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It’s been a turbulent year for Ursula von der Leyen’s Class of 2019.
Since 26 fresh-faced commissioners and one president took office on December 1 last year, even the Commission’s youngest members have been aged by the coronavirus pandemic. It also cost one commissioner his job.
In the year that brought a health crisis, an economic crisis and rewrote social and working norms, who’s had the best year in the Berlaymont and who’s struggled to make their mark? Here’s POLITICO’s report card on the von der Leyen Commission.
Ursula von der Leyen
Performance review: Von der Leyen and her Commission had barely crossed the threshold of 100 days in office when they were hit with the once-in-100-years public health catastrophe and an economic shock unprecedented in modern times. The president and her team struggled in the initial weeks of the pandemic as national capitals panicked and refused to cooperate, but the Commission found its footing and designed a historic €1.82 trillion budget and recovery package that was adopted unanimously by the European Council. That includes provisions for €750 billion in joint debt — a remarkable breakthrough in fiscal policy. Amid the crisis, von der Leyen has tried to keep a focus on top priorities like the European Green Deal and digitalization while also pushing, with some success, to improve gender parity in the College and senior civil service. Grade A-.
Best moments: Without question, von der Leyen’s signature moment came before dawn on July 21 when EU national leaders reached unanimous agreement on the budget-and-recovery package. While there have been setbacks, including an ongoing standoff with Hungary and Poland over rule of law, the joint debt component of the plan is historic and means von der Leyen has already achieved more toward boosting EU integration than most presidents can hope for in a five-year term. The resignation of Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan was embarrassing but gave von der Leyen the chance to appoint a female successor, Mairead McGuinness — taking the Commission to 13 women out of 27 commissioners.
Worst moments: Von der Leyen has struggled most in moments when she couldn’t be found. At the start of the year, the president was silent for days as crisis engulfed the Middle East. And her team stirred unnecessary controversy by not being forthright when von der Leyen left Brussels to self-isolate because of a coronavirus risk. At the start of the pandemic, she was slow to pivot from a crisis on the Greek-Turkish border. And last spring, a dismissive reference to so-called “coronabonds” in an interview with German news agency DPA caused a furor in Italy with even European Parliament President David Sassoli demanding a clarification. Current and former EU officials have accused von der Leyen and her cabinet chief, Björn Seibert, of creating a huge backlog of senior job vacancies by insisting on personal control over appointments — an allegation the Commission denied.
What comes next: If EU national leaders surmount the deadlock with Hungary and Poland — an effort being led by von der Leyen’s mentor, German Chancellor Angela Merkel — the Commission president and her team must urgently implement the new budget and recovery program. She also faces a challenge in trying to pressure national leaders to coordinate distribution of coronavirus vaccines and to maintain virus containment measures until it is safe to lift them. Working with U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, von der Leyen will have a crucial role in rebuilding transatlantic relations and using the renewed partnership to address festering problems such as dysfunction in the World Trade Organization.
Executive vice president for the European Green Deal
Performance review: Timmermans doubled down on the Green Deal even as the pandemic put Europe’s political and economic agenda in a headlock. But EU climate policy is still a pitched battle between member countries. If he is going to set the EU on course to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 as promised, the real work of Timmermans’ vice presidency is still ahead of him. Grade B-.
Best moments: Don’t underestimate the achievement in the Commission setting its eyes on a 55 percent cut to EU emissions by 2030, a goal that would have been politically unimaginable even one year ago. In a little-registered video address to a conference in Polish Silesia, Timmermans outlined the family connection to the coal industry that shaped his motivations.
Worst moments: Von der Leyen grabbed the limelight for the 55 percent announcement, and despite Timmermans’ goading of politicians and olive branches to coal miners, the target has still not been agreed to by EU leaders. When Timmermans threatened to withdraw the Common Agricultural Policy over not being green enough, he was slapped down by his boss.
What comes next: An unfathomably busy legislative agenda looms in 2021 as Green Deal policies start to tumble out of the Commission. The effort covers everything from energy to transport to agriculture to industry, and even a carbon fee at Europe’s border. Before all that, Timmermans will be hoping for an elusive deal on the higher climate goals at this December’s Council summit.
Executive vice president for digital, and competition commissioner
Performance review: Vestager’s star no longer shines as bright as before as she had to face a few crushing court defeats in 2020, but she still managed a few wins. Grade C.
