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The Von der Leyen Commission, a victory for Poland and Hungary?

Will Poland and Hungary benefit from a new EU commission?

editor: REMIX NEWS
author: Olivier Bault

When Ursula von der Leyen’s candidacy was approved by the European Council at the beginning of July, Polish and Hungarian leaders claimed victory. Von der Leyen, who had been Germany’s defence minister since 2013 and who belongs to Angela Merkel’s CDU, was said to be a good candidate from the standpoint of the four countries of the Visegrád Group, and it was suggested that her candidacy had been agreed with Berlin, perhaps with some assurances concerning a different approach to Central Europe by the next European Commission.

Most importantly though, the candidacy of the Dutch First Vice-President of the European Commission for the rule of law, who was also the Spitzenkandidat (lead candidate) of the Socialist Group in the European Parliament, was defeated. Frans Timmermans had been proposed in June by Paris, Berlin and Madrid as a good “compromise”, but he was seen in Central Europe as the worst possible candidate for his numerous interferences in Polish and Hungarian internal affairs, perceived in Warsaw and Budapest as a double-standard approach to the rule of law, an abuse of power and a violation of the European treaties. Timmermans’ candidacy was thus blocked by the Visegrád Four countries and Italy.

The election of Ursula von der Leyen – a victory for whom?

In late July, after her candidacy had been approved by a slim margin in the European Parliament with the support of PiS and Fidesz MEPs, Polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki played host to the new President-elect of the European Commission in Warsaw. On that occasion he expressed his satisfaction and described his discussions with von der Leyen as having met “Polish expectations in a great number of issues” and as “a chance for a positive future for the EU and Poland as a key country of the EU”, stressing that the question of the rule of law had not been raised by Von der Leyen and that she seemed to agree with Poland on most subjects. After meeting the President-elect in August, Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán also expressed his satisfaction, and said that Ursula von der Leyen “understands what is happening in Central Europe, understands what we say, and understands what is important for the Hungarians.”

On the question of the rule of law, which has been at the centre of the most bitter conflicts between the Juncker Commission and both Poland and Hungary, Ursula von der Leyen said in July that she sees the proposal to link EU funds to the rule of law as a last resort, preferring to seek dialogue first, adding that “We must all learn that complete rule of law is our goal, but no one is perfect”, and asking everyone “to make the debates more objective”.

However, the credit for the choice of Von der Leyen and for her subsequent approval by the European Parliament was also claimed by others. In Italy, for example, the leftist Five Star Movement (M5S) boasted that the German candidate had been approved thanks to their 14 MEPs, which was also accurate. It was even a new source of conflict within the first Conte government in Italy, as Matteo Salvini’s Lega, after some hesitation, had voted against Von der Leyen’s candidacy and then criticised her approval by a coalition made up of “Merkel, Macron, Berlusconi, Renzi and M5S”.

Earlier, when Ursula von der Leyen was announced as the choice of the European Council, this was presented in the French media as a personal success for President Emmanuel Macron, who had managed to unlock the situation in the Council and to have everyone agree on the election of a progressive Euro-federalist candidate.

Ursula von der Leyen has been in the past a supporter of the LGBT agenda and an advocate of German-style federalism at European level, although she now claims to have changed her mind on the latter. Even if she is sincere, other key posts were assigned to people whose views are also much closer to Macron’s than to Kaczyński’s and Orbán’s: Belgian liberal PM Charles Michel as President-elect of the European Council, Spanish socialist foreign minister Josep Borrell as High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and French liberal Christine Lagarde as President of the European Central Bank. All of them have the same kind of leftist-liberal and Euro-federalist views as Macron.

So who is right? Have some unknown guarantees been given to PiS and Fidesz leaders in Warsaw and Budapest to win the support of the Visegrád Group for Von der Leyen’s candidacy? And what about the other members of the incoming Commission, which is to replace the Juncker Commission on December 1 (instead of November 1, after three Commissioners-designate were rejected by the European Parliament)?

Three leftist-liberal vice-presidents

His candidacy for the top post having been rejected by Central Europe, Frans Timmermans has received from Von der Leyen the portfolio of Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal and Climate Action. He will thus have the opportunity to continue fighting the Polish and Hungarian governments, which are opposed to the target of net-zero carbon emissions by the year 2050 set by Ursula von der Leyen, which they see as unrealistic and dangerous for their economies. With Poland relying mainly on coal for its electricity, it can expect to remain at the centre of Timmermans’ attention. Neither the new European Parliament nor the new European Commission will be on Poland’s and Hungary’s side on this issue.

