The start of von der Leyen’s Commission Presidency

Ursula von der Leyen, then the German Minister for Defence, emerged as the surprise choice of the European Council leaders at their meeting on 21 June 2019 following their inability to agree on any of the Spitzenkandidaten. After an amazingly short period to read herself into the brief, she presented her Political Guidelines for the new Commission and summarised these in her oral presentation as part of her confirmation hearings in front of the European Parliament on July 16 2019.

Leaders of four of the Parliament’s political groups (the EPP, S&D, Renew Europe and the Greens, sometimes called the pro-EU parties to distinguish them from the more Eurosceptic parties both on the left and on the right – it is a handy tag though I am not comfortable using that description which is inherently exclusionary) had attempted to come together and, for the first time, to forge a common political platform and a common candidate for the Commission Presidency.

However, there were too many complications in light of the changed distribution of political strengths following the Parliament elections in May and the process stalled when the groups failed to reach agreement on a common candidate. Von der Leyen’s position as the incoming Commission President was confirmed by the Parliament on 16 July by the narrowest of margins. She obtained 383 votes compared to the minimum necessary threshold of 374 in a secret ballot, with 22 abstentions or blank votes.

Nonetheless, although she herself comes from the EPP group, her political manifesto was clearly influenced by her intense discussions with the political groups in the weeks leading up to the vote and was designed to appeal across the pro-EU political groups. It was pointedly ambitious when it came to climate and environmental issues (despite this, the Green political group did not endorse her nomination because it judged her climate commitments remained too vague).  Her proposal for a European Green Deal was the first of six political ambitions highlighted in the Political Guidelines and is not only intended to address climate and environmental objectives but is also put forward as the basis for future industrial and technology policy.

This commitment has subsequently been followed up in her Mission Letters to each of the Commissioners-designate in their various roles. At the time of writing the Commissioners-designate are preparing for their confirmation hearings in front of their respective Parliament Committees (scheduled to take place between September 30 and October 8). The approval process will conclude with a vote on the new College in the Parliament on October 23, with the current Commission mandate ending on October 31.

If one or more Commissioners-designate fail to make it through the confirmation process, new names will have to be proposed by the relevant Member States which could delay the process. However, the Mission Letters themselves will not change even if new names are attached to those portfolios.

In this post, I review what the Political Guidelines and Mission Letters might imply for the future of agricultural policy and rural areas. While no doubt the personalities, programmes and political skills of individual Commissioners will influence the way in which these mandates are executed in practice, they provide an important statement of intent regarding the priorities of the von der Leyen Commission.

New Commission organisational structures

Commission President Juncker pioneered the idea of Commissioners working in project teams led by Vice-Presidents. His Commission had originally seven Vice-Presidents including the High Representative (the EU’s foreign policy chief). Von der Leyen has strengthened this idea, appointing a total of eight Vice-Presidents. Three of these are Executive Vice-Presidents who will also manage a policy area.

Once again, the Vice-Presidents will play a coordinating role in managing groups of Commissioners (now called Groups rather than teams) but one has the sense that this coordinating role is more institutionalised in the coming Commission and that the Vice-Presidents will play a larger role in driving policy in their respective areas. For example, Vice-Presidents will hold a monthly meeting (“Strategic Jour Fixe”) with each Commissioner and his or her senior staff under their wing which will be prepared by the Secretariat-General. This is one institutional way in which von der Leyen will attempt to hold Commissioners to account in delivering their mandates.

Von der Leyen has also published the main principles of the working methods that will be used by the incoming Commission. The principle that has caught most attention here is the “One in, one out” principle whereby every legislative proposal creating new burdens should relieve people and businesses of an equivalent existing burden at EU level in the same policy area. Given that there are already mechanisms under the Better Regulation Initiative to identify redundant or ineffective regulations (such as the REFIT Platform) there seems no justification for a patently crude rule that has no requirement to take account of the impact and benefits of a measure in addition to any burdens that it may impose.

Towards sustainable food, agriculture and rural areas

The mandate for the Commissioner-designate for Agriculture, Janusz Wojciechowski, falls squarely under the leadership of the Executive Vice-President in charge of the European green deal, Frans Timmermans (note that Rural Development is no longer part of the Commissioner’s title although he continues to have executive responsibility for this area). However, agricultural and rural policy will also be shaped by important mandates given to other Commissioners.

