Towards an Intergovernmental Europe?

The decision to affirm the choice of Ursula von der Leyen as Commission President has highlighted a significant shift of power within the European Union.

First, whilst there was much talk of the Spitzenkandidat process, in which the electorate is given a democratic process for determining the President of the Commission, once again, it is not in fact this process which has been used. Instead, the Council proposed its own candidate. As the institution of the EU which is constituted by Member State governments, this shows a further step away from cohesion and the more democratic means of traditional selection towards the flexing of individual Member States.

Furthermore, the Council's success in orchestrating its own candidate to become the new President of the Commission illustrates a reorientation of power between the institutions. Not only has the Council shown it was capable of this manoeuvre, the incoming President is all too aware of the means by which she came to power and in politics this usually comes at a price. Furthermore, von der Leyen does not have the usual CV of an incoming President, for example a former Head of Government of a Member State. As former German Defence Minister, von der Leyen has not had to navigate the impossible path of cross-party compromise, concession and coercion as often. This has already been highlighted in her discussions with the political groups within the Commission. Rather than adopting the usual approach of challenging policy content, von der Leyen chose to concede on a number of matters in exchange for votes. If this approach continues, it is likely to lead to a greater reliance on the existing Commission infrastructure and have a more bottom-up approach which will result in individual Commissioners having greater autonomy over their portfolios. It also allows the Council to take a more authoritative stance.

The Council itself has chosen Charles Michel, former Belgian Prime Minister, as its President. Putting political ability aside, the symbolism here supports the notion of a more influential Council that will lead on matters. This power shift does not come as a surprise. There has been a slow claw back of power by the Council for some time. As matters become more divisive and more political, it is the Council that is taking over the discussion. A prime example of this is the migration crisis. Whilst migration is the competency of the Commission, it was outgoing Council president Donald Tusk who negotiated and signed the deal with Turkey. It is perhaps with a view to some equally controversial discussions to come that the Council chose to put forward a President who would not interfere with this balance.

If Prime Minister Boris Johnson thought that the ceding of power from the Commission is an opportunity to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement, this sentiment will be short lived. The incoming Commission President has already stated that she will not reopen the withdrawal agreement and with the backing of the incoming Council President on this matter, even the threats of a no deal will be unlikely to change this.

The compromise candidate has come at a cost for the Commission as a supranational entity. It flattens out the hierarchy and puts greater powers in the hands of the stronger Member States through the Council. Whilst there are still calls for an ever closer Union, it appears that, at least in the short term, this will be in the form of an intergovernmental Europe led by the Council.

Businesses need to be alive to this shift and the increasingly complex environment it represents. Engagement with the EU will need to broaden into multiple channels of engagement. This will be important in order to gather intelligence on political priorities as well as to influence the larger number of individuals who are now controlling the agenda. Whereas many of these politicians and officials used to reside within the Commission, and therefore primarily concerned with the future success of the EU, they are now to be found in other institutions, bringing a stronger nationalistic interest.


Author: Lavan Thasarathakumar, Business Consultant, Hogan Lovells


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