Two other Vice-Presidents-designate of the Von der Leyen Commission should not be expected to be too favourable to Poland and Hungary either.

As the European Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality in the Juncker Commission, the Czech Commissioner Věra Jourová from PM Andrej Babiš’ ANO party (belonging to the Renew Europe group in the European Parliament) was the first to put forward a proposal to link EU funds to the rule of law and “European values” in order to give the European Commission a new, powerful means of applying pressure to member states.

In the Von der Leyen Commission, Jourová is to hold the post of “Vice-President for Values and Transparency”. As per her mission letter received from President Von der Leyen, she “will coordinate the Commission’s work on upholding the rule of law, working closely with the Commissioner for Justice” and she “will be responsible for monitoring the application of the Charter of Fundamental Rights”. Věra Jourová is also entrusted with the task of brokering “discussions between the European Parliament and the Council on improving the lead candidate system and on the issue of transnational lists” in European elections, a move advocated by French president Emmanuel Macron and supported by German chancellor Angela Merkel which would constitute a push towards EU federalism and an effort to circumvent the European treaties, according to which the President of the European Commission should be chosen by the European Council, not by the European Parliament.

Another vice-presidency was given to another member of the centrist-liberal Renew Europe group (called ALDE in the previous European Parliament), to which MEPs from Macron’s LREM party also belong. Danish Commissioner Margrethe Vestager is to keep her current responsibilities as European Commissioner for Competition in spite of having lost a record number of cases against member states in the Court of Justice of the European Union, and in contravention of the usual rule that a commissioner who is designated for a second term should not keep the same portfolio.

Last summer Vestager appealed the unfavourable decisions of the CJEU in the case of Hungary’s progressive tax on turnover from the broadcasting or publication of advertisements, and in the case of Poland’s progressive retail tax. Apart from keeping the Competition portfolio, Vestager will take on the “Digital Age” portfolio and will become a Commission Vice-President. In the Juncker Commission, she has been supportive of Timmermans’ action against Poland and Hungary, but as Spitzenkandidat (lead candidate) of the ALDE group (the former name of Renew Europe) in the European Parliament she seemed to be more inclined towards a fair and open-minded dialogue with Warsaw and Budapest than was her Dutch counterpart.

Rule of law

Next to Věra Jourová, the second commissioner with responsibility for the rule of law will be the Belgian Didier Reynders, as Commissioner-designate for Justice. In his mission letter received from President-elect Von der Leyen, it is stated that he “will lead the Commission’s work on the comprehensive European Rule of Law Mechanism”, that he “should use the full toolbox at [his] disposal to prevent and identify breaches”, and that he should “focus on tighter enforcement, using recent judgments of the Court of Justice showing the impact of rule-of-law breaches on EU law as a basis”.

Given the number of cases brought to the Court of Justice by the outgoing Juncker Commission and the tendency of the Luxembourg judges to extend the competencies and powers of the EU through a very broad interpretation of the European treaties, such wording is rather indicative of a will to continue on the course taken by Euro-federalist Frans Timmermans.

Didier Reynders is the minister of defence and a vice-premier in Charles Michel’s government. In the past, he has held other top ministerial functions in several Belgian governments, including in the first government of Guy Verhofstad, a vociferous advocate of European federalism with ultra-progressive views (it was that government which first legalised euthanasia in Belgium in 2002). Reynders’ and Michel’s party, Mouvement réformateur (MR), is affiliated to the progressive and Euro-federalist Renew Europe group in the European Parliament.

It is also worth noting that the current Michel government is now an interim minority government, because of the split in the coalition after PM Charles Michel, the leader of MR, insisted Belgium would sign the UN Global Compact for Migration in Marrakesh in December 2018. Poland and Hungary, together with other Central European countries, have refused to sign this Global Compact, arguing that it would compel signatory countries to treat illegal immigrants on a par with legal immigrants. And although it is in theory just a common declaration with no legal effect, the Juncker Commission itself seems to think otherwise.

As has been the case under Timmermans’ tenure, the rule-of-law portfolio held by Reynders could therefore become an instrument against countries such as Poland and Hungary which have refused to take their share of illegal immigrants. At the end of October, the Advocate General of the Court of Justice of the European Union published an opinion stating that Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic broke EU laws by refusing compulsory quotas of asylum seekers, and since his opinion is often adopted by the Court of Justice, this issue could soon become one of the “recent judgments of the Court of Justice showing the impact of rule-of-law breaches on EU law”.

