Ursula von der Leyen recently unveiled her proposed candidates for the next European Commission. Angelos Chryssogelos explains that one of the less observed features of the list was the empowerment of liberal politicians, continuing a trend toward a stronger liberal presence in EU decision-making. However, for the liberals to take on a central role in EU politics, they will need to upgrade their organisation and coordination capacities, which still fall short of their rivals.

The structure of the new European Commission, as announced by its president Ursula von der Leyen, is a snapshot of Europe’s new political balance of power. An obvious change in this regard is that the plurality of new commissioners does not belong to the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), for the first time since the Prodi Commission was nominated 20 years ago in 1999.

The von der Leyen Commission however points also to another, less observed but potentially more consequential, long-term trend of European politics: the empowerment of the liberal political family – organised in the ALDE party and the Renew Europe (RE) grouping in the European Parliament (EP) – as a major player in the future trajectory of the EU.

Renew Europe group meeting in July 2019, Credit: Renew Europe (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Numerically the presence of liberal commissioners in the new college is in itself not impressive. Pending their confirmation by the European Parliament, the liberals are expected to place around a quarter of the college, less than under the Barroso commissions of 2004-14. Rather, it is the position of liberals in the structure of the von der Leyen commission and the scope of their portfolios that point to the strengthening of their political position.

Liberals will shape some of the most crucial policies in areas that von der Leyen has named as key priorities. Executive vice-president Margrethe Vestager will be responsible for competition and digital, while France’s Sylvie Goulard will develop policy on the internal market. Liberals will also lead on the vexing question of democracy and rule of law, with vice-president for ‘values and transparency’ Vera Jourova overseeing the work of justice commissioner Didier Reynders.

The Vestager-Goulard dynamic is indicative of liberals’ new role in shaping European responses to major political challenges. Together they must show how a more ‘sovereign Europe’ can face up to mounting global economic competition and disruption, emanating both from rival political forces like China and new private actors like Big Tech firms (most of which are not European).

Yet at the same time Vestager and Goulard represent rival visions of economic policy and regulation. As she demonstrated in the Siemens-Alstom case, Vestager stands for a more orthodox market-based approach, whereas Goulard supports a more political steering of European industrial policy. Thus, the precise meaning of ‘sovereign Europe’ in economic matters must be defined to a large extent through compromises brokered between and among liberals.

Beyond the Commission, liberals define the debate in other issues as well. Their two most prominent leaders, France’s Emmanuel Macron and the Netherlands’ Mark Rutte, are standard-bearers for the two rival camps of Eurozone reform. Macron stands for deepening and politicising the Eurozone, whereas Rutte is the leader of an alliance of small market-minded states opposed to a Eurozone budget, preferring the fiscal responsibility of individual countries instead.

The liberals may even exert influence in an area where they have traditionally been weak: post-communist Central and Eastern Europe. ALDE and RE include the party of Czech prime-minister Milos Babis, an opponent of immigration whose populist style raises concerns about rule of law in his country. At the same time, liberals are affiliated with forces affiliated with Slovakia’s new pro-EU president Zuzana Caputova. In this way, the liberal camp is host to a broad range of opinion in Central and Eastern Europe on immigration, rule of law and the region’s relationship with the EU, making it here as well a central player in the development of EU debates.

All this comes at a time when the position of the EU’s hitherto dominant force, the EPP, is questioned, most recently due to its significant losses in the EP elections and the failure of its candidate, Manfred Weber, to secure the presidency of the Commission. But despite these setbacks, the EPP is still the largest EP group and the plurality of leaders in the Council belong to it. For all their advances, the liberals still have fewer voices (and votes) around the table.

Most importantly, the EPP has an unparalleled primacy in organisation and institutionalisation. The membership of the EPP party and parliamentary group for example overlap almost completely, while the liberals suffer from discrepancies: Macron’s En Marche party may have joined the liberal EP group, but it is not a member of the transnational ALDE party-federation. This deprives liberals of a forum where all their party leaders, activists and experts from member states and EU institutions can meet to exchange information and coordinate their actions.

The EPP has demonstrated that transnational party institutionalisation is necessary for political capital to be translated into influence. Their institutional dearth on the other hand threatens to neutralise a big part of the clout liberals have gained in recent years. For it to be able to play the role of a central decision-making actor and mediator in the EU, the liberal camp must invest seriously in its structures, streamlining its decision-making processes, bolstering the institutional setup of the ALDE party, and improving its coordination with Renew Europe in the EP.

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Angelos Chryssogelos – Johns Hopkins University
Angelos Chryssogelos is a Fulbright-Schuman scholar at the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University.

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