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20 November 2019
The European Commission is the independent, executive branch of the EU. It proposes and oversees the EU’s laws, administers its policies and programmes, has oversight of the EU’s budget and represents the EU in international negotiations.
The Commission is made up of a President and 28 Commissioners, each from a different Member State. The Commissioners are nominated by the EU’s Member States and are ratified by the European Parliament. The President and Commission are in office for a five year term.
The term of the current Commission under President Jean-Claude Junker is coming to an end and a new President and Commission are expected to take office at the start of December. The Commission will be responsible for leading on any negotiations with the UK on Brexit, and therefore the makeup of the new Commission and its strategic priorities will be important to the UK and to Wales.
The New President and Commissioners
In July, the EU Council, composed of the Heads of EU Member States, nominated Ursula Von der Leyen, former German Defence Minister, to be the new Commission President. Her nomination was approved by the European Parliament and, when she takes office, she will be the first woman to lead the European Commission. Member States also nominated individuals from their countries to make up the rest of the Commission. As the incoming President, Von der Leyen is responsible for allocating different subject portfolios to the new Commissioners and putting forward the nominees to the European Parliament for approval. She did this in September.
The European Parliament holds a series of public hearings on Commission nominees. During the hearings, the European Parliament rejected three of the incoming President’s nominees; Romania’s Rovana Plumb, Hungary’s László Trócsányi and France’s Sylvie Goulard. This has delayed the start date of the new Commission from the beginning of November until December, and Member States and the incoming President had to put forward new nominees for the Parliament’s approval.
These have now been approved and the European Parliament will vote on the makeup of the new Commission as a whole. This vote is currently expected to be held on 27 November. Finally, the EU Council formally appoints the Commission in a vote.
A new UK Commissioner?
As the UK was due to leave the EU on 31 October, the Prime Minister confirmed in July that the UK would not nominate a new EU Commissioner.
However, as a deal wasn’t agreed between the UK and EU by the October deadline, the UK Government asked for an extension to the exit negotiations until 31 January 2020. The EU agreed to the request but said that this meant the UK would need to nominate a new UK Commissioner.
Ms Von der Leyen wrote to the Prime Minister on 6 November to request a nominee by 11 November 2019. The UK Government did not put forward any nominees before the UK Parliament was dissolved for the General Election. It has since responded, saying that it will not now nominate a Commissioner until after the 12 December General Election, in line with guidance that says it can’t select candidates for senior international appointments during an election period.
Unhappy with the failure of the UK Government to meet the terms agreed on the extension, the EU launched what are known as ‘infringement proceedings’ against the UK on 14 November. Infringement proceedings are formal legal procedures that the EU can take against Member States that don’t follow the EU’s laws. Ultimately the proceedings can lead to fines or other sanctions, but are usually resolved before they reach this point. The UK Government has been given until 22 November to respond to the formal notice.
Why does all this matter to Wales?
The EU Commission will continue to lead negotiations on the UK’s relationship with the EU and will liaise with the new UK Government after the election. Von der Leyen will replace current President, Jean-Claude Juncker, in representing the EU externally and has published political guidelines outlining areas of focus for her Commission, including a European Green Deal and a stronger Europe in the world.
Individual Commissioners will also play a role in their area of responsibility, which intersect with both UK and devolved areas. For example, if the new UK Government pursues a Free Trade Agreement with the EU, the new Commissioner for Trade will have a significant impact on these discussions. Phil Hogan of Ireland has been approved as the candidate Commissioner for Trade.
The First Minister has confirmed that the Welsh Government will continue to maintain its relationship with the EU’s key players ‘whatever the outcome of Brexit may be.’ He told the Assembly that:
Some of these people may be in place while Brexit is still in play. Even if the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, there will be a legacy beyond our membership that will be important to Wales.
Article by Sara Moran, Senedd Research, National Assembly for Wales