“There will be no compromise when democracy is at stake”, Didier Reynders promised during his hearings in front of the LIBE and JURI committees in the European Parliament. And in an interview with the Belgian daily Le Soir he gave an assurance that he had always been supportive of Frans Timmermans’ action in this area. Therefore, although Reynders promises an approach that will be based more on dialogue (but for how long?), he may be expected to continue the European Commission’s interference in fields which are normally reserved for member states, in its effort to expand the EU’s competencies and powers without revising the European treaties.

Equality

Frans Timmermans, who was in favour of the European Commission trying to force member states to legalise “gay marriage”, will no longer be in charge of the rule of law, but the Commissioner-designate for Equality, whom President-elect Ursula von der Leyen has entrusted with the task to “strengthen Europe’s commitment to inclusion and equality, in all of its senses”, to “lead the fight against discrimination (…) and propose new anti-discrimination legislation”, and to “develop a new European Gender Strategy”, is Malta’s Helena Dalli, from the Labour Party.

In her own country, in 2015 Helena Dali was the author of a new law,the Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics Act – establishing wide-ranging rights for “transgender” and “intersex” people, the first of its kind in the world for the latter group. In the new European Commission, she will also be in charge of promoting the adoption at EU level of the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, which Slovakia and Bulgaria have refused to ratify, and which bishops from eight Central and Eastern European countries asked their governments to denounce in 2018 on the ground that it is a convention based on gender ideology with a strong anti-family bias.

Immigration

In the Juncker Commission, immigration issues were part of the portfolio of the European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, Dimitris Avramopoulos of Greece. Although a member of the centre-right New Democracy party, which has governed Greece under PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis since July with a tougher approach to immigration (while still demanding the relocation of illegal immigrants throughout the EU), Avramopoulos is a strong advocate of mass immigration to Europe.

In February 2017 at the University of Geneva, Avramopoulos openly declared that the EU-27 would need six million more immigrants in the coming years and that the EU would open immigration offices in all countries on the southern coast of the Mediterranean and in western Africa as a way to fight illegal immigration.

This sounded very much like the Soros Plan often denounced by Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán. Avramopoulos conceded that “we cannot, however, let everyone in”, as it “would only feed xenophobia, nationalism and populism”, but later, in December 2017, Avramopoulos published an article to explain to his fellow Europeans that illegal “migrants are here to stay”, that “we cannot and will never be able to stop migration” and that we should therefore “collectively change our way of thinking”.

In the new Von der Leyen Commission, Avramopoulos’ responsibilities will be shared between his fellow Greek and party colleague Margaritis Schinas, Vice-President-designate for Protecting our European Way of Life, in charge of the integration of immigrants, culture and sport, and Sweden’s socialist Ylva Johansson, Commissioner-designate for Home Affairs in charge of immigration and asylum.

As concerns the first of these areas (integration), Ursula von der Leyen’s approach seems far removed from that of the Eurislam Project, with its goal of finding ways to better integrate Muslim newcomers based on a process of mutual adaptation by immigrants and Europeans. The very name of Schinas’ portfolio has been heavily criticised in the European Parliament, as well as its joint focus on security, the protection of European values and the coordination of work on a New Pact on Migration and Asylum, which would include “creating pathways to legal migration to help us bring in people with the skills and talents our economy and labour market need”.

Schinas’ mission letter thus seems to indicate a real shift away from mass, uncontrolled immigration towards selective immigration and integration in line with European norms and values. The same can be said of Johansson’s mission letter. The Commissioner-designate for Home Affairs is entrusted with the task of closing “loopholes between asylum and return rules” as “we must honour our values and our responsibilities to those fleeing persecution or conflict, while at the same time ensuring that those not eligible to stay go back”.

Ursula von der Leyen also wants the Home Affairs Commissioner “to work closely with the High Representative/Vice-President and other Commissioners to develop stronger cooperation with countries of origin and transit” and to “work closely with Member States to step up efforts to develop a more robust system of readmission and return”.

The fact that a majority of those who have been refused asylum in a European country are not sent back is a major pull factor for illegal immigration according to many, among them Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency. Therefore a common policy aiming to effectively send back most illegal immigrants would be a big step forward for the EU, and would represent a complete reversal of attitude within the European Commission, where Schinas’ and Johansson’s predecessor tried to persuade Europeans that illegal immigrants were here to stay and that many more would soon come to Europe.

