IIt is not was the easiest start for Ursula von der Leyen. In July, EUThe heads of government descended on the former German Defense Minister as their surprise choice to head the European Commission, the largest institution in Brussels. She immediately suffered a series of setbacks. The European Parliament approved his candidacy by the thinnest of margins. Of the 26 commissioners proposed – one from each EU Member government, with the exception of Britain, which has refused to make an appointment despite its Brexit failure – three have been rejected. But on November 27, Parliament nodded to Mrs von der Leyen’s committee by 461 votes to 157. He will take office on December 1, a month later than planned.
The commission is a strange hybrid of the executive, the public service and the watchdog. It has broad powers in some areas, such as competition and product regulation, but few in others. Ms. von der Leyen will oversee the work of 32,000 officials from her office on the 13th floor of the Berlaymont building in Brussels, which the hardworking president has also transformed into a small apartment. In a sense, it comes at a more favorable time than its predecessor, Jean-Claude Juncker. The European economy is stuttering and the crises that have marked so many of its mandate are receding in the past.
However, the global context seems more difficult. The transatlantic link has collapsed and China’s commercial and strategic ambitions are on the European coast. In response, Ms. von der Leyen said that hers would be a “geopolitical commission”. It promises initiatives in the fields of defense, migration and industrial policy (some of which fear to overturn protectionism). Sabine Weyand, who heads the commission’s sales department, told an audience in Berlin this week that the EU would use trade as a weapon in its arsenal of international politics rather than simply “following economic logic”.
The new president will also face challenges from within. The fragmented parliament that emerged after the European elections in May will not always be as demanding as it did this week. Pervasive divisions between governments will worsen as rich and poor countries fight EUThe seven-year budget of the European Union, which must be stopped in 2020. And new cleavages emerge on the disruptive ideas of Emmanuel Macron EU reform, which frightened standstill powers like Germany.
An early test will happen EU enlargement. Macron’s recent veto in accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania has exasperated others EU Governments. It is up to the commission early next year to propose changes to the existing process, as the French president wants.
Ms. von der Leyen promised a series of early initiatives, including on wages and the “human and ethical implications” of artificial intelligence. The first of its blockbusters will be a “European Green Agreement”, a set of climate proposals scheduled for mid-December. Mrs von der Leyen aims to make Europe carbon neutral by 2050 and to tighten the emissions target for 2030. This implies adjustments to the EUEurope’s carbon market and a tax on imports from less green countries. These will be subject to the usual disputes between governments with differing interests and priorities. the EUThe leaders may have put Ms. von der Leyen in place, but they will not make her offer. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the title “Better late than never”