Europe

War, disease and geopolitics: The von der Leyen Commission’s half-time scorecard


If Ursula von der Leyen’s five-year time period could be likened to a soccer match, her staff is heading for the half-time break with the scores even and some bruised shins (principally from self-inflicted errors).

It’s been a wild trip.

When they took the sphere in December 2019, von der Leyen’s squad of commissioners envisioned a diplomatic offensive during which Brussels would sneak a couple of objectives previous its chief geopolitical counterparts, China and the United States. Tactically, the formation was set as much as concentrate on digital and inexperienced insurance policies that will drive rivals to play on the EU’s phrases.

Then the pandemic struck.

The tidal wave of infections that roared over Europe tore up the German chief’s sport plan and compelled her staff to scramble to adapt to unprecedented circumstances. 

They flailed at first, shifting too slowly and naively to safe vaccines and permitting nationwide capitals to take the initiative on journey restrictions.

But they regrouped and received the bloc’s first joint vaccine procurement program underway. Slowly, defensive techniques gave approach to a extra assertive method and, three years into the worst pandemic for the reason that Spanish Flu, Europe is again in enterprise.

The Commission deserves some credit score for that. 

But if the squad hoped for a lull within the motion, they have been sorely upset. Not lengthy earlier than the Commission reached the midway level, Russia’s all-out army assault on Ukraine created the largest disruption to Europe’s safety structure since World War II. In the chaotic days that adopted, the Commission tried to maintain Team Europe unified, and achieved outstanding success on sanctions and army help. But it stays annoyed in its efforts to coordinate a typical power coverage vis-à-vis Moscow.

This double whammy of illness and warfare has put a highlight on some unlikely performers on von der Leyen’s facet — individuals like Stella Kyriakides, whose usually secondary well being portfolio abruptly turned central. It’s pushed von der Leyen herself into an arguably even higher-profile and extra geopolitical position than she might need anticipated. But it’s additionally overshadowed some stars, like digital czar Margrethe Vestager, who has didn’t web any memorable objectives towards Big Tech on this match.

The staff has additionally carried out poorly on away days.

Josep Borrell, the EU’s excessive consultant for international affairs, was caught flatfooted by Russia’s veteran international minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow. Von der Leyen was briefly benched in Ankara, when poor positional play on the a part of her colleagues left her humiliated in a gathering with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The EU chieftain additionally needed to make an early substitution after Commissioner Phil Hogan, a key enforcer, was pressured to go away the sphere. 

Despite these troubles, the von der Leyen Commission continues to be going onerous. Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton is proving a severe menace, probing for alternatives to attain. Frans Timmermans’ Green technique seems to be prefer it nonetheless has legs.

Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johannsson has turn into a formidable operator, equally assertive on migration and digital issues. Slovakia’s Maroš Šefčovič has performed the position of defensive rock, tasked with preserving troublesome threats akin to Brexit and the Swiss in examine. Margaritis Schinas, in contrast, talks sport however has struggled to impose himself within the huge matches.

POLITICO’s journalists have reviewed the efficiency of essentially the most distinguished commissioners, scoring them out of 10 on two metrics: Power, as in how properly they used and projected it; and Policy, as in how efficient have they been in reaching their objectives to date.

The squad

Any plan Ursula von der Leyen might need had for her time period as Commission president was blown out of the water inside 100 days by the pandemic. Since then, she has gone from one disaster to a different, pandemic adopted by warfare, all whereas maintaining with mundane but existential duties of preserving Brexit from boiling over and Budapest and Warsaw onside.

But whereas these crises have challenged von der Leyen, they’ve additionally introduced alternatives. It’s unthinkable that Brussels might have labored up a plan to pool debt between EU international locations and launched a large focused spending splurge with out the pandemic. That’s additionally given von der Leyen an surprising lever to battle again towards renegade international locations akin to Poland and Hungary by threatening to withhold funds.

