Big challenges await new European Commission’s head von der Leyen

BRUSSELS, Change will be the word of the day at the European Union’s (EU) leadership on December 1 as Donald Tusk’s five years of Presidency over the European Council ends. The former Belgian Prime Minister, Charles Michel, will replace him.

The other major change will see Jean Claude Juncker replaced by Ursula von der Leyen, 61, as President of the European Commission.

After a month’s delay, the former German Defense Minister, von der Leyen, becomes the first female President of the European Commission after she and her team of 27 EU Commissioners were approved by the European Parliament last week.

The UK, which is expected to leave the EU in January, did not nominate any Commissioner.

She takes the helm of the 32,000 strong EU’s executive body at a difficult time, with the shadow of Brexit looming on the horizon, a chaotic global situation, tension in EU-US relations, and existing crises involving migration and climate change.

In her speech to the EP last week, von der Leyen put climate change, migration and foreign policy at the heart of her strategy for the next five years.

“If there is one area where the world needs our leadership, it is on protecting our climate. This is an existential issue for Europe – and for the world,” she stressed.

On Monday, her first official work day, she will head to the UN climate conference to Madrid, Spain.

“People expect Europe to find common solutions to the shared challenge of migration. This is an issue that has divided us, but we should step forward. We need solutions that work for all,” she noted.

Turning to the global situation she said, “The world needs our leadership more than ever. To keep engaging with the world as a responsible power. To be a force for peace and for positive change.” The European media and analysts want von der Leyen to make Europe capable of taking effective action in foreign policy.

“China and the US, and Russia too, still have it too easy with the EU and play off the 28 members against each other. The future Commission president will only be able to stop this if she does what the others in the Council shy away from doing: present Europe as a self-confident actor in foreign policy,” commented the German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung .

Sven Biscop, a senior analyst at the Belgian think tank Egmont Institute, wrote, “As the new EU leadership is coming in, we must give punch to our strategy, and make sure we have the power to make our ideas work in the real world. Power, not to confront, but to engage the world.” The Brussels-based news portal Euractiv opined that “the challenge for Ursula von der Leyen, who has billed her new European Commission as a ‘geopolitical Commission’, is that the EU will have to improve its offer to African leaders, and quickly.” It seems that Von der Leyen has taken this advice seriously, as she will be visiting Ethiopia for talks with African Union officials on Saturday on her first trip as the Commission President outside Europe.

On Brexit, von der Leyen told the EP, “We will respect the decision taken by the British people.” “We will work closely together (with the UK) to find solutions to common challenges — especially on security matters,” she said.

Commenting on transatlantic alliance at a time when EU-US relations are unstable under the US presidency of Donald Trump, she noted, “We have issues — without any doubt — but our ties have lasted the test of time.” Maria Joao Rodrigues, president of the think tank ‘Foundation for European Progressive Studies ‘, has expressed the widely-held European public expectation from the new EU leadership.

“The time has come for the European Union to assert itself not just as a big market or a monetary zone, but also as a democratic political entity with coordinated action on the economic, social, environmental, cultural and external fronts,” she said in article for her think-tank.

Source: Kuwait News Agency