Commentary. The May elections confirmed the primacy of neo- and ordoliberals in Europe, and we shouldn’t expect much in the way of major reforms. The von der Leyen Commission will be about the relationship between the states and the EU, rather than deepening the European project.

The troubling continuity of the European Commission

No doubt, one cannot argue that the new European Commission headed by Ursula von der Leyen will be one aimed at bringing about change. Indeed, the May elections confirmed that the Neoliberal and Ordoliberal axis has held on to power.

Even though this axis was weakened by the electoral results in its two “pillars,” Germany and France, at the same time, the two countries managed to contain the (still-significant) advance of right-wing populism.

It’s no wonder, then, that the ambitious-sounding statements made by the new EC President in July about putting forward an European Green Deal during the first 100 days of her term must now be reinterpreted according to the political profile of the new emerging Commission, with the selection of broadly the same Commissioners as always. 

Of course, von der Leyen accurately read the fickle mood of the public around the world on climate issues: take, for instance, the fact that even the US equivalent of the Italian Confindustria has said that a company’s aims do not consist (solely) in making profits, but also in promoting social well-being; or the recent recommendations by Bruegel, a leading think tank of world capitalism, which identified three main challenges for the EU: defining Europe’s role in an increasingly bipolar world torn between the US and China, fighting climate change, and a proactive budget policy that would lead to a reform of the management of the Eurozone economy.

However, von der Leyen is attempting to manage expectations regarding these three directions of change, to dampen, if not silence altogether, the transformative nature of these three challenges, to empty them of meaning and to shoehorn everything into a reinterpreted notion of continuity, trying to sweep under the rug the growing and explosive crisis of the European project. The Green Deal is still there as an idea, but nowadays the EC President’s statements are emphasizing, for instance, investments in the military industry, which would supposedly bring “a benefit for the industrial base in the EU” as well—offering the well-worn example of the birth of the Internet—entrusting this project to the French Sylvie Goulard, the representative of the most pro-military intervention EU country and the standard bearer of the project of a real European army.

The portfolio of Vice-President Designate with responsibilities for the economy will be entrusted to the Latvian Valdis Dombrovskis, certainly not a new figure, who distinguished himself under Juncker for his rigor in the practice of austerity. His hierarchical position and the breadth of his powers will place him above ex-Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, who will be entrusted with economic affairs, but with a portfolio that appears to have been simplified, and not just in name. It is doubtful that our country’s representative will be able to perform the same functions as Pierre Moscovici did as regards public finances. It seems he will be more of an embedded figurehead, placed there to try to quench the fires of patriotic enthusiasm. In any case, von der Leyen has pointed out, almost as a direct retort against President Sergio Mattarella’s message at the Cernobbio meeting, that there is now broad agreement on the Stability Pact: “The rules are clear,” she said—as are the limits and the amount of flexibility available.

Obviously, this implies there is nothing about the issue that even requires revisiting, much less any changes. It seems that Martin Schirdewan, one of the two leaders of the GUE/NGL, was right when he said that the overriding thought in putting together this Commission was about the relationship between the states and the EU, rather than a truly European project. As further confirmation, the budget portfolio will be held by a lower profile figure, Johannes Hahn of the Austrian Popular Party.

Just as disturbing is the presence of Laszlo Trocsanyi as the Commissioner in charge of EU enlargement, a former Hungarian Minister of Justice viewed as an unflinching executor of Viktor Orbán’s will, who has already been in conflict with the EU regarding the measures introduced in his country that limited the powers of the judiciary, as well as a well-known champion in the fight against illegal immigration and a promoter of the criminalization of NGOs. Even more, the appointment of the Greek Margaritis Schinas from New Democracy, the right-wing party that won the recent elections, as Vice-President for security with responsibilities over immigration, will also disappoint the hopes of those who have been forced to become wanderers on the sea and land.

There is, however, one novel aspect to the new Commission: the near-equality between women and men in its composition (14 men and 13 women).

The United Kingdom has not appointed any representative. Regarding the Brexit issue, von der Leyen, who will take office one day after the fateful deadline of Oct. 31, waved the matter aside with ambiguous tones: it won’t be the end, but the beginning of a new relationship, which will be handled by an ad hoc commissioner if a new postponement is requested.

And there’s more: what are we to make of the appointment of Josep Borrell from the Spanish Socialists as High Representative for Foreign Affairs? Given the continued re-emphasis on the loyalty to NATO and pro-Atlanticism, and the non-existence of an EU foreign policy as such, one can only wish him the best of luck.

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