Best moments: Vestager was at the front of the EU’s drive to revive the pandemic-stricken economy, as her team swiftly relaxed aid rules to allow countries to deal with the coronavirus crisis. She displayed a pragmatic approach in a case against chipmaker Broadcom, using a long-forgotten legal tool to force the company to change its behavior. She also opened probes into Apple and Amazon, returning to what she does best: headline-grabbing cases targeting Big Tech.
Worst moments: Vestager had two major defeats at the EU General Court, which overturned her decision ordering Ireland to recover €13 billion in unpaid taxes from Apple and annulled the decision to block a major telecoms merger (CK Hutchison’s takeover of O2 UK). The Commission is appealing both rulings. Vestager went against her own staff’s advice to green-light a Polish energy deal in response to a request from Warsaw.
What comes next: 2021 will be the year to watch whether the Danish politician lets European industrial policy take a more political direction. Vestager also faces a major test in the General Court’s verdict on the Commission’s €2.4 billion Google Shopping fine, expected in the spring.
Executive vice president for the economy, trade commissioner
Performance review: The second-term Latvian commissioner was elevated to executive vice president for “an Economy that Works for People.” Well, it’s not, even if no one could fault policymakers for the sharpest recession in living memory. The Commission immediately suspended rules on national budgets and debt, reassuring governments (and markets) they could spend whatever it takes. Dombrovskis’ main task has been to soothe Southern European worries about the rules snapping back to strangle their emergency spending, while also gently reminding them the carte blanche won’t last forever. Dombrovskis also took over the portfolio of the departing Phil Hogan in the beginning of October. Grade B for unobtrusive performance.
Best moments: Dombrovskis managed to get all EU countries in line to back one candidate in the race for the World Trade Organization’s top job, helping to convince a group of Eastern European and Baltic nations to rally behind the Nigerian nominee Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. On financial services, he was quick to propose legislation to give banks and investment firms room for maneuver during the pandemic. He also set an agenda to clamp down on dirty money, adjust to digital finance and write climate-change objectives into rules for financial companies, nudging those ahead with the minimum fanfare while avoiding pushback from the financial industry or national capitals.
Worst moments: The Commission’s “quick fix” for securities markets managed to slip in some clauses rolling back investor protections. On Brexit, his corner of the Commission stretched at least the spirit of the Withdrawal Agreement after both sides pledged to assess each other’s financial rulebooks, with a view to recognizing the “equivalence” of their standards. It should’ve been a snap for the U.K. as an EU member with perhaps the toughest enforcement, but Brussels has instead sandbagged London with questionnaires on plans for “divergence” while ruling out areas where the EU plans its own changes. Moving the goalposts has cheered Paris but strained regulatory relations with unpredictable results for finance.
What comes next: Trade wonks look forward to the EU’s trade policy review, which will be a first chance for Dombrovskis to leave his mark on how the EU will use its economic power. What does the new buzzword “open strategic autonomy” really mean? Dombrovskis will also have to prove whether he can improve transatlantic trade relations, so that he can turn his attention eastward and deal with China’s state-led economy. On the economy, he’ll have to pivot from anything-goes firefighting to rebuilding the “Stability and Growth Pact” on deficits and debt. The Commission has vowed it will not resume as it was, but much tougher will be refereeing on how to change it.
EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy
Performance review: Overshadowed by von der Leyen and Council President Charles Michel, who have each taken a strong hand in international relations, Borrell has struggled to project the EU as a relevant force when it comes to nuts-and-bolts policymaking in the global arena. Borrell has also been constrained, at times even crippled, by the continuing requirement for unanimity in EU foreign policy decisions — evidenced most vividly by an embarrassing two-month delay in imposing sanctions on top Belarusian officials over election fraud and a crackdown on protesters. Grade C+.
Best moments: Amid serious limitations outside his control, Borrell’s greatest strength is his brutal candor, speaking hard truths to audiences not always receptive to straight talk. He has pointed out that despite the EU’s long assertion that there was no military solution in Syria, in fact Russia and Turkey had imposed a military solution to keep dictator Bashar al-Assad in power. Borrell was similarly blunt in saying the EU could not rely solely on soft power, in rubbishing U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan, and even conceding that the EU had dropped the ball on Belarus sanctions. Borrell has managed to keep the Iran nuclear deal on life support in time for a new U.S. president, Joe Biden, to potentially help salvage it.