Russia’s warfare on Ukraine can be lending recent impetus to calls to decarbonize the bloc’s greatest economies. Ditching Russian oil and gasoline will inevitably imply extra dedication to draft insurance policies pushed by von der Leyen’s staff on every little thing from rolling out electrical vehicles to creating residential buildings extra power environment friendly.

Assuming no recent disaster springs up within the coming months, von der Leyen now has an opportunity to make use of the additional powers at her disposal to begin actually flexing some muscle. 

The new German authorities has made it clear it gained’t be insisting she will get a second time period. So there’s no want to carry something again. The true take a look at might be whether or not she will go the sprawling local weather change-mitigating set of insurance policies she launched beneath the Green Deal shortly after taking workplace. On that, the jury continues to be out.

— By Josh Posaner


Ylva Johansson was brief on Brussels expertise when she turned Home Affairs Commissioner, however a number of stints as a minister in her dwelling nation had hardened the Swedish politician’s metal.

One instance: After the EU’s anti-fraud workplace opened a probe over allegations of unlawful pushbacks of asylum seekers, harassment and misconduct at border company Frontex, Johansson went for the company’s boss, Fabrice Leggeri. Vice President Margaritis Schinas tried to step in on behalf of Leggeri, however Johansson was unfazed.

Leggeri stepped down on the finish of April.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 provided Johansson one other probability to show she’s a troublesome buyer. After thousands and thousands of Ukrainians fled to Europe, she campaigned for the EU to make use of a particular legislative device to supply them short-term safety, together with the fitting to stay and work within the bloc. On March 3, the EU’s inside ministers agreed to her proposal.

The effort was outstanding for 3 causes: 1) It was the primary time the EU had used the device because it was created 20 years in the past. 2) Clinching a deal on migration so quickly had by no means been achieved earlier than. 3) Diplomats have been saying up till the final minute earlier than a deal was introduced that their talks have been simply that — talks.

Still, it hasn’t been all easy crusing for Johansson.

The evaluation of asylum guidelines she and Schinas placed on the desk in September 2020 continues to be caught. But some diplomats imagine that the Ukraine disaster could be the key that unlocks the door to progress. If Johansson is ready to ship on migration, she’ll have scored one for the staff.

— By Jacopo Barigazzi


Handed arguably the EU’s most transformative job, one-time presidential hopeful-cum-Green Deal boss Frans Timmermans has made a behavior of turning adversity into alternative throughout a tumultuous interval. 

Charged with steering the EU’s local weather coverage, the Dutchman already had a full to-do record — and that was simply coping with Poland and its coal trade. The assumption from many when the pandemic struck was that local weather coverage could be derailed. The similar was true when the warfare in Ukraine started. But Timmermans’s reply to each obvious setback has been the identical: extra local weather motion, not much less. 

With the coronavirus, the groundbreaking restoration bundle was changed into a inexperienced stimulus. And the warfare turned one other good motive to get off Russian fossil fuels and speed up the transition to renewable power. Turning these ambitions into actuality will dominate the second half of Timmermans’ time period. 

At the identical time, Timmermans hasn’t taken his eye off his objective. Having nursed the EU’s Climate Law into existence, embedding the objective to be local weather impartial by 2050, he reveals no signal of being able to drop the ball. Meanwhile, the awfully-named Fit for 55 bundle, which accommodates emissions-cutting coverage proposals from ending the combustion engine to insulating buildings, is shifting slowly ahead.

With his market-loving boss von der Leyen pushing an enlargement of the EU’s emissions buying and selling system to hit fuels for heating properties and driving vehicles, the outdated socialist needed to revise his personal ideological objections. Now he must convey capitals and Parliament with him and ship the financial revolution he’s been promising.

— By Karl Mathiesen


Who is Kadri Simson? Well may you ask. For a lot of the primary half of her time period, the close to nameless commissioner for power has seen a lot of her position sucked into the gravity subject of Timmermans’ Green Deal mission. But Russia’s warfare in Ukraine has thrust her portfolio again into the limelight. And Simson is now one of many key individuals writing the coverage for ending the EU’s habit to Russian power.

