War, disease and geopolitics: The von der Leyen Commission’s half-time scorecard
The head of the EU executive is pressing forward with her green and digital agenda despite massive upheavals. How well is she doing?
If Ursula von der Leyen’s five-year term can be likened to a soccer match, her team is heading for the half-time break with the scores even and a few bruised shins (mostly from self-inflicted errors).
It’s been a wild ride.
When they took the field in December 2019, von der Leyen’s squad of commissioners envisioned a diplomatic offensive in which Brussels would sneak a few goals past its chief geopolitical counterparts, China and the United States. Tactically, the formation was set up to focus on digital and green policies that would force rivals to play on the EU’s terms.
Then the pandemic struck.
The tidal wave of infections that roared over Europe tore up the German leader’s game plan and forced her team to scramble to adapt to unprecedented circumstances.
They flailed at first, moving too slowly and naively to secure vaccines and allowing national capitals to take the initiative on travel restrictions.
But they regrouped and got the bloc’s first joint vaccine procurement program underway. Slowly, defensive tactics gave way to a more assertive approach and, three years into the worst pandemic since the Spanish Flu, Europe is back in business.
The Commission deserves some credit for that.
But if the squad was hoping for a lull in the action, they were sorely disappointed. Not long before the Commission reached the halfway point, Russia’s all-out military assault on Ukraine created the biggest disruption to Europe’s security architecture since World War II. In the chaotic days that followed, the Commission tried to keep Team Europe unified, and achieved remarkable success on sanctions and military assistance. But it remains frustrated in its efforts to coordinate a common energy policy vis-à-vis Moscow.
This double whammy of disease and war has put a spotlight on some unlikely performers on von der Leyen’s side — people like Stella Kyriakides, whose normally secondary health portfolio suddenly became central. It’s pushed von der Leyen herself into an arguably even higher-profile and more geopolitical role than she might have expected. But it’s also overshadowed some stars, like digital czar Margrethe Vestager, who has failed to net any memorable goals against Big Tech in this match.
The team has also performed poorly on away days.
Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, was caught flatfooted by Russia’s veteran foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow. Von der Leyen was briefly benched in Ankara, when poor positional play on the part of her colleagues left her humiliated in a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
The EU chieftain also had to make an early substitution after Commissioner Phil Hogan, a key enforcer, was forced to leave the field.
Despite these troubles, the von der Leyen Commission is still going hard. Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton is proving a serious threat, probing for opportunities to score. Frans Timmermans’ Green strategy looks like it still has legs.
Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johannsson has become a formidable operator, equally assertive on migration and digital matters. Slovakia’s Maroš Šefčovič has played the role of defensive rock, tasked with keeping troublesome threats such as Brexit and the Swiss in check. Margaritis Schinas, by contrast, talks a good game but has struggled to impose himself in the big matches.
POLITICO’s journalists have reviewed the performance of the most prominent commissioners, scoring them out of 10 on two metrics: Power, as in how well they used and projected it; and Policy, as in how effective have they been in achieving their goals so far.
Any plan Ursula von der Leyen might have had for her term as Commission president was blown out of the water within 100 days by the pandemic. Since then, she has gone from one crisis to another, pandemic followed by war, all while keeping up with mundane yet existential tasks of keeping Brexit from boiling over and Budapest and Warsaw onside.
But while these crises have challenged von der Leyen, they have also presented opportunities. It’s unthinkable that Brussels could have worked up a plan to pool debt between EU countries and launched a massive targeted spending splurge without the pandemic. That’s also given von der Leyen an unexpected lever to battle back against renegade countries such as Poland and Hungary by threatening to withhold funds.
Russia’s war on Ukraine is also lending fresh impetus to calls to decarbonize the bloc’s biggest economies. Ditching Russian oil and gas will inevitably mean more commitment to draft policies pushed by von der Leyen’s team on everything from rolling out electric cars to making residential buildings more energy efficient.
Assuming no fresh crisis springs up in the coming months, von der Leyen now has a chance to use the extra powers at her disposal to start really flexing some muscle.
The new German government has made it clear it won’t be insisting she gets a second term. So there’s no need to hold anything back. The true test will be whether she can pass the sprawling climate change-mitigating set of policies she launched under the Green Deal shortly after taking office. On that, the jury is still out.
— By Josh Posaner
Ylva Johansson was short on Brussels experience when she became Home Affairs Commissioner, but multiple stints as a minister in her home country had hardened the Swedish politician’s steel.
One example: After the EU’s anti-fraud office opened a probe over allegations of illegal pushbacks of asylum seekers, harassment and misconduct at border agency Frontex, Johansson went for the agency’s boss, Fabrice Leggeri. Vice President Margaritis Schinas tried to step in on behalf of Leggeri, but Johansson was unfazed.