An overview of the mandates included in the Mission Letters relevant to agriculture and rural areas is shown in the following diagram. As regards agriculture which sits squarely in the Commissioners’ Group pursuing the green deal, relevant mandates also include Health, Environment and Climate. For the rural development part of his responsibilities, the Commissioner-designate will report to the Vice-President for Democracy and Demography, Dubravka Šuica, who has the responsibility for coordinating work on a long-term vision for rural areas. The mandates of some other Commissioners, shown under the heading ‘Supporting roles’, can play a more tangential role in influencing outcomes in agricultural and rural policy.  Finally, the Budget Commissioner-designate has the mandate to assist the Commission President in landing a new Multi-annual Financial Framework for 2021-2027, which will determine the resources available for the initiatives to be taken in these policy areas.

The Mission Letter to the Commissioner-designate for Agriculture, Janusz Wojciechowski, begins with the standard recital recognising the important role of farmers (“Providing affordable food for citizens and a fair standard of living for farmers is one of Europe’s founding missions. Today, around 21 million people work in 11 million farms across Europe. They remain part of the fabric of our rural communities and a provider of safe, nutritious and affordable food for Europeans”).

However, it quickly moves on in the next paragraph to what von der Leyen clearly identifies as the important challenge. “Our agricultural sector is both central to achieving our climate-neutrality commitments and also sharply exposed to the effects of climate change. We must support it on both fronts to ensure that it stays competitive.

The Commissioner is expected to swiftly conclude the negotiations on the Commission proposal for the CAP post 2020 and then to focus on the full implementation of the new policy. Von der Leyen insists that the legislation itself “must be ambitious in terms of food security and environmental and climate objectives” and when approving the CAP Strategic Plans he is required to “pay particular attention to the benchmarks and requirements on environment- and climate-related objectives”.

The mandate also recognises that the new CAP “should incentivise the uptake of digital technologies and ensure the sector can remain competitive, provide a fair income and support young farmers”. Nonetheless, the mandate makes clear that priority should be given to achieving a high level of environmental and climate ambition when signing off on the CAP Strategic Plans.

This focus is underlined by the mandate given to the Commissioner-designate for Health, Stella Kyriakides, to propose a ‘farm to fork’ strategy for sustainable food. This is the first time that specific responsibility has been given to one person in the Commission to ensure joined-up thinking with respect to the European food system as a whole. It will be widely welcomed by all those with an interest in food policy. For the Commissioner-designate for Agriculture, the responsibility will be to look at the contribution of agricultural production to overall food system sustainability, with organic agriculture mentioned specifically.

Another dimension of the Commissioner for Health’s mandate that will impact on the sustainability agenda in agriculture is von der Leyen’s zero-pollution ambition. Specifically, this Commissioner is required to work on protecting plant health, reducing dependency on pesticides and stimulating the take-up of low-risk and non-chemical alternatives, while also protecting citizens from exposure to endocrine disruptors. Perhaps surprisingly, no specific mention is made of the need to address anti-microbial resistance in this brief.

The mandate for the Commissioner-designate for the Environment and Oceans, Virginijus Sinkevicius, will also have broad implications for future agricultural policy.  He is tasked with putting forward a new Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, “looking at everything from Natura 2000, deforestation, land degradation, protected species and habitats, and sustainable seas and oceans”. He will also lead on the zero-pollution ambition which “will require a wide-ranging approach looking at air and water quality, hazardous chemicals, emissions, pesticides and endocrine disruptors”.

The mandate for the Commissioner-designate for Climate, Frans Timmermans, will be to ensure that Europe is on target to achieve a climate-neutral economy by 2050. To meet this target, von der Leyen is proposing to raise the level of ambition for the 2030 EU emissions reduction target from a 40% cut over 1990 levels to a cut of 50% immediately and to raise this after 2021 to 55%.

