Von der Leyen-Commission: shifted priorities under pressure of crises


On the eve of the tenth EU-mandate, we look back on five years of the Von der Leyen-Commission. The German Commission President, also abbreviated to VDL in Brussels’ jargon, presented six priorities when she took office at the end of 2019. Climate was high on the agenda, as were democratic values and digitalization. However, the new Commission had only been in the Berlaymont for less than a month when the corona crisis erupted. Von der Leyen had to shift gears from a Commission of future perspectives to day-to-day crisis management.

It set the tone for the Commission Von der Leyen, which – with the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the climate crisis and further geopolitical tensions – has often been referred to as a Commission of crisis management. How did the Commission’s permanent crisis management mode affect the plans it presented at the beginning of its term? Colleagues Nienke and Valérie reflect on five years of the Commission Von der Leyen in this blog.

Back to 2019: the ambitions of the Von der Leyen Commission

By an extremely narrow margin of 383 votes for her candidacy (374 votes were needed), Von der Leyen was nominated president of the European Commission in July 2019. Her term started off with a lot of criticism from the European Parliament. Von der Leyen had not been proposed by the Parliament as a Spitzenkandidat, but was appointed by the European Council on the explicit preference of Macron. The French leader felt that the initial Spitzenkandidat of the European People’s Party (EPP), Manfred Weber, was not qualified for the top job. The one-two between the French and Germans over VDL’s nomination immediately led to a discussion in the European Parliament concerning VDL’s democratic legitimacy.

Nevertheless, when her Commission took office on 1 December 2019, Von der Leyen presented an ambitious, comprehensive package concerning six policy priorities: (1) a European Green Deal, (2) a Europe ready for the digital age, (3) an “economy for citizens”, (4) protection of the European way of life, (5) a stronger Europe in the international arena, and (6) further development of European democracy.

From ambition to practice: legislative proposals on the greatest challenges of our time

According to the Commission, the six policy priorities reflected the greatest challenges of our time; the key to success was seen in the twin transition. This means that, according to the Commission, further digitalization should go hand in hand with further sustainability. Of the 349 bills adopted, 127 fell into these portfolios.

Sustainability: climate neutral in 2050?

Led by Frans Timmermans, the largest and most ambitious climate plan in EU history was brought to the table: the Green Deal. The goal? To make the entire European Union climate-neutral by 2050. The Fit for 55-package set 2030 as an interim deadline. This package includes the aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 with 55% compared to 1990 levels.

The Green Deal was supposed to be the “lifeline” out of the corona crisis. A third from the European corona recovery fund was to be used to further finance the Green Deal. But for now, the EU is not achieving the bulk of its own green ambitions. If the Union still wants to meet the targets in the Fit for 55-package, the rate at which greenhouse gas emissions are reduced would even have to double.

A lunging center-right European Parliament is further putting pressure on the Green Deal. Aiming for a second term and aware of the rise of the far-right in Europe, in recent months the VDL-Commission has distanced itself from key points from the Green Deal. For example, under pressure from farmers in Brussels, the pesticide plan has been taken off the table and other measures have become voluntary – whereas previously they were mandatory. By accommodating farmers’ wishes, Von der Leyen hopes to keep part of the European electorate away from voting for the far right. To what extent her strategy succeeds remains to be seen.

Digitization: a digitally resilient Union?

Under the leadership of four ambitious European Commissioners, Thierry Breton, Margrethe Vestager, Vera Jourovà and Didier Reynders, a substantial package of legislation has been adopted in recent years to better regulate the digital world. For example, legislation has been developed to address the market power of “Big Tech” (DMA, DSA), ensure secure handling of data at the government level (Data Act, DGA), strengthen cybersecurity (NIS2, CER) and guarantee citizens’ rights (GDPR).

One of the biggest milestones concerns the AI Act: the legislation passed in March to regulate artificial intelligence, providing the world’s first legal framework on what is and what is not allowed in this field. However, the AI Act did receive quite some criticism. For example, the law – which will only become effective in several months’ time – would not be up to the rapid development of AI. The Commission expects to address these concerns with the new European AI Office, but member states have called on the new Commission to start looking further ahead.

Another request from member states for the next Commission is to focus on implementing the existing package of legislation, now being passed to national governments, before drafting new laws. Yet, implementation is much less attractive to new Eurocommissioners looking to raise their profiles.

Security: a stronger Europe in the international arena?

A stronger Europe in a shifting geopolitical world order was part of the six-point plan, but it was not the focus of the VDL Commission. However, 24 February 2022 cast European security in a new light. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Von der Leyen immediately voiced European support for Ukraine, and in December 2023, the Council even grated it candidate status.

The war in Ukraine caused a shift in focus; from the Green Deal to a possible war with Russia and preparing European industry for it. Von der Leyen herself has stated she wants to appoint a special Defense Commissioner to oversee Brussels’ support for the defense industry. Defense spending has also been scaled up. However, senior generals and military officers from several EU member states urgently warn for the threat of war with Russia. Europe must make it clear that it can defend itself, they state.

Balancing for another term: less climate policy, more war rhetoric?

One thing is certain: the von der Leyen Commission has not been idle. Of the 661 bills announced, 526 have actually been brought forward. Of these, 301 bills have already been passed and 97 bills are in the final stages. And this has certainly been noted. Media outlets have regularly called Ursula von der Leyen the most successful Commission President since Jacques Delors, which she owes mainly to the way she has handled crises.

Von der Leyen wants to continue for another five years, although she will have to work hard to secure enough votes in the European Parliament. In any case, her party – the European People’s Party – does promise to emerge as the largest according to the latest polls. Von der Leyen’s election promises include protecting democracy, maintaining prosperity, and increasing security. These issues are not only central to the EPP’s campaign but are also reflected in the plans of other European groups – indicating how the priorities of the tenth EU-mandate will shift accordingly.

What can we expect from the next European Commission?

Changing geopolitical realities, war at the Union’s borders and the rapid advancement of artificial intelligence are shifting European leaders’ priorities. A leaked list of priorities for the next five years from the European Council confirms this trend; the word climate is mentioned only in relation to the business climate. The list is further filled with references to defense, security and migration.

The Council’s list of priorities is clear. Europe will need to strengthen its position as a world power vis-à-vis the U.S. and China. Terms such as strategic autonomy, European innovation and robust competitiveness are central. In addition, we can expect European defense to develop significantly over the next five years. This does not mean that the twin transition will be sidelined, but rather that the focus will be on implementing those policies developed during the ninth mandate.

And what can we expect in the coming months in relation to the lobby?

Once the ballot boxes have closed in all member states and the votes have been counted, the European Council will nominate the new President of the European Commission during its meeting on 27 and 28 June. The European Parliament will vote on this president during the first plenary sessions between 16 September and 19 September. Once the new president of the European Commission is determined, the new Commission will start working on its program. This program is expected to be presented in the last month of 2024.

The key figures have yet to be determined, but the direction of the next Commission is already set. Buzz words that you will hear much more often: strategic autonomy, industrial policy and common security policy. And the business climate, of course. How these shifting priorities and a new European Commission and Parliament will influence tech, climate, and healthcare will be explored in a blog series on our website this summer.

"Changing geopolitical realities, war at the Union's borders and the rapid advancement of artificial intelligence are shifting European leaders' priorities."

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