Leggeri stepped down at the end of April.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 offered Johansson another chance to prove she’s a tough customer. After millions of Ukrainians fled to Europe, she campaigned for the EU to use a special legislative tool to offer them temporary protection, including the right to live and work in the bloc. On March 3, the EU’s interior ministers agreed to her proposal.
The effort was remarkable for three reasons: 1) It was the first time the EU had used the tool since it was created 20 years ago. 2) Clinching a deal on migration so rapidly had never been done before. 3) Diplomats were saying up until the last minute before a deal was announced that their talks were just that — talks.
Still, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing for Johansson.
The review of asylum rules she and Schinas put on the table in September 2020 is still stuck. But some diplomats believe that the Ukraine crisis may be the key that unlocks the door to progress. If Johansson is able to deliver on migration, she’ll have scored one for the team.
— By Jacopo Barigazzi
Handed arguably the EU’s most transformative job, one-time presidential hopeful-cum-Green Deal boss Frans Timmermans has made a habit of turning adversity into opportunity during a tumultuous period.
Charged with steering the EU’s climate policy, the Dutchman already had a full to-do list — and that was just dealing with Poland and its coal industry. The assumption from many when the pandemic struck was that climate policy would be derailed. The same was true when the war in Ukraine began. But Timmermans’s answer to every apparent setback has been the same: more climate action, not less.
With the coronavirus, the groundbreaking recovery package was turned into a green stimulus. And the war became another good reason to get off Russian fossil fuels and accelerate the transition to renewable energy. Turning those ambitions into reality will dominate the second half of Timmermans’ term.
At the same time, Timmermans hasn’t taken his eye off his goal. Having nursed the EU’s Climate Law into existence, embedding the goal to be climate neutral by 2050, he shows no sign of being ready to drop the ball. Meanwhile, the awfully-named Fit for 55 package, which contains emissions-cutting policy proposals from ending the combustion engine to insulating buildings, is moving slowly forward.
With his market-loving boss von der Leyen pushing an expansion of the EU’s emissions trading system to hit fuels for heating homes and driving cars, the old socialist had to revise his own ideological objections. Now he needs to bring capitals and Parliament with him and deliver the economic revolution he’s been promising.
— By Karl Mathiesen
Who is Kadri Simson? Well might you ask. For much of the first half of her term, the near anonymous commissioner for energy has seen much of her role sucked into the gravity field of Timmermans’ Green Deal mission. But Russia’s war in Ukraine has thrust her portfolio back into the limelight. And Simson is now one of the key people writing the policy for ending the EU’s addiction to Russian energy.
If, as is sometimes said, crisis reveals character, Simson has had little to show. When things were calm, Simson was the consummate civil servant: no fuss, highly consultative, weak tea. She has also had to deal with Timmermans constantly stepping onto her patch.
Now that several crises are calling out for greater vision, her response has been largely more of the same. It wasn’t until months into the energy price crunch that Simson finally came out with a “toolkit” that colored very much between the lines, never testing the EU’s powers to intervene. And now that the Commission is scrambling to boost solar and wind as a way to counter Russian influence, renewable energy advocates are wondering whether things might have been different if the Commission had had an aggressive champion for clean power pushing the ball forward for the past two years.
— By Karl Mathiesen
Stella Kyriakides had no idea what awaited her when she took up the post of Health Commissioner in 2019. In normal times the Cypriot official would have had a quiet ride: Heath isn’t a core EU competence. And under the previous Commission, the health budget totaled a measly €449.4 million spread over 7 years.
Then a pandemic came along.
Instead of a quiet five-year sojourn in Brussels, Kyriakides had to manage the bloc’s pandemic response alongside colorful characters like Thierry Breton, while overseeing a giant expansion of the health budget, to €5.1 billion.
From a bureaucratic perspective, the commissioner put the pandemic to good use. She expanded the powers of the EU’s health agencies and brought a new one into the world: the Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority. And she’s kept the bloc’s preexisting health priorities — including the Cancer Plan and the European Health Data Space — on track.
But where she scores highly for diligence, Kyriakides falls short on political punch. For better or worse (the EU’s response initially left much to be desired), Kyriakides was overshadowed by Breton and others on vaccine procurement. It’s also arguable that, given the circumstances, she could have wrestled over even more health powers for the Commission.
A pandemic provided the perfect opportunity for Kyiakides to expand the EU’s health mandate. Now she just needs to start taking credit for her work.
