yet again because they want a federal Europe.” Stibbe agreed: “The European Commission has to be many things to many people in many countries at the same time. That is a very difficult job.”

In conclusion co-host Henri de Waele spoke of “a very lively and pleasant” webinar. “This has been a half-time survey, so to speak. As we know from football matches, much can still happen in the second half. More goals may be scored or the game may be lost altogether. That is reason enough for a follow-up in about three years’ time, to take stock definitively.”

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About EUROPAL

Europeanization of Policy and Law (EUROPAL) is a multidisciplinary research Hot Spot at Radboud University. It consists of more than thirty scholars from the Institute for Management Research (IMR) and the Faculty of Law. Together, these scholars form a unique collective specialized in the Europeanization of Policy, Politics, and Law. Among the research topics are decision-making, inter-institutional relations, policy management, and the implementation of migration law in member states. EUROPAL is coordinated by Ellen Mastenbroek, professor of European Public Administration, and Henri de Waele, professor of International and European Law.