Johansson’s mission letter also mentions the need to find “new forms of solidarity” which would “ensure that all Member States make meaningful contributions to support those countries under the most pressure”, and this suggests that the new Commission will no longer support the case for compulsory relocation of illegal immigrants who have asked for asylum (as do most illegal immigrants in order to avoid deportation).

In this matter, it is worth noting that a new relocation scheme agreed by Germany, France, Italy and Malta failed to gain the support of the European Council in October, and that a European Parliament resolution on search and rescue in the Mediterranean, demanding that ports be opened to NGO ships and a relocation system be put into place, was also defeated by a slim margin in October. A majority of MEPs now seem to agree with what the Visegrád countries (Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary) have been claiming since 2015: that opening ports to illegal immigrants and distributing them to other EU countries are pull factors.

However, although the Frontex European Border and Coast Guard Agency itself has described search and rescue operations by European ships close to the North African coast as a pull factor in past Risk Analysis reports, Ylva Johansson does not agree with that claim. During her hearing in front of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE), Johansson stated clearly, in answer to a question from Nicola Procaccini (Fratelli d’Italia) of the ECR group, to which Poland’s PiS also belongs: “I do not share your view that saving lives at sea and helping them to be disembarked in a proper way is a pull factor.”

Johansson also showed clear support for the failed relocation agreement which was then being pushed forward by France and Germany, and she expressed her commitment to mass immigration in the following terms, saying, “It’s important for economic migrants that we should find better ways for our legal pathways to Europe, both for resettlement and for legal migrants that come to work in Europe. We are an ageing continent. We’re going to need more people to contribute to our economy and I look forward to developing new ways that skilled workers can come and contribute to our economy in the European Union.”

Placing the focus on selective immigration does not necessarily imply putting an end to illegal immigration and other forms of uncontrolled or poorly controlled immigration, and Johansson’s views in this area do not actually seem very different from those of Avramopoulos.

Enlargement and Eastern Partnership

In the Von der Leyen Commission, the Neighbourhood and Enlargement portfolio is to be assigned to the Hungarian Commissioner. This assignment was maintained after the rejection by the Legal Affairs committee of Hungary’s first candidate, László Trócsányi.

The main criticism of Trócsányi seemed to be the fact that he had been Hungary’s justice minister in Viktor Orbán’s governments from 2014 until he was elected to the European Parliament in May. Hungary being accused by the European left and part of the centre-right of having weakened democracy and the rule of law with its reforms, some MEPs felt it would be inappropriate to entrust one of the artisans of the Hungarian reforms with the task of monitoring reforms in other countries on their journey towards becoming members of the European Union. Thus, unlike in the case of the rejection of France’s Sylvie Goulard, the rejection of Trócsányi was said in his home country to be politically motivated. Nonetheless, the award of this portfolio to Hungary is seen as a success for Viktor Orbán, Hungary and the Visegrád Group, who attach much importance to the enlargement of the EU in the Western Balkans.

However, Emmanuel Macron’s decision to block the start of accession talks with Albania and Northern Macedonia at a European Council last October counterbalances Viktor Orbán’s success. This was a bitter reminder of the fact that one single country in the Council could wreck the future work of Olivér Várhelyi, Hungary’s new Commissioner-designate for Neighbourhood and Enlargement.

Indeed, his mission letter clearly states that “it is imperative” to keep “a credible perspective on future accession” for the Western Balkans and that “the Commission will stand by the proposals made to open enlargement negotiations with the Republic of North Macedonia and the Republic of Albania”. It is worth noting, however, that Várhelyi’s mission will also cover the Eastern Partnership with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

Transport, Agriculture and Cohesion funds

Romania’s Commissioner, with the portfolio of Transport, is also of some importance for Central Europe, and in particular Poland, whose road transport sector is very strong. Four candidates were rejected, starting with Labour minister Rovana Plumb, on the basis of a supposed conflict of interest and discrepancies in property statements. However, the rejection of four candidates in succession seems to suggest that the goal of MEPs was to force Romania to name a candidate who would be approved not only by the government of Viorica Dăncilă, which, as in the case of Poland and Hungary, has been accused by the European Parliament of weakening the principles of rule of law, but also by the Europhile liberal president Klaus Johannis. This condition was fulfilled by the fifth candidate proposed by Romania, Adina-Ioana Vălean, who has sat in the European Parliament since 2006.