This will require re-opening the difficult negotiations on the division of these increased reductions between the energy sector and large industry in the Emissions Trade Scheme (ETS), on the one hand, and the sectors including agriculture covered by the Effort Sharing Regulation, on the other hand. This will, in turn, imply more stringent national targets for emissions reduction for the non-ETS sectors including agriculture by 2030 which will increase the urgency to make the CAP more fit for purpose in incentivising a reduction in agricultural emissions than is the case at present.

An interesting element in von der Leyen’s Political Guidelines is her proposal to introduce a Carbon Border Tax to avoid carbon leakage, a responsibility given to the Commissioner-designate for the Economy,  Paolo Gentiloni. Her suggestion is that this Tax would be introduced gradually, starting with a number of selected sectors. As carbon leakage can be high in the agricultural sector and this is often used as an argument against regulation of agricultural emissions, the success of this initiative could enable and encourage a stricter approach to reducing agricultural emissions within the Union in the future.

The mandates given to other Commissioners-designate may also have significant spill-over effects for agricultural policy. Those highlighted in the diagram above include Innovation and Youth (which will have responsibility for allocating resources to research), Energy (with responsibility for renewable energy policy), and Trade (responsible for negotiating and concluding free trade agreements including agricultural market access).

As was expected, Phil Hogan, the current Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, gets the nod to move to Trade where, among other things, he will have responsibility for negotiating a free trade agreement with the UK after Brexit. In response to concerns that trade policy overrides EU objectives in the area of climate, environment and labour rights, von der Leyen proposes to create the post of Chief Trade Enforcement Officer to monitor compliance with the sustainability provisions of the EU’s trade agreements who will report to Hogan.

Finally, as noted already, the Commissioner for Agriculture’s responsibilities for rural development will be coordinated under the Vice-President for Democracy and Demography, and will include input from the Commissioner for Cohesion and Reforms. The only specific item highlighted in the mandate is to prepare a long-term vision for rural areas (do I sense another Cork conference in the offing?) and it is surprising that reference was not made to strengthening ongoing initiatives such as Smart Villages and digitalisation. One has the impression this was intended mainly as a marker that rural areas were not overlooked, and it leaves scope for the incoming Commissioner to put his own mark on this policy area recognising that, under the Commission proposal, the budget for rural development in the CAP will be curtailed.


Under the EU’s political decision-making structures, the Commission can only propose; it is up to the Council and Parliament together to legislate. Many commentators have pointed to the slim majority by which von der Leyen was confirmed in the Parliament to suggest that she cannot depend on a stable majority to implement the policies in her Political Guidelines. And her nomination by the Member States in the European Council is also unlikely to smooth the path of many of her legislative proposals.  

Only time will tell whether this speculation is correct or not. For the moment, we can but applaud the clear identification of the challenges facing Europe and the many concrete proposals to address these challenges set out in the Political Guidelines and subsequent Mission Letters.

From an agricultural policy perspective, the new Commission promises a much sharper focus on addressing environmental and climate objectives within the CAP, a holistic approach to developing a ‘farm to fork’ sustainable food strategy, efforts to reduce the use of mineral fertiliser, pesticides and other chemical products and support for the circular economy. These ambitions are all to be welcomed.

Sceptics will say that the Commission has missed its opportunity because the proposed draft CAP legislation for the period after 2020, despite a promising shift to greater flexibility in the design of CAP interventions at the national level and good intentions about raising the level of environmental and climate ambition, does not have the governance mechanisms to deliver on these objectives (see, for example, this critique of the Political Guidelines by the Institute for European Environmental Policy).

But despite an unpromising start in the Council and COMAGRI it is too early to write off the outcome of the legislative process. Von der Leyen’s Political Guidelines and the proposed organisation of the incoming Commission may be enough to hit the ‘reset’ button although the key requirement for progress, agreement on the next MFF, remains an uphill battle.

At any rate, in my view there is a lot to celebrate as the new Commission prepares to take up office hopefully on 1 November. Let us seize the opportunity!

This post was written by Alan Matthews

Update: The post has been corrected to make clear that the date to achieve a climate-neutral economy in the EU is 2050.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

1 Reply to “The start of von der Leyen’s Commission Presidency”

  1. Dear Alan,
    many thanks for this very helpful and well researched post!

Comments are closed.