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Following the European Parliament elections on 26 May 2019, on 1 December 2019 the new European Commission (EC) took office for five years. The former President of the Commission Jean-Claude Juncker and the former President of the European Council Donald Tusk were thanked for their services and replaced by the German Ursula von der Leyen and the former Belgian prime-minister Charles Michel, who is also the son of the former EU commissioner Louis Michel. Von der Leyen is the first female Commission president. She was born in Brussels in 1958 as the daughter of the former leader of the state of Lower Saxony. She attended the European School in Brussels where she graduated two years before Boris Johnson joined the same establishment. The mother of seven entered politics after she had finished medical school and had overcome plagiarism accusations in connection with her thesis. She appeared on television singing with her family the choral “Wohlauf in Gottes schöne Welt” (“Well in God’s beautiful world”). After her father was informed that his family could be a potential target for the Red Army Faction terrorist group, she enrolled at the London School of Economics using the pseudonym Rose Ladson. In 1990, she joined the Christian Democratic Union and was a close acquaintance of Wolfgang Schäuble who was a minister in the Merkel governments. Von der Leyen herself is the longest-serving minister in Angela Merkel’s governments. She started as Minister of Family Affairs and Youth from 2005 to 2009, then as Minister of Labour and Social Affairs from 2009 to 2013, and finally as Minister of Defence from 2013 to 2019. She was the first woman to serve as German defence minister and is considered a trustee of Angela Merkel.

The European Commission

The EC is the executive branch of the European Union (EU) and is responsible for proposing legislation, implementing decisions, upholding the EU treaties and managing the day-to-day affairs of the EU. In order to become an EU commissioner, your national government must suggest your name to the Council of the EU, that can then propose it to the European Parliament (EP). After approval by the EP, the commissioner is appointed by the European Council. Most commissioners have previously held senior political positions, such as being a member of the EP or a minister in a national government. This EC operates as a cabinet government, with 28 members of the Commission, so-called ‘commissioners’. Each member state has one commissioner, but commissioners are bound by their oath of office to represent the general interest of the EU as a whole and not the exclusive interests of their home state. One of the 28 is the Commission President. The President is proposed by the European Council and elected by the European Parliament. The Council of the European Union then nominates the other 27 members of the Commission in agreement with the nominated President, and the 28 members as a single body are then subject to a vote of approval by the EP.

Each commissioner has his own cabinet with a team, based in the Berlaymont building in Brussels. An administrative body of about 32.000 European civil servants, organized into departments called directorates-general, completes the staffing of the EC.

Tasks of the European Commission

First of all, the EC proposes new laws. The EC is the sole institution that can initiate legislation which needs approval by the EP and the Council in order to become law. In theory, the EC produces laws to protect the interests of the EU and its citizens on issues that can’t be dealt with effectively at national level. The EC also manages EU policies and allocates EU funding by setting the spending priorities (in cooperation with the Council and Parliament). It draws up annual budgets for approval by the EP and the Council and it supervises how the money is spent through a Court of Auditors. Furthermore, the EC is responsible for enforcing EU law, for which it can count on the Court of Justice that ensures that EU laws are properly applied in each of the member countries. Finally, the EC represents the EU at the international level: it speaks on behalf of all EU countries in international bodies, in particular in areas of trade policy and humanitarian aid. The EC also negotiates international agreements for the EU.

The Members of the European Commission

Since the EU counts 28 member states, 28 commissioners must be appointed. This leads to a fragmentation and overlap of competences and a certain amount of ingenuity to create a position for every commissioner. What to think of a commissioner ‘for an Economy that Works for People’ (Valdis Dombrovskis, Latvia)? There is also a commissioner for Values and Transparency (Vera Jourová, Czech Republic), for Protecting the European Way of Life (Margaritis Schinas, Greece, for Jobs (Nicolas Schmit, Luxembourg) and for Equality (Helena Dalli, Malta) and one for Cohesion and Reforms (Elisa Ferreira, Portugal). Mariya Gabriel (Bulgaria) is commissioner for Innovation and Youth and Dubravka Šuica (Croatia) is commissioner for Democracy and Demography and will also lead work on the Conference on the Future of Europe. Three commissioners will be busy with the internal organization of the EU: Maroš Šefčovič (Slovakia) is commissioner for Interinstitutional Relations and Foresight, the Austrian Johannes Hahn for Budget and Administration (who will report directly to von der Leyen) and Ylva Johansson from Sweden is responsible for Home Affairs. Didier Reynders from Belgium is commissioner for Justice, including the topic of the rule of law within the EU.


More important commissioners are responsible for the economic interests of the EU: Kadri Simson (Estonia) will take care of Energy and Sylvie Goulard (France) will watch over the EU’s Industrial policy and Digital Single Market. She will also be responsible for the new Directorate General for Defence Industry and Space. Margrete Vestager from Denmark is commissioner ‘for the Digital Age’ and responsible for coordinating an agenda on a ‘Europe fit for the digital age’. Then there are the more classical policy domains such as Trade (Phil Hogan, Ireland), Economy (Paolo Gentiloni, Italy), Agriculture (Janusz Wojciechowski, Poland) and Transport (Rovana Plumb, Romania).

Environment and Health

Three commissioners are concerned with the environment and the health of Europeans: Executive Vice-President Frans Timmermans from the Netherlands will coordinate work on the European Green Deal, which is estimated to cost €1,000Bn so that Europe becomes the world’s first climate-neutral continent by 2050. He will also lead climate change policy, which is supported by the Directorate-General for Climate Change. The Lithuanian Virginijus Sinkevičius is responsible for environment and oceans, and Stella Kyriakides from Cyprus will be in charge of health.

Defence and Foreign Policy

Five commissioners are involved with the defence and foreign policy of the EU. We already mentioned Sylvie Goulard (France) who will not only preside over the EU’s Industrial policy and Digital Single Market, but also over the newly created Directorate General for Defence Industry and Space. This is the first time that the EU takes action at such a high level to start work on a (more) unified European defence industry, which is a conditione sine qua non for the establishment of a European army in the future. Then there is a commissioner for International Partnerships (Jutta Urpilainen from Finland) and one for Neighbourhood and Enlargement (the Hungarian László Trócsányi). Janez Lenarčič from Slovenia is in charge of the EU Crisis Management. The most important of the five commissions responsible for defence and foreing policy, however, is Josep Borrell from Spain: he is the high representative-designate for foreign policy and responsible for the programme ‘A Stronger Europe in the World’.

In the next Brussels Backdrop, we will elaborate on the defence and foreign policy of the EU and on the ‘A Stronger Europe in the World’ document.

Joris Verbeurgt