Ursula von der Leyen’s speech to the European Parliament before the vote on her election as the next European Commission president was an ambitious and concise to-do list.
Her success as the president will depend on her ability to find the right balance between common European interests and the interests of the member states while also satisfying the parliament.
This is a fine balance. The Commission is the guardian of the Lisbon Treaty and stands for common European interests. By their nature, these are ambitious and comprehensive. By comparison, member states’ interests are less ambitious, more nuanced and often driven by a wide array of factors broader than what is good for the EU as a whole. On the side is the European Parliament, which is still finding its place in the EU system and is increasingly trying to make its work relevant to the citizens of the 28 member states.
In recent years, there has been a mismatch of these interests. There are more examples of the interests of the different parts not aligning than where they have. Security and defence was an area in which, by and large, the pieces fell into place. The member states wanted to increase cooperation in the field, the Commission was ready to come up with proposals for it, and the parliament was ready to support it. Reforming the immigration and asylum system, also known as the Dublin Procedure, is the most prevalent example where the interests did not align and politics became toxic and complicated. The common European digital tax is another, less contentious, example.
Mismatching interests are driven by two factors. One is that the member states are not always clear on what they want the EU to do and what are the caveats and limits within which they are operating. Secondly, the Juncker Commission attempted to play a bigger role and take on more leadership. In practice, this often meant goals that were too ambitious. The common European interest is easy to spell out, but the different realities on the ground, represented by the member states, are often complicated and costly.
An example of the challenge of balancing common European interests and the nitty-gritty on the ground is climate change. This was the first topic in von der Leyen’s speech—and rightly so, since tackling it will be a central theme of EU politics. She promised to propose a “green deal” for Europe in her first 100 days in office and make Europe climate neutral by 2050.
But the complicated politics is already visible: all but four member states have signed up to the pledge. (The four blocking it are the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary and Poland.)
Tackling climate change is in the interests of the whole of Europe. The European Council has provided the direction and the Commission consequently has full authority to push for climate neutrality by 2050. It’s ambitious and attractive on paper. However, transitioning to climate-friendly economies has substantial and far-reaching consequences for member states’ economies and societies. Real people and regions will be deeply affected by this pledge.
While it is easy to create ambitious and visionary pledges to tackle challenges facing the EU, the practical challenges and costs in the member states—the nitty-gritty—have huge potential to water down well-intentioned and very necessary proposals.
Von der Leyen’s speech was full of ambitious and concrete proposals: promising to strengthen the European social pillar, reforming the Dublin Procedure on immigration and asylum, and calling for qualified majority voting on foreign policy. In all these areas, member states have strong interests and sensitivities in play. The success of von der Leyen’s Commission will be defined by the political skill of finding the balance—driven by pragmatism and the reality of the EU rather than by idealism—in creating a common European interest.