In the shadow of war: The first semester of the European Commission

At first glance it may seem surprising, however the European Commission led by Ursula von der Leyen has had the most successful six months in its history. Is this success due to the exceptional circumstances and the common will of the Member States brought about by Russian aggression?

The European Commission, which took office on 1 December 2019 and is now in its mid-term, is exceptional in every aspect. First, because its President was elected by the will of the Member States, in opposition to the system of Spitzenkandidat, which the European Parliament explicitly supported. On the other hand, because the European Parliament has overthrown a record number of Commissioners-designate in the process of setting up the new Commission, pushing back the start of the Commission's work, originally scheduled for 1 November, by one month. Last, but not least, because it had to perform under extraordinary circumstances from the very first minute of its mandate.

In December 2019, the coronavirus epidemic was already here on the continent - even if we didn't know it - and from the end of January it spectacularly crushed the new Commission's ambitious plans. The years 2020 and 2021 have been spent dealing with the epidemic and the economic crisis it has caused. Finally, just when it seemed that the EU Member States have beaten the pandemic - or at least got through the worst of it - Russia attacked Ukraine at the end of February this year, and once again the extraordinary became a defining factor of everyday work.

The beginning of the year has not been particularly smooth: on the last day of the year, the list sent by the Commission to Member States to define the energy sources considered sustainable under the mandate of the taxonomy regulation caused a general outcry. Some were unhappy with the timing; others criticized the content. However, despite much controversy, the move proved to be a success, with the European Parliament finally backing the Commission's move to include nuclear and gas as sustainable energy sources in the supplementary list on 6 July.

However, every policy debate and successes were overshadowed by Russia’s war against Ukraine on the 24th of February. From the onset, it has been the clear ambition of the EU institutions that the European Union should act as a single actor, a global player. In contrast to the previous chapter of the war in 2014, the leaders of the Member States saw their role not in organizing peace talks and helping the peace process, but in effectively supporting the attacked party, Ukraine.

The need for unified action vis-à-vis the Member States brought more space to maneuver for the EU institutions, and it was the European Commission that took the lead in developing a common position at the EU level. The role of the institution was undoubtedly facilitated by the fact that this time, unlike in previous world political events, there were no significant differences in the way Member States viewed events. Moreover, the Commission could draw on the experience and alliances of other multilateral international organizations in this field.

It is a fact, however, that the European Commission, unlike its hesitancy during the coronavirus epidemic, has now become an effective actor in the development of a united European position. Partly because of this, and partly because of the clarity of the situation, the European Union has, for the first time in its history, been a unified actor on the world stage with a single foreign policy agenda from the very first moment the war broke out. Although the development of successive sanctions packages was at times accompanied by serious debates, between March and June the Member States finally adopted six sanctions packages against Russia, in the development of which the European Commission played a key role.

Considering this, we can say that the Commission led by Ursula von der Leyen closed its most successful period by the end of June. During extraordinary circumstances, it has been useful and effective in building a united European political position, which, precisely because of the exceptional nature of the situation, has overshadowed other, perhaps less successful areas of its work. However, for the first semester of 2022, the war and the Commission’s activities responding of the situation will be remembered by history.

14.07.2022. Dr. Tibor Navracsics