Von der Leyen’s Commission: The ones to watch at Europe’s new top table

The first woman to take on the EU Commission presidency, Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen, vowed to build a team to lead the EU’s executive body made up of equal numbers of men and women.

Her list of 27 will see 12 women get a seat at the top table – herself included – after weeks of stumbling over nominees grilled by members of the European Parliament (MEPs).

Wednesday’s vote in Strasbourg requires a simple majority to pass. If approved, the new Commission will take office a month late on 1 December – even without a UK commissioner.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government opted not to nominate a candidate even though the UK has not yet left the union and the EU has since launched legal action.

Thierry Breton (France): Internal Market and Services

Thierry Breton listens during a hearing before the European Parliament in Brussels, 14 November 2019

“I sold all my shares,” the ex-head of French tech giant Atos assured MEPs, when they raised questions about possible conflicts of interest earlier this month.

The 64-year-old was France’s second candidate for the von der Leyen team after President Emmanuel Macron’s preferred choice, Sylvie Goulard, was rejected.

So who are some of the key names to look out for?

Mr Breton has stressed the need to regulate the tech sector and bring in single market rules, which he argues would help address challenges from competition outside the EU.

Thierry Breton caused a bit of a stir at the helm of Atos in 2011 when he announced a plan to ban internal email exchanges. The idea, aimed at removing distractions and improving individual productivity, was described at the time as both “bold” and “stupid”.

In the years that followed, email correspondence at Atos was gradually replaced with an internal messaging system – a move credited with helping to boost growth.

Margrethe Vestager (Denmark): Vice-President – Europe fit for the Digital Age

Margrethe Vestager, EU Commissioner for Competition

A big name in Danish politics, Ms Vestager has spent the past five years as EU competition commissioner, spearheading EU anti-trust investigations that have ended in big fines for US technology giants Google and Apple.

Her nomination for this new, high-powered role may well have caused technology firms to sit up and take note, as it includes digital reform as well as competition policy.

She has already earned the wrath of US President Donald Trump: “Your tax lady, she really hates the US,” he is reported to have told her previous boss, Jean-Claude Juncker.

But Ms Vestager, 51, believes companies must pay their way.

She has previously served as Denmark’s economy and interior minister.

Oliver Varhelyi (Hungary): Neighbourhood and Enlargement policy

Hungary's Oliver Varhelyi attends a hearing before the European Parliament in Brussels, 14 November 2019

Mr Varhelyi, 47, was only given the green light last week – a move described by Hungary’s nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban as the country’s “biggest diplomatic success” in a decade.

Hungary’s government has clashed with the EU over issues of rule of law and migration in recent years – passing several laws in breach of EU treaties.

Mr Orban said Hungarians could now “increase their influence in European politics” in areas such as migration through EU candidate countries in the Balkans.

During his confirmation hearing earlier this month, MEPs questioned whether Mr Varhelyi’s loyalties lay with the bloc as a whole or with Mr Orban. He insisted he would not take orders from Budapest.

The previous Hungarian nominee, Laszlo Trocsanyi, was blocked ahead of confirmation hearings over a conflict of interest.

Dubravka Suica (Croatia): Vice-President for Democracy and Demography

European Commission vice-president in charge for Democracy and Demography Dubravka Suica arrives for her hearing at the European Parliament in Brussels, 3 October 2019

Ms Suica has been an MEP since Croatia joined the EU in 2013 and has vowed to use her position to address Europe’s demographic change, describing it as “a root cause of some people losing faith in our democracy”.

The former mayor of Dubrovnik – the first female to secure the role – has also said that she will work “towards the rule of law and transparency”. But the 62-year-old has come under fire for a lack of transparency relating to her own personal wealth.

“Can you reveal how you acquired a wealth of more than €5m ($5.5m; £4.3m)?” Ms Suica was asked by a member of the European Parliament at a hearing.

She said the figure included the salary of her husband, who had received a significant wage during his many years as a sea captain, and that “everything is clear and transparent”.

Ms Suica was also asked about her previous decision to vote against European resolutions calling for greater women’s rights, in particular relating to sexual and reproductive health.

Frans Timmermans (Netherlands): Vice-President for European Green Deal

Frans Timmermans gives a talk as the EU Commission headquarters, 15 April 2019

The centre-left politician has already shown a preparedness to tackle the climate crisis, helping to steer through EU legislation banning plastic straws in his role as first vice-president of the Commission.

The multilingual 58-year-old, who has been given the task of helping to implement further environmental policies, received a standing ovation earlier this month when he suggested “a pivotal role” for hydrogen in Europe.

Mr Timmermans said this was because Europe already has a lot of gas infrastructure in place, making the transition smoother and cost-effective.

He has also previously negotiated the EU’s 2016 deal with Turkey to reduce the flow of migrants and has warned of the risks of nationalism.

Margaritis Schinas (Greece): Vice-President for Promoting the European Way of Life

Greece's Margaritis Schinas speaks during his confirmation hearing before the European Parliament in Brussels, 3 October 2019

This new and broad role gives the current EU Commission spokesman and member of Greece’s governing centre-right party New Democracy oversight of migration, security, employment and education.

The very name of his job is a delicate issue. It had to be changed after the previous title – Protecting Our European Way of Life – was criticised for tapping into right-wing rhetoric. It was described by MEPs as “grotesque” and by Amnesty International as “worrying”.

Mr Schinas’ top two priorities, according to Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, should be to reform the EU’s asylum system and increase border protection.

Greece has seen a big rise in migrant numbers crossing from Turkey. Five of its islands are under tremendous strain from the arrival of tens of thousands of asylum seekers.

Who else is on the list?

Johannes Hahn (Austria), Budget and Administration; Didier Reynders (Belgium), Justice; Mariya Gabriel (Bulgaria), Innovation and Youth; Stella Kyriakides (Cyprus), Health; Vera Jourova (Czech Republic), Values and Transparency; Kadri Simson (Estonia), Energy; Jutta Urpilainen (Finland), International Partnerships; Phil Hogan (Ireland), Trade; Paolo Gentiloni (Italy), Economy; Valdis Dombrovskis (Latvia), An Economy that Works for People; Virginijus Sinkevicius (Lithuania), Environment and Oceans; Nicolas Schmit (Luxemburg), Jobs; Helena Dalli (Malta), Equality; Janusz Wojciechowski (Poland), Agriculture; Elisa Ferreira (Portugal), Cohesion and Reforms; Adina Valean (Romania), Transport; Maros Sefcovic (Slovakia), Relations and Foresight; Janez Lenarcic (Slovenia), Crisis Management; Josep Borrell (Spain), A Stronger Europe in the World; Ylva Johansson (Sweden), Home Affairs.

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