A Geopolitical Commission - What lies behind it?
A brief look into the next steps for the geopolitical EU Commission
February 6, 2020
By : Viola Scordia & Antoine Michon
The future of the European Union’s Commission will be geopolitical, as promoted by President Ursula Von der Leyen herself. The ‘geopolitical’ designation is outlined in the political guidelines of her agenda for a Europe that strives for more, as well as in the mission letters to her fellow Commissioners. Paramount to this is the heightened accent put on foreign policy considerations which arises clearly from the strengthened role of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HRVP). As such, a stronger Union in the World remains one amongst eight political priorities -each overviewed by one Vice President. However, the number of steps announced by President Von der Leyen clearly points to increased international presence as the key overarching objective. As summarized by the Commission’s President, the objective will be for the EU “to strive for more at home in order to lead in the world”.
This agenda is firstly reflected in the Commission’s internal structure. Not only do the internal structural reforms address dialogue amongst traditional ‘outward-looking’ directorates, but also they equally address the linkages between domestic and external affairs. Whereas this domain is usually the realm of the Council and of the Member States, the Commission is making a daring attempt to assert its relevance, stressing the outward impact of domestic policies. Thus, investing in less traditional instruments of foreign policy such as the neighbourhood policy, the Commission aims at increasing its influence while bypassing the intergovernmental decision-making process of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP).
In order to channel the new foreign policy ambitions, the agenda heavily relies on the HRVP, whose tasks will include the chairing of two key political groups in charge of developing and coordinating the core of the Commission’s foreign policy objectives.
- The Commissioners’ Group for a Stronger Europe in the World has to ensure foreign policy concerns are systematically taken into consideration in the Union’s decision-making process. Under the wings of Mr. Josep Borrell, all “external facing Commissioners” -including portfolios having a strong external projection- received the mandate of ensuring EU foreign policy is strategic and coherent.
- The EXCO -Group for external coordination- will focus on aligning the “internal and external dimensions” of European policies. To this end, the Commission pledges to add a weekly agenda item to discuss these linkages, thus recognizing the diffused impact of traditionally domestic competences.
As a community agent operating in a field dominated by national sovereignty, rising above the Council Presidency and assuming his role of CFSP leader will be a tough challenge for the HRVP. This challenge in itself embodies the dilemma of the Union’s fragmented external representation.
The first days of January offered its first crash-test for the new geopolitical Commission, and its actions were under scrutiny. The US decision to assassinate Brigadier General and Commander of the IRGC’s “Quds Force” Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, de facto leader of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces in Baghdad on January 3rd displayed the lack of swift and efficient mechanisms to ensure a quick response on the political level. Meanwhile, Turkey’s decision to send Syrian militias to Libya to assist the UN-recognized government in Tripoli showcased the lack of European unity on the Libyan crisis. The result of these diplomatic crises was an EU entangled in its consultations, and incapable of issuing any swift, relevant and united response. Once the European machinery was switched on, an interesting dynamic arose: as European Council President Charles Michel was leading public diplomacy, traveling to Ankara and Cairo to meet Presidents Erdogan and Sissi among others, High-Representative Josep Borrell was coordinating a European response in Brussels, holding meetings with European foreign ministers and exercising phone diplomacy with his Iranian and American counterparts. The missing piece was President Von Der Leyen, whose worrying absence was noticed. Keeping in mind the current struggle by global powers for new and efficient diplomatic formats, as well as Brexit and the lack of European unity – once again struggling over Donald Trump’s announcement of the ‘Peace to Prosperity’ plan, groups such as the E3 and E4 (France, Germany, United Kingdom and Italy) are allowed to take the lead on diplomatic actions, outside of the EU framework. As the ‘geopolitical Commission’ has set high ambitions, it has to be careful not to become nothing more than a meeting room and a money channel, despite the key deadlines it will be facing to create and renew development and foreign policy instruments.
These ambitions will rapidly be put to test as a number of key tools particularly relevant to the Union’s external action are either currently under negotiation or have expired with the adjournment of the past Commission. It is thus a chance for the Commission to meet its promises of coherence and leadership.
As part of these developments, a new instrument for the financing of development aid is currently being set up. The Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI) is thus intended to provide an overarching strategic framework, replacing the current fragmented landscape of development cooperation instruments. The ambitions of the NDICI however rely on the ongoing negotiations over the Multiannual Financial Framework for 2021-2027 where its share of the global budget will be defined. In order for the NDICI to have the ability to develop coherent and effective programs, which efficiently rely on conditionality, a large share of the MFF is crucial.
The President’s vows on coherence of internal and external policies will also be challenged by the negotiations for the 2021-2027 budget of the European Fund for Sustainable Development Plus (EFSD+). As the main instrument channelling funds to develop partnership frameworks on migration with third countries, negotiations regarding the EFSD+ will be crucial in demonstrating the Union’s ability to coordinate the internal and external sides of one same policy. Considering the politicization and securitization of migration issues over the past few years, setting high ethical standards in its parameters is of the utmost importance.
In this context of budgetary negotiations, the Commission faces a complex task as it must first prove its ability to adapt to the existing framework provided by its predecessors in 2018  which defines the Commission’s proposal for the future MFF’s structure and budgetary ceilings. Second, it must put forward proposals that have a chance to gather support from all Member States in the Council. Indeed, as long as no treaty reform effectively rebalances the power dynamics in Brussels, President Von der Leyen’s ambitions, including the priorities of each policy, will keep relying on Member States’ adherence.
These deadlines should not allow the Commission to avoid its most crucial challenges for the year 2020: give a new ambition to the European project, and beyond this inspire a new European passion among its citizens. The Conference for the Future of Europe is this opportunity. Starting on May 9th, it must take on the opportunity to address every European citizen during the two years of its mandate, and include every priority defined by the new Commission, including foreign policy. As often, the most challenging opponent the EU should meet in 2020 is no one else but itself.
 Von der Leyen U., Mission letter Brussels, 10 September 2019, Josep Borrell High Representative of the Union for Foreign Policy and Security Policy/Vice-President designate of the European Commission. Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/sites/beta-political/files/mission-letter-josep-borrell-2019_en.pdf
 European Commission, Press release, 4 December 2019, Brussels, The Working Methods of the von der Leyen Commission: Striving for more at home and in the world. Available at :https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_19_6657
Proposal for a COUNCIL REGULATION laying down the multiannual financial framework for the years 2021 to 2027, COM/2018/322 final. Available at: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX%3A52018PC0322
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