It is worth noting that on the question of the posting of workers in the framework of the provision of services, she voted last year against a new directive also opposed by the Polish PiS and Hungarian Fidesz, thus rebelling against her own EPP group in this matter. Poland and Hungary later took the case of this directive to the Court of Justice of the EU, where it is still pending.

The choice of Poland’s Janusz Wojciechowski as the Commissioner-designate for Agriculture can also be seen as a success for Poland. Farming is an important branch of Poland’s economy, and the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) still made up 38% of the EU budget in 2018, against 32% for Cohesion Policy. One of Wojciechowski’s goals will be to fulfil the promise made by PiS to bring payments made to Polish and Central European farmers to the same level as those received by their Western counterparts. With the CAP in need of reform, the Commissioner-designate for Agriculture will have an important role to play in the next Commission.

The Commissioner-designate for Cohesion and Reforms is Portuguese socialist Elisa Ferreira. At a time when EU countries are discussing the next Multiannual Financial Framework in the context of the likely loss of the British contribution (because of Brexit) and of a dispute about whether to reduce the sums allocated to cohesion funds accordingly or to increase contributions paid by the remaining member states, this portfolio will thus be in the hands of a Commissioner from a country which is a net beneficiary of cohesion funds.

Together with the V4 countries, Portugal is also part of the Friends of Cohesion group, which advocates maintaining the level of cohesion funds in the next Multiannual Financial Framework and introducing more flexibility in the way they can be spent. In the words of Andrey Novakov, a Bulgarian MEP from EPP and the co-rapporteur of the European Parliament on Common Provisions Regulation for Cohesion Policy for 2021–2027, who took part in Ferreira’s hearing in early October, the Commissioner-designate has shown clear support for Cohesion policy and the will “to fight for the maximum budget possible.”

In Ferreira’s own words, it is important “to ensure that resources remain focused on poorer member states and regions”. However, during her hearing in front of the Regional Development Committee Elisa Ferreira backed the idea of linking EU funds to the rule of law, a move which could bring about new conflicts between EU institutions dominated by pro-mass immigration, progressive socialists and liberals, and countries ruled by conservative, ‘illiberal’, anti-mass immigration governments such as Poland and Hungary. In any case, even if the new rule of law mechanism that is being discussed is designed in such a way as to prevent it from being misused based on political or ideological motives, it will imply a significant transfer of sovereignty from member states to EU institutions. 

Defence

Therefore, by and large, the future Commission in its current form does not seem to be very different from the Juncker Commission, as it is again dominated by left-wing progressive Euro-federalists. The fact that France’s Sylvie Goulard’s candidacy was rejected by the European Parliament was due to objective considerations concerning her past actions in that Parliament, with a mixture of conflicts of interests and doubts about the use of funds for parliamentary assistants, for which she is being investigated by prosecutors in her own country. With the portfolio of the Internal Market, Defence and Space, France’s new Commissioner-designate Thierry Breton, although not a vice-president of the Commission, will hold a very powerful position.

In the defence sector, in 2016 Thierry Breton defended the case for a European security and defence fund for the Euro area – that is, without countries such as Poland and Hungary – which would entail the need for a Eurozone budget, an idea defended by Emmanuel Macron and opposed by the Visegrád Group. On the other hand, Bretton is in favour of raising defence spending to the level of 2% of GDP asked for by NATO, and he considers that defence should rely on sovereign decisions by nation-states within the framework of NATO, which is in line with the positions defended by the V4 countries.

Conclusion

Overall, as far as its members are concerned, the Von der Leyen Commission will remain ideologically closer to France’s and Germany’s current leaders than to those of the Visegrád Group. However Ursula von der Leyen herself seems to be willing to have a different approach to Central Europe. Whether her candidacy was a good choice for the Visegrád Four and for the European Union as a whole remains to be seen, but in any case the main source of concern for the V4 at this stage should be the idea of linking EU funds to the rule of law. This would indeed place a very powerful and arbitrary instrument in the hands of the European Commission, and some of the current Commissioner-designates would most probably be willing to use it.

The full Von der Leyen Commission still has to win the approval of the European Parliament. The vote on the new Commission is planned for November 27, and if it is approved it will succeed the Juncker Commission on December 1.

Reprinted with permission from the Wacław Felczak Institute.