Five key takeaways from the EU’s new team of commissioners

BY Finn McRedmond   /  10 September 2019

Commission president Ursula von der Leyen announced her proposed college of commissioners today – and the stakes have rarely been higher, with France’s President Macron pushing reform and Brexit still to resolve. Here are the most important implications that flow from this round of appointments.

  1. The EU is determined to continue its war on big tech 

With the appointment of VDL’s deputy – Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager – as coordinator for the so-called agenda on “Europe fit for the digital age” it is clear that the EU does not intend to give up its focus on taming the likes of tech giants Apple, Amazon and Facebook.

Vestager already acts as the competition commissioner, and will continue that role. Putting both roles in Vestager’s portfolio will upset The White House – she has already earned the moniker “tax lady” from Donald Trump for the multibillion dollar fines she’s handed out to these tech companies.

The appointment is basically confirmation that the commission is intent on continuing and expanding the work of Juncker’s high regulatory standards for data compliance, and ensuring the compliance of Big Tech.

2. … Which could spell trouble for the UK 

As the EU ramps up its standards on data protection, the UK is going to find securing deals with both the EU and the US much harder.

American standards on data protection are generally lower than the EU’s – hence The White House’s likely upset at Vestager’s appointment. We can expect the US to demand the UK weakens its data protections as a condition of a trade agreement. But at the same time the EU will insist that the UK matches their’s.

The UK will have to choose to which regulatory orbit it wants to enter. It probably can’t do both.

It’s worth noting we are already expecting a similar trade off between low US standards vs tougher EU ones when it comes to agricultural produce.

3. Climate change to take centre stage

VDL’s other deputy – Executive Vice President Frances Timmermans – has been put in charge of managing climate change policy. Climate change was always likely to take centre stage on the legislative agenda, and the appointment of Timmermans confirms it.

Green parties have enjoyed an electoral surge across Western Europe in recent months – locally, at a European level, and in general domestic polling. Not to mention that in VDL’s native Germany the Green party are mounting a not-insignificant challenge to her party – The CDU’s – primacy. She has a vested interest in fighting off encroaching Greens in Germany. And, thanks to Green issues becoming an electoral question in mainstream politics, it makes sense for VDL to reflect that at a European level.

She needs to prove her own, the EPP’s and her commission’s environmental credentials for the domestic health of the CDU; and majoring on climate questions is an obvious route for VDL to prove her tenure as President to be a success.

4. Leo Varadkar has a serious ally 

Varadkar’s ally, and fellow Fine Gael member, has been appointed as trade commissioner. Originally nominated by Enda Kenny (Leo Varadkar’s predecessor), Phil Hogan used to head up the agriculture portfolio. Now, he’ll be instrumental in the next phase of Brexit negotiations, when they eventually arrive.

This will no doubt worry Brexiteers. Hogan, or “big Phil” as he’s known at home, has been highly critical of Boris Johnson, accusing him of “gambling” with the Irish peace process.

But it may not be all bad for the Brexiteers. He’s close with Varadkar, who has repeatedly told Johnson that Ireland will be the UK’s closest ally when it comes to trade post Brexit.

VDL said: “He will be a very fair, but determined negotiator.”

5. The EU will fightback against China’s Belt and Road intiative

Dubravka Suica, former mayor of Dubrovnik and member of the European Parliament since 2014, has been appointed commissioner for Democracy and Demography. It’s significant that VDL has given an enlarged portfolio to Croatia, indicating the Balkans are a priority for this administration.

The appointment could be an attempt to detach Croatia and surrounding countries from the creeping Chinese influence, specifically when it comes to the Belt and Road infrastructure project, which in lieu of high engagement from the EU could be all too much of an attractive prospect.


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