Worst moments: In Libya, a global arms embargo pushed by Germany and the EU is widely seen as unenforced. Tensions with Turkey remain extremely high. Long-running crises, such as the conflict in Cyprus and the war in eastern Ukraine simply drag on. In another embarrassment, the EU stood by powerlessly as war flared in Nagorno-Karabakh and then ended with a Russian-backed peace plan to implement new borders, redrawn without input from Brussels. And Venezuela, a personal priority for Borrell, remains an economic and humanitarian disaster. But perhaps the worst moment was when the European Parliament gave Borrell a dressing down over the handling of a report on disinformation by China.
What’s next? The Biden presidency will give Borrell a chance to team up with the new U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and potentially develop a transatlantic doctrine for the 21st century. The EU’s pivot to Africa, interrupted by coronavirus, begs for reinvigoration once the pandemic eases. And there is a new opportunity to pressure China to become a more constructive partner.
Vice president for interinstitutional relations and foresight
Performance review: Šefčovič managed to avoid being known only as the man with the crystal ball (aka foresight commissioner) by adding a more practical role leading EU talks with the U.K. on implementing the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, in which he did a passable job. Grade B.
Best moment: Šefčovič’s big battery gambit — a project he started during the last mandate but has held on to — started paying off this year. With backing from Berlin and Paris he’s been lobbying for the bloc to build its industry producing electric vehicle batteries to compete with China. Šefčovič helped get EU approval for €3.2 billion in state aid, and there’s more to come.
Worst moment: The “strategic foresight report,” his flagship effort published in September that gained minimal attention. If you missed it, the theme was “resilience.” While Šefčovič avoided big flops such as during his previous term when he ran and lost in Slovakia’s presidential election, his work on Brexit implementation gave him little positive news to report.
What comes next: While the Slovakian will continue to press ahead with his battery campaign, the Brexit timeline means he’s likely to have to find new pet projects to keep him entertained in 2021.
Vice president for values and transparency
Performance review: In her second term in the Commission, the Czech politician has become the face of rule-of-law battles and the fight against disinformation in Europe, speaking her mind in a Commission generally wary of calling a spade a spade. On the rule of law however, Poland and Hungary currently still have the upper hand. Grade B.
Best moments: Jourová hasn’t pulled her rhetorical punches. In one year she took on Viktor Orbán over what she called his country’s “ill democracy,” China and U.S. President Donald Trump on disinformation, and France over its now-defunct hate speech law.
Worst moments: When the EU top court struck down the U.S.-EU data flow agreement that she negotiated in her previous term because it did not protect EU personal data. And when Hungary and Poland blocked the EU coronavirus recovery package because of the link between EU payouts and the rule of law.
What comes next: The fate of the scheme to link EU payouts to the rule of law will go a long way to determining Jourová’s legacy. How the Commission handles rule-of-law disputes with Hungary, Poland and possibly Bulgaria will be key as well. She will also have to oversee the implementation of the European Democracy Action Plan, her upcoming strategy that will set the path for legislation on political advertising, measures against disinformation online and efforts to foster media pluralism.
Vice president for democracy and demography
Performance review: Stars have not aligned this year for Šuica with her major duty — the Conference on the Future of Europe exercise looking at fundamental reforms to the EU. It’s been postponed by the coronavirus outbreak and political infighting. Unlike many of her colleagues, Šuica appeared rarely at the Commission’s press podium, working in the meantime on depopulation, aging and children’s rights. Grade C.
Best moments: A January press conference, at which the former mayor of Dubrovnik urged the EU to “be bold, creative and embrace together the innovative nature” of the Conference on the Future of Europe. In a Figaro interview, she said she would fight for Europeans to “live their third age in a more interesting and dynamic way.”
Worst moments: Criticism of Suica’s social conservatism re-emerged after her appointment hearing in the European Parliament. Some also still blame her for voting against the Parliament’s effort to trigger Article 7 against Hungary in 2018 when she was an MEP.
What comes next: The vexed question of who will lead the conference on Europe’s future has still to be resolved. France and Germany are said to favor Helle Thorning-Schmidt but it’s far from a done deal. Once the leadership issue is resolved, Šuica will be able to pursue her main mission. Strategy documents on aging and children’s rights are also planned for early 2021.