— By Carlo Martuscelli
The Italian has completed his umpteenth transformation — from referee to creative force.
Tapped by a populist government to be Italy’s man in Brussels, Gentiloni was initially set to be a buffer between the Commission and Rome’s incessant political and economic turmoils — be it government crises, excessive debt, or bailouts of bad banks and loss-making airlines. Putting an Italian in the post was a smart move by the incoming Commission president. It meant that authorities in Rome would have a familiar face to deal with, reducing the chance of friction, and at the same time preventing what was then a highly Euroskeptic government from blaming Brussels for unpalatable policies.
But fate had other things in store for Gentiloni: With the arrival of the pandemic, debt rules were lifted. Following the momentous decision to issue hundreds of billions in common debt, EU money started copiously flowing to capitals and the EU managed to turn around its image from priests of austerity, to deus ex machina. As the person proving the passes that let governments score with their voters, and one of the strongest advocates for repeating this economic feat, Gentiloni has lifted his profile. He’s also transformed his portfolio’s traditional role of browbeating countries into line into one of granting fortunes to pandemic-ridden economies.
This is just the latest of Gentilioni’s many lives. A former prime minister, foreign minister, long-time MP, journalist, activist, and incognito nobleman, throughout his career he has supported movements as diverse as Maoism, environmentalism and Christian-centrist politics. Adapting to changing conditions on the pitch seems to be his motto.
The coming months and years are likely to be more challenging, however. Gentiloni will have to wield every ounce of his considerable political weight to tackle Commission hawks, including his boss Valdis Dombrovskis. Further debt issuance and an upcoming reform of the bloc’s fiscal rules will be future flashpoints, just as war, rising inflation and a possible recession darken the economic outlook. The crowd will be watching to see if the mild-mannered Italian can adapt his game plan again.
— By Paola Tamma
The extent of his economic portfolio, especially since he took over the trade brief in October 2020, has made Dombrovskis a power player at the heart of the Commission’s midfield. But as a former prime minister of Latvia who grew up in the Soviet Union, Dombrovskis’ playmaker role has grown even more since the start of the war in Ukraine. He has long been one of the strongest voices around the Commission table in warning about the threat Russian President Vladimir Putin posed. Since the invasion, he has rallied the team in condemning Putin and urging the EU to go further in its actions against Moscow.
Since he took over the trade portfolio (after Phil Hogan’s red card) he has deployed some deft footwork to mend relations with the Biden administration and boost the bloc’s trade defense. While a lot of work remains to be done on reviving the multilateral trade arena and getting the EU’s free trade engine running again, the EU’s biggest free trade fans hope Dombrovskis can revive the backlog of trade deals in the coming years. But to bring the European Parliament on board with the free trade agenda, Dombrovskis is gingerly ramping up the EU’s climate and labor requirements. It’s not clear yet whether he can pull off such an intricate move.
On the economic front, Dombrovskis provides a counterweight to two of his fellow commissioners. When Paolo Gentiloni pushes forward with joint debt and a debate on fiscal rules, Dombrovskis urges more cautious tactics. And in contrast to France’s Thierry Breton, it is the more liberal, trade-friendly Dombrovskis who is pressing further upfield.
— By Paola Tamma and Barbara Moens
The Slovakian European Commission Vice President has risen to unexpected prominence as Brussels’ chief negotiator for highly complicated trade talks with Britain and Switzerland. It’s a role in which Šefčovič has tried to distinguish himself from his predecessors by approaching negotiations in a more pragmatic fashion.
He’s also taking an even bigger role than the bloc’s actual trade commissioner, Valdis Dombrovskis, who’s struggling with a global EU trade agenda that has run out of steam.
Yet critics say Šefčovič sometimes tends to be over-optimistic or raises expectations that are hard to fulfill, which in return risks creating frustration — or tensions.
During the post-Brexit discussions on Northern Ireland trade at the end of last year, he repeatedly announced that both sides were about to strike a deal on medicines, only to then have to admit several times at the end of negotiation rounds that they still weren’t there.
In the case of Switzerland, Šefčovič hasn’t been able to deliver much progress yet and even engaged in a diplomatic row with Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis over what kind of “roadmap” both sides had agreed on for further talks.
Šefčovič also set up what became known as the European Battery Alliance, a wonky new system for fostering public and private collaboration. It’s taken off to such an extent that other commissioners are replicating the model for strategic industries such as hydrogen, rockets and chips.
— By Hans von der Burchard
The Danish politician started her second term in Brussels with an oversized reputation. She had scored direct hits, against some of Big Tech’s biggest names — and was now looking to double down on those victories. Her strategy for the new team included plans for new rules aimed at increasing online competition and reducing how harmful content could spread online. But the former playmaker has underperformed in the first half raising questions about her form — and future.
