When Jean-Claude Juncker became European Commission President five years ago, he confronted formidable challenges. But the test faced by his successor, Ursula von der Leyen, is even more complex.
As von der Leyen underscored in her “agenda for Europe,” one of her top priorities must be to carry out “a new push for European democracy.” She can strengthen the European Union’s democratic legitimacy in two ways: on the output side, by making sure that the EU delivers on citizens’ expectations at a time of rapid change and escalating external challenges, and on the input side, by fostering constructive cooperation with the European Parliament.
Yet, today, the European Parliament is highly fragmented and polarised, making a stable, pro-European coalition difficult to build. In order to pass legislation, von der Leyen will need the support of the Conservatives and Social Democrats, as well as robust and productive working relationships with the Greens and the Liberals. She will probably have to form flexible coalitions in specific areas, which will be time-consuming and increases the risk of political failure on contentious issues.
After the recent elections, for the first time in the European Parliament’s history, pro-European factions – the conservative European People’s Party, the Social Democrats, the Greens, and the Liberals – met to create a cross-party political program. But the process stalled, as the Parliament could not agree on its own candidate for the office of Commission President, and a four-party “coalition agreement” is no longer on the table.
Von der Leyen should nonetheless engage the Parliament politically as much as she can, beginning with the priorities included in the mission letters that she will send to commissioners. These priorities should be shaped by discussions with the newly elected chairs of the parliamentary groups.
Fostering constructive cooperation with the European Parliament will require the credible implementation of a de facto right of initiative for the Parliament, regular dialogue with the President, and the enduring commitment of every single commissioner. Von der Leyen must be able to rely on her team to help her navigate the complex political environment not only in the Parliament, but also in the European Council, and to guide her efforts to engage the European public in a debate on the EU’s future.
That is why von der Leyen must ensure that when tailoring the commissioners’ portfolios, inter-institutional relations are given sufficient weight. In the previous Commission, Vice President Frans Timmermans handled such relations as part of his vast portfolio. In the new Commission, inter-institutional relations – together with democratisation – should form a commissioner’s full portfolio.
That commissioner’s task would be hugely important, and thus should be undertaken by an experienced policymaker – ideally someone who has worked at the national and European levels, in the European Parliament and with the Council. Given von der Leyen’s party affiliation, a Social Democrat would be a good choice, though whoever is chosen would need to be able to work across party lines.
Working directly with von der Leyen and the Commission’s vice presidents, this commissioner should manage overall relations with the European Parliament and the General Affairs Council, while also helping to coordinate each individual commissioner’s interactions with the Parliament. This portfolio would include preparation of the Commission’s annual and pluri-annual programs and, in particular, its joint declaration with the Parliament on annual legislative priorities.
Moreover, given the portfolio’s lack of policy specialisation, this commissioner could support von der Leyen in handling particularly urgent, controversial, or otherwise delicate issues – such as migration or Eurozone reform – that require extra political effort to enable progress. Such a commissioner could also ensure that actions in internal and external policy areas – from the common foreign and security policy to engagement with Europe’s broader neighbourhood – are coherent.
Finally, this commissioner would play an important role in helping to implement one of the priorities von der Leyen has outlined in her agenda: the Conference on the Future of Europe, which is supposed to deliver results as early as next summer. This ambitious endeavour – in which the public, civil society, and European institutions will participate on an equal footing – will require careful preparation and stewardship, not least because von der Leyen wants the European Parliament, Council, and Commission jointly to define its goals and scope in advance.
In this and other areas, the stakes are higher for both the Commission and the Parliament than they were during the previous term. Delivering the tangible results that citizens are demanding will require leaders to master rapidly changing policymaking conditions, characterised by rising internal EU scepticism and intensifying external pressure, including interference from outside actors like China. Transformative technological change and monumental threats like climate change compound the challenge.
In this context, the European Commission and the Parliament should be more motivated than ever to cooperate. This should include annual reviews of priorities by the Commission, in collaboration with the Parliament, to assess progress and identify necessary action.
Such a process has become all the more important at a time when EU member governments are losing patience with supranational decision-making. Unless EU institutions prove themselves, member governments may be tempted to circumvent them and cooperate within smaller groups, for the sake of efficiency.
Ensuring effective cooperation with a fragmented European Parliament will not be easy. But it is possible, especially for a Commission that places the highest priority on doing so, while enhancing its own legitimacy by leading a broad public debate on Europe’s future. That is the Commission von der Leyen must build.