Vice president for promoting our European way of life
Performance review: Embroiled in controversy at the outset because von der Leyen branded his portfolio “protecting our European way of life,” the Greek commissioner managed to turn his new title as “promoter” of the EU lifestyle into an asset. Fluent in four languages, Schinas has a very wide portfolio that includes migration, education, culture and sports. All of this allows the former Commission chief spokesman to display his communication skills and his eye for a media opportunity: After a meeting with religious leaders in November, he reassured children that Santa Claus will be able to cross borders to bring them gifts despite the coronavirus. Grade B.
Best moments: When Turkey lifted controls on migrants exiting for the EU, the leaders of the top EU institutions flew to the Greek border in early March and von der Leyen expressed thanks to Greece for being “our European aspida,” or shield in Greek. Other countries that also struggle to deal with migration were jealous that Greece got such a swift and strong display of solidarity from Brussels and Schinas got credit for masterminding it. In September, Schinas also played a leading role in presenting the Commission’s long-awaited Migration Pact, a plan meant to end years of division among EU member countries.
Worst moments: Even before he took up his post, Schinas found himself in hot water over the original job title. Critics said it pandered to the far right by suggesting refugees and migrants were a threat to Europe. French far-right leader Marine Le Pen endorsed the title as an “ideological victory.” But Schinas sailed through his confirmation hearing anyway and his title was later tweaked. While von der Leyen’s “shield” line went down well in Greece, it didn’t go down so well with socialists and some EU diplomats, who argued it reinforced the idea that refugees and migrants posed a threat. EU officials insisted the phrase was meant to show Greece was protecting the EU from Turkey’s use of migrants for political ends.
What comes next: The fate of the Migration Pact has yet to be decided but old divisions among member countries over the highly sensitive issue have resurfaced in recent weeks. Schinas has said repeatedly that Europe cannot fail twice on migration, following the crisis of 2015-16. But if the issue turns into a battle over messaging rather than substance, the veteran spinner may still be able to claim victory.
Commissioner for budget and administration
Performance review: With 2020 bringing the endgame for once-in-seven-years EU budget negotiations, Hahn’s first year in the new office was high-stakes — even before the coronavirus crisis raised the importance of the budget even further. Fortunately Hahn knows well how to navigate Brussels from his two previous terms as commissioner. Grade A-.
Best moment: The budget deal(s). Even though the heavy lifting in negotiations was done by Chancellor Angela Merkel and her German Council presidency, Hahn played a crucial role in representing the Commission and trying to bridge a compromise. When negotiators finalized an agreement with the European Parliament in early November, the Austrian politician was closely involved in the technical negotiations.
Worst moment: When Hungary and Poland threw a spanner in the works by blocking that deal over rule of law concerns. Though that move was outside his control, Hahn — who is also currently busy negotiating details of the EU’s budget for 2021, the first year under the new budget cycle — is now faced with the very real threat that on January 1 there is still no budget deal, meaning the EU’s spending must shift into emergency mode.
What comes next: Should it ever get over the finish line, Hahn will play an important role when it comes to implementing the new budget from 2021. He’s also cooking up a new HR strategy to make the Commission a more attractive employer.
Commissioner for innovation, research, culture, education and youth
Performance review: Diligent and unremarkable. Appearing often in screenshots of Zoom events and calls with interest groups on Twitter, the Bulgarian commissioner managed to deliver a major new research strategy to zero fanfare. Grade C.
Best moment: Gabriel backed the right horse in the EU budget fight: she was vocal in her support for the European Parliament’s campaign for extra money for research and education, which was ultimately successful in getting nearly €6 billion extra for programs she will oversee.
Worst moments: The commissioner found herself in the unfortunate position of being the first member of the von der Leyen Commission to announce a positive coronavirus test, which resulted in a swift move to tighten rules on meetings and prevent further infections among staff. She has become almost invisible on issues dear to the cultural industry, despite a successful campaign to add “culture” to her title. Feeling let down by the Commission, the creative industries turned to Parliament with their push for more coronavirus-crisis support.