If, as is usually mentioned, disaster reveals character, Simson has had little to indicate. When issues have been calm, Simson was the consummate civil servant: no fuss, extremely consultative, weak tea. She has additionally needed to cope with Timmermans continuously stepping onto her patch.

Now that a number of crises are calling out for better imaginative and prescient, her response has been largely extra of the identical. It wasn’t till months into the power value crunch that Simson lastly got here out with a “toolkit” that coloured very a lot between the strains, by no means testing the EU’s powers to intervene. And now that the Commission is scrambling to spice up photo voltaic and wind as a approach to counter Russian affect, renewable power advocates are questioning whether or not issues might need been completely different if the Commission had had an aggressive champion for clear energy pushing the ball ahead for the previous two years. 

— By Karl Mathiesen


Stella Kyriakides had no concept what awaited her when she took up the publish of Health Commissioner in 2019. In regular occasions the Cypriot official would have had a quiet trip: Heath isn’t a core EU competence. And beneath the earlier Commission, the well being funds totaled a measly €449.4 million unfold over 7 years. 

Then a pandemic got here alongside.

Instead of a quiet five-year sojourn in Brussels, Kyriakides needed to handle the bloc’s pandemic response alongside colourful characters like Thierry Breton, whereas overseeing a large enlargement of the well being funds, to €5.1 billion.

From a bureaucratic perspective, the commissioner put the pandemic to good use. She expanded the powers of the EU’s well being businesses and introduced a brand new one into the world: the Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority. And she’s saved the bloc’s preexisting well being priorities — together with the Cancer Plan and the European Health Data Space — on observe.

But the place she scores extremely for diligence, Kyriakides falls brief on political punch. For higher or worse (the EU’s response initially left a lot to be desired), Kyriakides was overshadowed by Breton and others on vaccine procurement. It’s additionally controversial that, given the circumstances, she might have wrestled over much more well being powers for the Commission.

A pandemic offered the right alternative for Kyiakides to increase the EU’s well being mandate. Now she simply wants to begin taking credit score for her work.

— By Carlo Martuscelli


The Italian has accomplished his umpteenth transformation — from referee to inventive drive.

Tapped by a populist authorities to be Italy’s man in Brussels, Gentiloni was initially set to be a buffer between the Commission and Rome’s incessant political and financial turmoils — be it authorities crises, extreme debt, or bailouts of dangerous banks and loss-making airlines. Putting an Italian within the publish was a sensible transfer by the incoming Commission president. It meant that ​​authorities in Rome would have a well-known face to cope with, lowering the possibility of friction, and on the similar time stopping what was then a extremely Euroskeptic authorities from blaming Brussels for unpalatable insurance policies.

But destiny had different issues in retailer for Gentiloni: With the arrival of the pandemic, debt guidelines have been lifted. Following the momentous resolution to concern tons of of billions in frequent debt, EU cash began copiously flowing to capitals and the EU managed to show round its picture from clergymen of austerity, to deus ex machina. As the individual proving the passes that permit governments rating with their voters, and one of many strongest advocates for repeating this financial feat, Gentiloni has lifted his profile. He’s additionally reworked his portfolio’s conventional position of browbeating international locations into line into one in all granting fortunes to pandemic-ridden economies. 

This is simply the most recent of Gentilioni’s many lives. A former prime minister, international minister, long-time MP, journalist, activist, and incognito nobleman, all through his profession he has supported actions as numerous as Maoism, environmentalism and Christian-centrist politics. Adapting to altering situations on the pitch appears to be his motto.

The coming months and years are prone to be tougher, nonetheless. Gentiloni must wield each ounce of his appreciable political weight to sort out Commission hawks, together with his boss Valdis Dombrovskis. Further debt issuance and an upcoming reform of the bloc’s fiscal guidelines might be future flashpoints, simply as warfare, rising inflation and a attainable recession darken the financial outlook. The crowd might be watching to see if the mild-mannered Italian can adapt his sport plan once more. 

