On December 1, five months after the nomination of Ursula von der Leyen as President of the European Commission, her team took office marking the start of a five-year policy and regulatory cycle. President von der Leyen has announced clear-set priorities, defined a new structure and proposed an ambitious work program with a sharp focus on climate change, digital transformation and economic policy.

The first 100 days

The new Commission has set the following policy priorities for the next five years:

  1. A European Green Deal
  2. An economy that works for people
  3. A Europe fit for the digital age
  4. Protecting our European way of life
  5. A stronger Europe in the world
  6. A new push for European democracy

Von der Leyen has promised a bold first 100 days during which the Commission will come forward with new policy and legislative proposals, closely following the top policy priorities set out above.

A closer look at the policy priorities

The European Green Deal – Von der Leyen has identified climate change as the area where European leadership is most needed. She recognises the European Green Deal as an industrial strategy requiring innovation, job creation, research and investment. In the first 100 days, legislative action on climate change will begin with proposals for a European Climate Law, which would set the 2050 CO2 neutrality target into law.

An economy that works for people – The new Commission’s economic agenda recognizes investments in modernizing infrastructure, particularly digital connection, as vital to improving Europe’s competitive sustainability, completing the economic and banking unions, and providing finance for SMEs and start-ups. Von der Leyen will kick off her economic portfolio with two legislative proposals:

  1. A legal instrument to ensure that every worker in the Union has a fair minimum wage,
  2. Tabling proposals that introduce binding pay transparency measures.

A Europe fit for the digital age – the new Commission strives for digital sovereignty by which Europe can set the global framework for digitization, new technologies and data. The strategy will focus on proposed legislation for a coordinated European approach on the human and ethical implications of Artificial Intelligence.

Compared to her predecessor, who focused on legislative quality rather than quantity, we can expect von der Leyen’s Commission to push for many more legislative proposals, particularly around the top three priority areas.

However, whilst it’s easy to set out work program, priorities and timelines, the reality may look very different. Firstly, a 100-day- time frame is a very narrow period in which the Commission must draft and agree on proposals, let alone properly consult stakeholders and test acceptance by 27 Member States and the divided European Parliament. Secondly, unpredictable events will no doubt interfere. For Juncker’s Commission, the Euro, Greek and migration crises impeded progress. Only time will tell what may drive von der Leyen’s ambitious program off course. One event that will no doubt take up much time and effort is the UK’s (eventual) exit from the EU, currently set for the end of January 2020.

Three Executive Vice-Presidents for three policy priorities

The three Executive Vice Presidents have each been allocated overarching responsibilities for the top three priority issues, each with a strong regulatory and economic approach. This marks a significant departure from previous Commissions where there was a strict division between economic and political portfolios, such as the rule of law and the charter of fundamental rights.

Frans Timmermans will be responsible for the Commission’s top priority: climate policy. He will be head the “European Green Deal” portfolio coordinating all efforts to include carbon neutrality (net zero CO2 emissions) by 2050 into EU law. Climate policy is not limited to environmental regulation but also encompasses economic reform and industrial policies, including a possible CO2 tax on imported goods at the EU border.

Valdis Dombrovksis will be responsible for deepening the Economic and Monetary Union, with a strong emphasis on financial services and the completion of the post-financial crisis initiatives taken by the previous Commission, such as the European Banking Union and the Capital Markets Union. Remarkably, he will also oversee social dialogue and the pillar of social rights. Also remarkable is that anti-money laundering is included in the core policy goals. Dombrovskis will work closely with Commissioner Gentiloni, who will oversee the implementation of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, the budgetary discipline of Member States and the tax policy.

Margrethe Vestager will run the portfolio “A Europe fit for the digital age” taking on the role of a policymaker with law enforcement authority. The competition Commissioner, the highest competition law enforcement authority in the EU, will now also craft regulatory and legislative proposals on the digital economy. In the previous Commission, Margrethe Vestager gained a reputation as a tough law enforcer by inflicting massive fines on digital giants for anti-competitive behavior (Qualcomm, Google, enquiry into Amazon), investigating controversial behavior by digital platforms, or blocking high-profile merger plans (Alstom-Siemens). She now gets the opportunity to propose digital market regulation policies as well.

A balanced Commission with broad support

The European Commission is the executive branch of the EU, responsible for policy and legislative proposals, the implementation of EU law, and the upholding of EU treaties. The new Commission counts 27 members from 28 Member States (in anticipation of Brexit, the UK did not nominate a Commissioner), but once in office Commissioners act in the common EU interest regardless of their nationality.

When presenting her team, von der Leyen emphasized balance in terms of gender and political leanings; with 12 female and 15 male Commissioners, von der Leyen did not achieve complete gender balance but her Commission does count the highest female representation to date. In her speech in front of Parliament last week, she promised gender equality at all levels of management within the Commission by the end of her mandate. For political balance, von der Leyen appointed three Executive Vice Presidents from the three largest political party groups in the European Parliament (Valdis Dombrovskis, European People’s Party (EPP); Frans Timmermans, Socialists & Democrats (S&D); and Margrethe Vestager, Renew Europe (RE)).

Following the parliamentary hearings of each Commissioner, the confirmation vote in the European Parliament last Wednesday (27 November) saw a large majority support the new Commission with 461 votes in favor compared to the slim majority that confirmed von der Leyen in July (383 votes). This shift shows the lengths at which the new Commission has gone to broaden its appeal and win support across party groups over the past few months. As expected, the Commission was widely supported by the three largest groups: EPP, S&D and, despite its heterogeneity, RE. Surprisingly, von der Leyen was also able to win some votes from dissidents from the Greens and conservative ECR group, suggesting that she could gain support from these outliers in future parliamentary votes.

The French influence

Observers have highlighted French President Emmanuel Macron’s influence on the process over the last few months. He was very active in the selection of von der Leyen as President – keep in mind that she was not one of the initial Spitzenkandidaten – and secured a broad portfolio for French Commissioner Thierry Breton. As Commissioner for the Internal Market, Breton will oversee; the communications technology fields of DG CNECT, with completion of the Digital Single Market as a major field of activity; DG Internal Market, Industry and Entrepreneurship, responsible for the free movement of goods and services in the EU; and the new DG for Defence Industry and Space, a policy area for which the EU has great ambitions.

The new Commission formally entered into office on 1 December, but the tone thus far already suggests that von der Leyen and her team have hit the ground running – they will have to if they want to achieve the work they have set out for themselves.