What comes next: With the EU budget deal (nearly) over the line, Gabriel’s main task in 2021 becomes overseeing the implementation of the Horizon Europe program, which may see her shrink further into the background alongside other bureaucratic commissioners.
Commissioner for jobs and social rights
Performance review: Assigned a portfolio largely outside the EU’s powers, the socialist politician leveraged the coronavirus crisis to advance EU influence in the social sphere, winning the support of conservatives including von der Leyen and Dombrovskis on jobs-related measures. But his most ambitious proposals have been put on hold. Grade B.
Best moments: When Schmit revealed in an interview with POLITICO that the Commission planned to collectively borrow up to €100 billion for a European unemployment support scheme (SURE) to back up national governments’ furlough initiatives. He also pushed hard to table legislation on minimum wages in the EU in the face of fierce opposition.
Worst moments: He promised a permanent EU-wide safety net for the jobless would be delivered by the end of this year, but this has disappeared from the Commission’s to-do list — substituted by the SURE program, which is loans-based and temporary. A summit on platform workers was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. Initiatives to improve working conditions for gig economy workers have been missing, despite the coronavirus pandemic exacerbating their precarious situation.
What comes next: Schmit gets another go to push through his socialist ambitions when he presents plans to revamp the European Pillar of Social Rights early next year. He is also rolling out an initiative to improve working conditions for gig workers.
Commissioner for the economy
Performance review: The Commission’s economic chief shakes pressure off like water from a duck’s back, a great quality to have when a pandemic triggers a double-dip recession. Grade A-.
Best moments: Gentiloni was quick to propose a temporary €100 billion unemployment reinsurance system for the bloc. The initiative has proved popular and the commissioner has even hinted at expanding it. Gentiloni has also been a strong European voice in Italian media, where he’s helped temper unfounded concerns over the eurozone’s bailout fund.
Worst moments: You can’t accuse the Italian of any real faults in 2020. But then the coronavirus has derailed much of his policy work, leaving him largely untested on issues that threaten to divide the EU. The pandemic paused plans to review the EU’s fiscal rules and with global disagreements over taxing tech giants, Gentiloni cruised through his first year unscathed.
What comes next: We’ll see what Gentiloni is made of in 2021. That’s when he’ll have to introduce an EU digital tax if global talks stall again and find consensus between Northern and Southern Europe on reforming the bloc’s debt and deficit rules.
Commissioner for agriculture
Performance review: At the wheel during a momentous year for the agriculture sector, Wojciechowski unfortunately often seemed to be asleep. Grade C.
Best moments: Wojciechowski saw through crisis packages to help farmers through lockdown, an overhaul of Europe’s sustainable food priorities and the fruiting of a long-delayed Common Agricultural Policy reform. Strangely, for all these achievements, the mild-mannered Pole appeared uncomfortable in the limelight, keeping a low profile during debates and never claiming credit for the results. His golden hour came in brokering a crisis aid package for the wine sector, which MEPs threatened to block until he personally intervened.
Worst moments: Who can forget the nightmarish confirmation hearing last October, when the chairing MEP called for a round of applause for Wojciechowski and no-one clapped. He claimed the dubious award of most prolific Twitter user out of all the commissioners, but one who achieves very little impact. (He tweets rarely in English, mostly about internal Polish debates.)
What comes next: Wojciechowski is likely to lose in his effort to wrest more powers for Brussels to include Green Deal targets in criteria for approving EU countries’ agricultural plans. He also faces a battle to ensure that the Commission’s agricultural reforms — already criticized for environmental timidity — are not watered down further by other EU institutions.
Commissioner for the internal market
Performance review: In only one year, the French commissioner went from “Thierry Who?” to almost outshining his boss Ursula von der Leyen. Grade B+.
Best moments: The early days of the coronavirus crisis, when he took a leadership role to coordinate the industry response to shortages in medical supplies. He succeeded in casting himself as Europe’s last man standing against Big Tech, after an internal Google lobbying document showed the company was trying to “increase pushback” against him. More generally, Breton put the issue of industrial data on the map: It was barely on the agenda before he bumped it high up the Commission’s priority list, even overshadowing artificial intelligence.