— By Paola Tamma


The extent of his financial portfolio, particularly since he took over the commerce temporary in October 2020, has made Dombrovskis an influence participant on the coronary heart of the Commission’s midfield. But as a former prime minister of Latvia who grew up within the Soviet Union, Dombrovskis’ playmaker position has grown much more for the reason that begin of the warfare in Ukraine. He has lengthy been one of many strongest voices across the Commission desk in warning concerning the menace Russian President Vladimir Putin posed. Since the invasion, he has rallied the staff in condemning Putin and urging the EU to go additional in its actions towards Moscow. 

Since he took over the commerce portfolio (after Phil Hogan’s crimson card) he has deployed some deft footwork to fix relations with the Biden administration and enhance the bloc’s commerce protection. While loads of work stays to be achieved on reviving the multilateral commerce enviornment and getting the EU’s free commerce engine operating once more, the EU’s greatest free commerce followers hope Dombrovskis can revive the backlog of commerce offers within the coming years. But to convey the European Parliament on board with the free commerce agenda, Dombrovskis is gingerly ramping up the EU’s local weather and labor necessities. It’s not clear but whether or not he can pull off such an intricate transfer.

On the financial entrance, Dombrovskis supplies a counterweight to 2 of his fellow commissioners. When Paolo Gentiloni pushes ahead with joint debt and a debate on fiscal guidelines, Dombrovskis urges extra cautious techniques. And in distinction to France’s Thierry Breton, it’s the extra liberal, trade-friendly Dombrovskis who’s urgent additional upfield.

— By Paola Tamma and Barbara Moens


The Slovakian European Commission Vice President has risen to surprising prominence as Brussels’ chief negotiator for extremely sophisticated commerce talks with Britain and Switzerland. It’s a job during which Šefčovič has tried to tell apart himself from his predecessors by approaching negotiations in a extra pragmatic trend.

He’s additionally taking a good larger position than the bloc’s precise commerce commissioner, Valdis Dombrovskis, who’s scuffling with a world EU commerce agenda that has run out of steam.

Yet critics say Šefčovič generally tends to be over-optimistic or raises expectations which can be onerous to meet, which in return dangers creating frustration — or tensions.

During the post-Brexit discussions on Northern Ireland commerce on the finish of final 12 months, he repeatedly introduced that each side have been about to strike a deal on medicines, solely to then need to admit a number of occasions on the finish of negotiation rounds that they nonetheless weren’t there.

In the case of Switzerland, Šefčovič hasn’t been in a position to ship a lot progress but and even engaged in a diplomatic row with Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis over what sort of “roadmap” each side had agreed on for additional talks.

Šefčovič additionally arrange what turned often called the European Battery Alliance, a wonky new system for fostering private and non-private collaboration. It’s taken off to such an extent that different commissioners are replicating the mannequin for strategic industries akin to hydrogen, rockets and chips.

— By Hans von der Burchard


The Danish politician began her second time period in Brussels with an outsized popularity. She had scored direct hits, towards a few of Big Tech’s greatest names — and was now trying to double down on these victories. Her technique for the brand new staff included plans for brand new guidelines geared toward growing on-line competitors and lowering how dangerous content material might unfold on-line. But the previous playmaker has underperformed within the first half elevating questions on her kind — and future.

On the big-ticket laws — the Digital Services and Digital Markets Acts — she will take credit score for updating the bloc’s rulemaking for the primary time in a era. Those guidelines are anticipated to make it harder for the likes of Google and Facebook to scoop up smaller rivals, in addition to clamp down on misinformation and dangerous items circulating on-line.

Yet given the altering winds inside Brussels, Vestager’s free-market values have fallen considerably out of favor — that means she’s discovered it tougher to hyperlink up with teammates. The first half additionally included one huge miss. In the blockbuster court docket loss within the €13 billion state help case towards Apple, she didn’t capitalize on one of many greatest achievements from her first time period on the European Commission. 

That damage her sure-footed popularity because the world’s hardest Big Tech enforcer. So did ongoing criticism that regardless of Europe’s onerous line on digital antitrust instances, nothing has actually modified in how a few of Silicon Valley’s greatest names nonetheless dominate a lot of the web world.

