Rule of law European Union

New commission, new direction on the rule of law?

New commission, new direction on the rule of law? What to take away from the proposed von der Leyen European Commission.

  1. The proposed von der Leyen European Commission – unveiled.

President-Elect Ursula von der Leyen announced the proposed membership and structure of the incoming European Commission on 10 September. In addition to the names, she published “Mission Letters” that outline the portfolios and policy priorities for each Commissioner which provide in an indication on who will do what on the rule of law in the new Commission.

  1. Who is dealing with the rule of law in the von der Leyen Commission?

Under von der Leyen’s proposed setup, two Commissioners would be responsible for the rule of law: Vice-President-designate for Values and Transparency, Věra Jourová (Czech Republic) and Commissioner-designate for Justice, Didier Reynders (Belgium).

Jourová has been a member of the Juncker Commission since 2014, in which she was responsible for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality. Mr. Reynders is a newcomer to the Commission, but a veteran of Belgian politics, having been a minister in Belgian governments continuously since 1999.

Based on the Mission Letters, Jourová will take the lead on the rule of law with responsibility for coordinating work on this issue across the entire Commission. Her portfolio also includes several actions closely related to the rule of law, such as increasing the transparency of the legislative process within the EU and leading the efforts for the EU to accede to the European Convention on Human Rights, reigniting efforts that had previously failed.

Reynders, on the other hand, is tasked with implementing the EU’s rule of law policy and ensuring that ‘the rule of law is upheld across the Union’ under Jourová’s guidance. His tasks in the field of law are very specific. He is to lead the work on the new European Rule of Law Mechanism, building up on a proposal outlined in the July 2019 strategic policy document – blueprint for action on the rule of law. This fits well with Reynders’s experience, as he pushed for the creation of such a mechanism jointly with German State Secretary Michael Roth.

Reynders is to use the EU’s full rule of law toolbox to identify and prevent breaches. Furthermore, he is set to focus on enforcement, with the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) case law highlighted as a basis for action. The mission letter does state which tools the Commissioner is to use but mentioning the CJEU might signal that bringing cases to the CJEU will be a prominent way of ensuring respect for the rule of law.

  1. How is this arrangement different from the Juncker Commission?

The proposed set-up differs from the Juncker Commission, in which Vice-President Frans Timmermans was responsible for spearheading action on the rule of law. He played a major role in initiating procedures against Hungary and Poland and was an outspoken critic of authoritarian governments undermining the EU’s core values. He was also one of the early candidates for the position of the President of European Commission, but his candidature was strongly rejected by the Visegrad Four (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia). Timmermans will remain in the von der Leyen Commission but will move on to the position of Executive Vice-President for European Green Deal & Climate Action, with the rule of law no longer a part of his portfolio. While Timmermans was solely responsible as Commissioner, the new set-up involves two Commissioners.

  1. What prominence does the rule of law have among policy priorities of the new Commission?

While the rule of law remains a high-profile issue under the responsibility of one of the Commission’s Vice-Presidents, it is one of several components in the “European values” portfolio placed under Jourová care, a portfolio that also includes the separate issue of transparency. This is not unlike the situation in the Juncker Commission, where the rule of law was one of elements of Mr. Timmermans’s portfolio next to Better Regulation, Interinstitutional Relations, and the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Unlike the previous arrangement, however, the von der Leyen Commission is now supposed to have a strategic leader on the rule of law and a Commissioner tasked specifically with implementation, a marked step-up from the Juncker Commission. Looking at the division of policy areas and proposed structure of the new Commission, it seems that “European Values” will be the domain of just two Commissioners, with little room for turf war between competing Commissioners. It will obviously rely on a smooth co-operation between Jourova and Reynders.

Von der Leyen has declared her determination to mitigate the divide between internal and external aspects of EU policies, which have traditionally led to major divergences between EU action on the rule of law, human rights and democracy towards its own Member States and externally towards third countries and in multilateral engagements.

  1. What happens next?

The designated Commissioners need to be confirmed in a vote in the European Parliament. The prospects for both Jourová and Reynder being confirmed are high, although Jourová may face scrutiny over her domestic political affiliation with Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, a controversial figure. However, her record as a Commissioner suggests that she is committed to the rule of law. She co-authored a report on the rule of law in Romania with Timmermans. Its criticism so upset the Romanian government that it attempted to initiate criminal proceedings against the two EU Commissioners.

The next crucial question relates to how the von der Leyen Commission will follow up on Juncker’s blueprint for action on the rule of law. The Mission Letters reflect the three core elements of the July blueprint: promotion, prevention and response. The question is how these will be put into practice. The next few months will remain dynamic on rule of law developments. In particular, the CJEU is expected to decide several relevant cases concerning the rule of law in Poland and Hungary.


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Photocredit: European Parliament/Flickr

This work is supported by

Stiftung Mercator