Worst moments: That infamous op-ed with Economy Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni calling for European bond-issuance to fund the recovery. The text had not been agreed with von der Leyen, who had to send out her chief spokesman to tell journalists that the president had a different opinion. Another low point came when he said Europe had lost the battle to use personal data: Commission officials took offense at what they saw as undermining one of their proudest achievements, the GDPR, while Austrian privacy activist Max Schrems said that Breton’s Data Governance Act risked undermining the GDPR.
What comes next: Data — Breton’s current obsession. The Commission launched its first regulation already and is preparing the Data Act for next year, which will set rules for sharing. Expect it to be one of Breton’s biggest fights in 2021.
Commissioner for cohesion and reforms
Performance review: Ferreira showed sympathy for efforts by some countries to push back against planned cuts in the next seven-year budget to cohesion funding — the regional development cash meant to reduce economic imbalances within the EU. She even attended a summit of the “Friends of Cohesion” — a group of mostly Southern and Eastern countries — in her home-country of Portugal last January. Although a budget deal among EU leaders did cut cohesion funding, it still stood at a chunky €330 billion, with a €47.5 billion top-up made available via a new REACT-EU program as part of the coronavirus recovery fund. Grade B.
Best moment: As marathon budget negotiations in July were stretching into the fourth day, with nerves increasingly frayed, Ferreira scored a publicity coup by tweeting charts showing that the “frugal four” countries blocking a compromise at that point — Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden — were among the biggest beneficiaries of the EU single market. “One graphic is worth one thousand negotiating hours,” Feirreira wrote. The tweet did not strictly adhere to the neutrality officially expected of a European commissioner but it made her point.
Worst moment: Ferreira originally had responsibility for the Budgetary Instrument for Convergence and Competitiveness — a fledgling eurozone budget, dear to France and some other countries keen for the single currency area to have more fiscal muscle. But the BICC did not survive the big budget overhaul prompted by the coronavirus crisis. In October, the Commission indicated it would withdraw the plan “on the grounds of it becoming obsolete.” However, this was arguably a small defeat offset by a larger victory — as the planned recovery fund is a much larger joint pot of EU money, even if it is meant to be temporary.
What comes next: Ferreira will have an important role to play in the rollout of the EU’s Just Transition Fund, meant to support regions most affected by digital and climate transitions. She will also be closely involved in the REACT-EU program, the part of the recovery fund that covers similar terrain to regular cohesion cash but is meant to be particularly linked to bouncing back from the coronavirus crisis.
Commissioner for health and food safety
Performance review: 2020 was always going to be a big year for health, with the Commission scheduled to drop its pharmaceutical strategy and a cancer plan. Then the pandemic hit, and Kyriakides — and the world — went into crisis mode. Kyriakides managed relatively well, considering her plate was full of new files, an unprecedented crisis and the fact that Brussels doesn’t control health policy. Grade B.
Best moments: Kyriakides proved Brussels can be a steady and efficient hand in making health decisions. The commissioner convinced countries to let Brussels negotiate and purchase coronavirus vaccines on their behalf, fought for an increased health budget and spearheaded a plan for countries to give Brussels more power to act in health emergencies. Throughout the pandemic, Kyriakides was a voice of reason, especially this summer as she warned countries to get prepared for an upcoming resurgence in coronavirus cases.
Worst moments: Kyriakides often struggled to turn her calls for “solidarity” and “coordination” into action. It was Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton — not the health commissioner — who publicly chastised countries for slapping border restrictions on each other. Kyriakides repeatedly warned countries (accompanied with detailed guidance) to prepare for a second wave, but they ignored her. In the spring, the Commission tried to get countries to harmonize travel restrictions, but after weeks of debates, they only agreed to look at the same color-coded maps.
What comes next: 2021 will test Kyriakides’ ability to keep EU countries in line. She’ll kick off the year with a flagship cancer plan, but probably more importantly she will be at the helm when the world starts to get the first batches of coronavirus vaccines — a real-life test of her “solidarity” and “coordination” talk.
Commissioner for justice
Performance review: After a quiet few first months, Reynders found his groove on rule of law issues as tensions peaked between the EU and its bête noire members Poland and Hungary. Grade C.
Best moments: Reynders got some behind-the-scenes support for a bid to take up the trade portfolio when Ireland’s Phil Hogan left his seat. It didn’t pan out but shows the Belgian has plenty of political credit to spend in coming years. His hearing in the European Parliament was also a masterclass in how to please political opposition and repudiate allegations of corruption. In 2020 he managed to shepherd a tricky legislative file on collective redress for consumers past the finish line and reacted quickly to put pressure on platforms to tackle coronavirus scams.