— By Mark Scott


If you wish to hear how profitable Thierry Breton has been as a European Commissioner, the most effective individual to ask might be Thierry Breton. The self-promoting Frenchman entered Brussels with a whirlwind of pre-match interviews, and has barely stopped — annoying different teammates along with his tendency to disregard the formation and stray all around the pitch. He’s railed towards Big Tech. He’s championed COVID-19 vaccine rollouts. He’s made it his private objective to push Europe’s “technological sovereignty” agenda, together with large investments within the bloc’s semiconductor trade.

These efforts have actually labored out for Breton. His profile is arguably increased than that of his boss, Margrethe Vestager — regardless of her extra senior place within the staff. The Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act have given him the digital legislative credentials to inform the world he is taking over a few of the hardest challenges, and successful. Slick videos posted on Twitter — and repeated photo-ops with the likes of Tesla CEO Elon Musk — have given the inner market Commissioner a larger-than-life persona.

Still, critics argue his hectic agenda is extra about show-boating for the gang than precise policymaking. His willingness to throw himself into any and all fights — and publish on social media to indicate that he is doing it — has not gained him followers in components of the Commission, which would like him to tone down the theatrics and go the ball every now and then.

— By Mark Scott


Věra Jourová has lengthy combined idealism with pragmatism. In her second time period, she has targeted on discovering methods the Commission can translate formidable rhetoric into coverage initiatives with influence. 

The Czech politician has checked off some factors on the to-do record President Ursula von der Leyen gave her in 2019. She introduced a European Democracy Action Plan and reached a deal on the Transparency Register.

Jourová has additionally visibly made media freedom one in all her prime priorities, placing ahead a advice on the protection of journalists and proposing a directive to fight abusive lawsuits towards journalists. A brand new Media Freedom Act can be within the works. 

But on the subject of the rule of regulation extra broadly, Jourová’s document — echoing the Commission’s document as an entire — is combined. 

Together with Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders and Budget Commissioner Johannes Hahn, Jourová has pushed ahead a course of that would culminate in a discount in EU funding to international locations akin to Hungary. The trio has at occasions taken a harder stance on the rule of regulation internally than von der Leyen herself. But regardless of these efforts, rule-of-law issues are anticipated to proceed plaguing some EU international locations for years to come back.

— By Lili Bayer


After a jittery begin, Poland’s commissioner has doggedly pursued his imaginative and prescient of a extra animal-friendly, greener form of farming — however with restricted political sway to make it occur and little progress on the pitch.

In equity, the Commission’s new Green Deal construction is stacked towards him. Squeezed between the policy-hungry Frans Timmermans and Stella Kyriakides, the heady days when being EU farm chief meant untrammeled energy are lengthy gone. Timmermans is formally his boss and Kyriakides has led on meals and farm-related insurance policies akin to labeling, gene modifying, animal welfare and new pesticides guidelines.

He’s been a loyal staff participant who has pulled his weight however in reality he has not led the work on the largest EU insurance policies on his patch. The reform of the enormous Common Agricultural Policy was already properly underway when he was introduced on to the pitch and, although he prodded nationwide farm ministers to do extra, it was Timmermans who took the photographs on objective when talks received robust. Tellingly, Wojciechowski was absent from the press launch of the EU’s plan for the way forward for meals and farming in 2020, with three different commissioners taking middle stage as a substitute.

Wojciechowski’s personal flagship initiatives are a combined bag: His 2040 “vision” for rejuvenating rural areas is slightly obscure, however he spearheaded an formidable plan to extend natural farmland in Europe that MEPs enthusiastically supported.

Halfway by means of his time period, there are indicators that Wojciechowski is elevating his sport. His English has improved, he’s combating the farmers’ nook on new emissions guidelines, and most significantly he’s appearing as a bridge between Warsaw, Brussels and Kyiv to assist Ukraine’s farmers entry to gas and higher export routes.

— By Eddy Wax





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