Five years ago, the then head of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, set himself the task of delivering a speech on the state of the European Union to the European Parliament every autumn. This Wednesday, Juncker’s successor Ursula von der Leyen will be giving her first “State of the Union” speech. The former federal defense secretary is likely to provide an overview likely to range from the difficult economic situation in the community during the Corona crisis to the foreign policy challenges facing the EU.
When von der Leyen took over as head of the commission last December, she could not have foreseen that the pandemic would be her decisive challenge. The term of office of a President of the Commission is five years. But even after more than nine months, the question arises as to what von der Leyen has achieved in Brussels.
How did you get started as President of the Commission?
It was quite a surprise when it suddenly became clear in the middle of last year that von der Leyen would be the new Commission President in Brussels. During a summit, the Heads of State or Government looked for a successor to the outgoing Luxembourg Juncker, and the then Defense Minister was ultimately chosen.
At that point, the Bundestag’s commission of inquiry was already meeting to clarify high-quality advisory contracts with the Ministry of Defense, which raised doubts about von der Leyen’s administration. The career leap came at an opportune time for her. This was mainly due to the French President Emmanuel Macron, who had campaigned for the Germans among the heads of state or government. Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) had to abstain from voting among her colleagues because the SPD, as a coalition partner in Berlin, was against the nomination of the CDU woman von der Leyen.
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Your start in the new office was pretty bumpy. Not only because the European Parliament’s veto against individual Commissioners ruined their schedule for the start in Brussels. But also because it only took time then before the new College of Commissioners, with a total of 27 women and men from the Member States, started. The interaction of the commission, which consists of Brussels insiders such as competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager and newcomers such as the Lithuanian environment commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius, had to be practiced first.
In the beginning it also became clear that von der Leyen himself had to learn what drives Brussels affairs. In her vita, the 61-year-old can show Brussels as the place of birth. Still, she had to learn the weight of her words at EU level for the first few months. During foreign policy crises, it often took a long time for it to speak out publicly and make the community’s point of view clear.
Although she allowed extensive discussions in the college of 27 commissioners, this was also interpreted as a lack of assertiveness. And to this day, von der Leyen has to contend with the accusation that in the EU it is not primarily them as the head of the Commission, but rather the powerful heads of state and government in EU capitals.
And how is daily life in Brussels for von der Leyen?
In the meantime, the woman, who is the first German in half a century to occupy the main post on the 13th floor of the Berlaymont building in Brussels, is in control when dealing with her colleagues. Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan had to leave his post last month for attending a large dinner for a golf company in a hotel in the west of Ireland, in violation of corona regulations. Hogan was considered a heavyweight in Brussels. His experience had actually been necessary in the light of the trade dispute with the US.
Had to resign: EU Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan Photo: AFP
The fact that von der Leyen dropped the Irish over the “Golfgate” scandal shows one thing above all: unlike her predecessor Juncker, the German is clearly not interested in lengthy personnel debates.
In Brussels, it is still well remembered that the Luxembourg citizen insisted on the appointment of the proven EU expert Martin Selmayr as Secretary-General of the EU Commission. Selmayr was Juncker’s right-hand man in Brussels. This was not altered by the fact that Selmayr’s dubious rapid promotion to the authority’s secretary general provoked strong public criticism.
What has it achieved in terms of health policy in fighting the pandemic?
The onset of the pandemic turned into a political disaster for von der Leyen and the Commission. In the Schengen area, where there should be no border controls, the barriers were removed at the request of the heads of government in the capitals. The President of the Commission, who wanted to ex officio maintain the control-free transfer, had to watch.
However, von der Leyen was only partially able to assist the Brussels government in staging the crisis. Because health policy – and the associated border controls – is primarily a matter for the Member States.
Following the start of controls in March and the lockdown in many EU countries, the European Commission made efforts in the months that followed to make its own mark in the fight against the pandemic. In May, in view of the upcoming travel season, a call was made to the tourism industry to strictly comply with EU-wide hygiene requirements in hotels, theme parks and other holiday destinations. However, this could not prevent the number of infections in holiday areas such as the Balearic Islands or the Bulgarian Golden Sands from skyrocketing in the following summer months.
After all, von der Leyen can achieve a success that – unlike in the spring – border closures in the Schengen area are no longer on the agenda of the member states for the time being. There is a broad consensus among EU countries that the pandemic on this continent can also be combated by identifying areas at risk across Europe and imposing appropriate testing and quarantine requirements.
However, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban opposes this course. In Hungary there is an entry ban for holidaymakers with the exception of travelers from Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
What has von der Leyen achieved with Corona aid to EU countries?
In this area, von der Leyen can book the biggest advantage in her tenure so far. In July, heads of state or government agreed to establish a corona recovery fund. A total of 750 billion euros will be distributed. First of all, ailing economies such as Italy or Spain should benefit from this.
Although the financial package has yet to be approved by many national parliaments, it is already clear that the deal of the Heads of State or Government in July will also represent a significant increase in power for the EU Commission and thus for von der Leyen. Because the Brussels government now has the task of paying off debts on a large scale for the first time to finance the program.
And the Commission also plays a decisive role when it comes to checking retrospectively the sensible use of aid funds. This is a very different allocation method than, for example, the aid to Greece through the ESM crisis fund in the past decade. At the time, it was the finance ministers in the capitals of the eurozone who supervised the distribution of aid funds.
There is another winner in the battle for the billions in aid that kept the EU on its toes over the summer: French President Macron – the mentor von der Leyens. Before the summit, Macron had convinced Merkel to agree to the principle of joint lending.
How are things progressing in the dispute over European refugee policy?
During her time as defense minister in Berlin, von der Leyen was occasionally accused of putting the staging too much in the forefront without politics present. In Brussels, too, she clearly attaches great importance to the use of media-effective images: when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan opened the borders to refugees in March, sparking a new crisis with regard to the EU, a few days later Commission together with EU Council leader Charles Michel and Athens Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotak are seen on a helicopter flight over Greek refugee camps.
Migrants pray in the street near the town of Mytilini on the island of Lesvos Photo: Petros Giannakouris / AP / dpa
However, the image of the energetic Commissioner in the field of European refugee and asylum policy does not fit so far. So far, the head of authorities has left this field with announcements. First of all, when she took office at the Commission, it was said that it would present its proposal for a new asylum pact in the spring, finally breaking the Gordian knot after years of disagreement over the distribution of refugees in the EU.
But nothing came of it because Corona pushed all other topics off the agenda at the time. Last week, Commissioner responsible Margaritis Schinas from Greece announced that on September 30 the European Commission would present new proposals to reform the EU’s migration and asylum policy.
What about the “Green Deal” with which von der Leyen wants to promote climate protection?
After taking office last December, von der Leyen was the first to present her climate plan, according to which the EU should be climate neutral by 2050. She chose bold words to illustrate the dimension of the European “Green Deal”: “Someone once said: this is Europe’s man-on-the-moon moment. “
In the meantime, she took the first step after the announcement. In March, the head of the committee presented the draft climate protection law that should establish the goal of climate neutrality by 2050. However, further discussions in Brussels will be discussed in the coming weeks and months.
How strict the climate specifications must be in 2030 from the point of view of the European Commission is still officially open. In her state of the EU speech on Wednesday, von der Leyen is expected to demand that greenhouse gas emissions be cut by 55 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. That is ambitious – so far the Brussels climate target has been 40 percent.