Worst moment: The commissioner in June took the stage to present the institution’s plans on combating racism amid a wave of Black Lives Matter protests in Europe and the U.S., but Reynders failed to adequately apologize for dressing in blackface while in office as Belgian foreign minister in 2015. “It’s very possible to apologize for such a situation,” Reynders told reporters — stopping short of, well, apologizing.
What comes next: A ruling by the European Court of Justice mid-July put the topic of data protection — part of Reynders’ justice portfolio — front and center on his list of problems that urgently need solving. Next year, the Belgian will have to force the hand of both British legislators and the incoming Biden administration to reform surveillance laws in the U.K. and U.S. if these countries are to see data sharing flow smoothly with Europe.
Commissioner for equality
Performance review: Dalli performed well as the EU’s first ever equalities commissioner, aided by some dramatic world events that put the fight against racism and protecting LGBTQI rights in the spotlight. Grade B-
Best moments: Amid global outcry following the police killing of George Floyd in the United States and the creation of “LGBT free zones” in Poland, Dalli spearheaded strategies on both topics, which are not primarily EU competence. She delivered a strong September press conference urging the EU to become “collectively anti-racist” and pointing the finger at the Commission to take “an introspective look” to ensure diversity among staff.
Worst moments: The gender equality strategy she issued in March mainly repeated existing legislative plans that are blocked in the Council. Evelyn Regner, chair of the European Parliament’s gender and women’s rights committee, did not mince her words after Dalli’s press conference. “If we continue at this snail’s pace, it will take almost 100 years to achieve equality,” she said. Poland announcing its withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, the first legally binding instrument on preventing and combating violence against women, was another low point.
What comes next: Dalli still needs to find a way forward on highly divisive gender-related files such as the Women on Boards directive. She also needs to unblock the deadlock on the Istanbul Convention and convince all European countries to ratify the framework.
Commissioner for home affairs
Performance review: Diplomats are divided on the Swede. Some say that they have not even noticed her being in office, others say they are impressed by what one called “her American style,” meaning that when meeting ministers she goes straight to the point and is effective. So the jury is out but so far she seems to have managed to avoid major mistakes. And when handling migration, described by some diplomats as possibly the most toxic dossier in town, that’s already an achievement. Grade B-.
Best moments: When she presented the long-awaited and much-postponed Migration Pact at the end of September. Although her soundbites were probably not the most effective, she managed to present the plan as a real novelty and fairly balanced between the needs of Easterners and the Southerners. She also pushed Frontex, the EU border agency, to shed light on accusations it was involved in alleged pushbacks of asylum seekers in Greece, a practice illegal under international law.
Worst moments: In recent days, the Migration Pact has started to look not so novel, as old and deep divisions among member countries have come to the fore once again. At least some of the compromises designed to try to keep all sides happy look like they aren’t going to fly. Some place the blame on Johansson, while also acknowledging the pact was a joint effort with Vice President Margaritis Schinas so any responsibility should be shared with him.
What comes next: The road for the German Council presidency to reach a political deal on at least some key points of the Migration Pact seems even more uphill than before. But any successes or failures on the migration front in the years to come will always be linked to Johansson and Schinas.
Commissioner for crisis management
Performance review: In a portfolio that seems literally built for 2020, there’s plenty to suggest the Commission was asleep at the wheel when the COVID crisis broke, memorably when Rome’s request for face masks and medical gear in February was met with silence. But things improved and Lenarčič has since played a key role in the EU’s joint reaction to the pandemic. Grade B-.
Best moments: The fact that Lenarčič on January 29 held a joint news conference to announce that the Commission had activated its own internal crisis response mechanism to the pandemic allowed him to later reject accusations that the Commission was not prepared. (Instead he admitted that Brussels had virtually no sense of just how badly unprepared national governments were.) In June, he put forward a proposal to strengthen the EU’s crisis management system, in part in response to what happened with Italy.