On the big-ticket legislation — the Digital Services and Digital Markets Acts — she can take credit for updating the bloc’s rulemaking for the first time in a generation. Those rules are expected to make it more difficult for the likes of Google and Facebook to scoop up smaller rivals, as well as clamp down on misinformation and harmful goods circulating online.
Yet given the changing winds within Brussels, Vestager’s free-market values have fallen somewhat out of favor — meaning she’s found it harder to link up with teammates. The first half also included one big miss. In the blockbuster court loss in the €13 billion state aid case against Apple, she failed to capitalize on one of the biggest achievements from her first term at the European Commission.
That hurt her sure-footed reputation as the world’s toughest Big Tech enforcer. So did ongoing criticism that despite Europe’s hard line on digital antitrust cases, nothing has really changed in how some of Silicon Valley’s biggest names still dominate much of the online world.
— By Mark Scott
If you want to hear how successful Thierry Breton has been as a European Commissioner, the best person to ask is probably Thierry Breton. The self-promoting Frenchman entered Brussels with a whirlwind of pre-match interviews, and has barely stopped — annoying other teammates with his tendency to ignore the formation and stray all over the pitch. He’s railed against Big Tech. He’s championed COVID-19 vaccine rollouts. He’s made it his personal goal to push Europe’s “technological sovereignty” agenda, including massive investments in the bloc’s semiconductor industry.
These efforts have certainly worked out for Breton. His profile is arguably higher than that of his boss, Margrethe Vestager — despite her more senior position in the team. The Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act have given him the digital legislative credentials to tell the world he’s taking on some of the hardest challenges, and winning. Slick videos posted on Twitter — and repeated photo-ops with the likes of Tesla CEO Elon Musk — have given the internal market Commissioner a larger-than-life persona.
Still, critics argue his hectic agenda is more about show-boating for the crowd than actual policymaking. His willingness to throw himself into any and all fights — and post on social media to show that he’s doing it — has not won him fans in parts of the Commission, which would prefer him to tone down the theatrics and pass the ball from time to time.
— By Mark Scott
Věra Jourová has long mixed idealism with pragmatism. In her second term, she has focused on finding ways the Commission can translate ambitious rhetoric into policy projects with impact.
The Czech politician has checked off some points on the to-do list President Ursula von der Leyen gave her in 2019. She presented a European Democracy Action Plan and reached a deal on the Transparency Register.
Jourová has also visibly made media freedom one of her top priorities, putting forward a recommendation on the safety of journalists and proposing a directive to combat abusive lawsuits against journalists. A new Media Freedom Act is also in the works.
But when it comes to the rule of law more broadly, Jourová’s record — echoing the Commission’s record as a whole — is mixed.
Together with Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders and Budget Commissioner Johannes Hahn, Jourová has pushed forward a process that could culminate in a reduction in EU funding to countries such as Hungary. The trio has at times taken a tougher stance on the rule of law internally than von der Leyen herself. But despite these efforts, rule-of-law problems are expected to continue plaguing some EU countries for years to come.
— By Lili Bayer
After a jittery start, Poland’s commissioner has doggedly pursued his vision of a more animal-friendly, greener kind of farming — but with limited political sway to make it happen and little progress on the pitch.
In fairness, the Commission’s new Green Deal structure is stacked against him. Squeezed between the policy-hungry Frans Timmermans and Stella Kyriakides, the heady days when being EU farm chief meant untrammeled power are long gone. Timmermans is officially his boss and Kyriakides has led on food and farm-related policies such as labeling, gene editing, animal welfare and new pesticides rules.
He’s been a loyal team player who has pulled his weight but in truth he has not led the work on the biggest EU policies on his patch. The reform of the giant Common Agricultural Policy was already well underway when he was brought on to the pitch and, though he prodded national farm ministers to do more, it was Timmermans who took the shots on goal when talks got tough. Tellingly, Wojciechowski was absent from the press launch of the EU’s plan for the future of food and farming in 2020, with three other commissioners taking center stage instead.
Wojciechowski’s own flagship projects are a mixed bag: His 2040 “vision” for rejuvenating rural areas is rather vague, but he spearheaded an ambitious plan to increase organic farmland in Europe that MEPs enthusiastically supported.
Halfway through his term, there are signs that Wojciechowski is raising his game. His English has improved, he’s fighting the farmers’ corner on new emissions rules, and most importantly he is acting as a bridge between Warsaw, Brussels and Kyiv to help Ukraine’s farmers access to fuel and better export routes.
— By Eddy Wax