Worst moments: Aside from the first weeks when the pandemic broke, exposing many EU weaknesses, another low point for Lenarčič came after the U.S. election. A former Slovenian ambassador to the EU, Lenarčič was outraged when his country’s prime minister, Janez Janša, continued to promote pro-Trump conspiracy theories after prematurely declaring Donald Trump the winner. “People holding the highest executive offices should be aware of the fact that what they say in public, and it includes social network platforms like Twitter, resonates, and that prudence should be the rule … I’m afraid that some of those tweets that we saw did not contribute to the positive image of Slovenia in Brussels or Washington,” he said.
What comes next: Avoiding that a third wave of the pandemic turns into another nightmare. While the EU’s competence in health and other matters is limited, Lenarčič will be challenged in pushing national capitals to react correctly.
Commissioner for transport
Performance review: Transport commissioners aren’t usually thrust to the forefront of continental crises, but Vălean blossomed in the face of the coronavirus — cutting a central figure in efforts to loosen the flow of traffic across borders and get people with canceled trips their money back. Grade B+.
Best moments: The Romanian commissioner was visible on the press podium in the early weeks of the pandemic, standing firm in arguing that companies must refund passengers whose flights were canceled in line with EU passenger rights. It wasn’t popular with capitals or airlines, but Vălean warned of infringement proceedings and the challenge retreated.
Worst moments: Vălean failed to dispel persistent criticism from green NGOs at what they see as an unwillingness to address the climate impacts of transport, for instance by moving forward with a tax on aviation fuel, despite increasingly damning evidence of the scale of the pollution.
What comes next: With a December strategy due on clean and sustainable mobility, Valean will have to prove her department is willing to implement the necessary contributions. She’ll also face fresh scrutiny over whether her allegiances lie with the Berlaymont or in her home country of Romania as the Commission releases a fresh assessment of EU trucker reforms.
Commissioner for neighborhood and enlargement
Performance review: Being the Hungarian commissioner is not an easy job when your prime minister, Viktor Orbán, is an outspoken critic of the Commission and there are few other Hungarians in top Brussels posts. But Várhelyi has not exactly gone out of his way to win friends. He has a reputation for an abrasive temperament and and being even “more of a right-winger than Orbán,” as a diplomat put it. Grade C.
Best moments: The Commission came up with a new methodology on how to handle the accession process for countries that want to join the EU, overcoming objections from France and allowing Albania and North Macedonia to get the green light to start membership talks. Várhelyi was personally involved in crafting the new plan, although there is some dispute among Commission officials and diplomats over how much credit he deserves. He was also pretty visible when the Commission put forward a financial package of €3.3 billion to help the Balkans cope with the pandemic, mobilized together with the European Investment Bank. In general he’s seen as very active, something that even his many critics acknowledge.
Worst moments: Bulgaria’s block on the launch of membership talks with North Macedonia due to a bilateral dispute over language and identity dealt a blow to the Commission’s aim of starting negotiations before year-end. Some diplomats accuse Várhelyi of being too soft on Sofia but most say the main problem is that the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) alliance has not been tough enough on Bulgarian leader Boyko Borissov, an EPP prime minister. A recurring criticism of Várhelyi is that he is too sensitive to Hungarian interests, rather than the EU’s as a whole. “When he talks about Serbia, he seems ready to close his eyes” because of close ties between Serbia and Hungary in the energy sector, one diplomat said. An EU official rejected these allegations, saying he operates the same way as other commissioners.
What comes next: The key player in attempts to unblock the standstill between Bulgaria and North Macedonia is the German Council presidency, rather than Várhelyi. Until that happens, a big part of his work is effectively frozen. Várhelyi will ultimately be judged on whether would-be members, including countries already in talks such as Serbia and Montenegro, move closer to the EU on his watch.
Commissioner for international partnerships
Performance review: Von der Leyen’s focus on Africa, the coronavirus pandemic and the planned reform of the EU’s migration strategy brought Urpilainen some welcome attention for the development portfolio. She did decently, even though the difficult work lies ahead. Grade B.
Best moment: In July, Urpilainen launched the “Global Monitor of COVID-19’s impact on Democracy and Human Rights,” an interactive online tool that shows how governments worldwide are dealing with citizens’ rights during the pandemic — naming and shaming countries using the virus to clamp down on democracy. Urpilainen received applause for not only looking beyond the EU’s border, but also including the EU’s own countries in the analysis.
Worst moment: Urpilainen’s late-November action plan for gender equality in external relations was shot down on day one by Poland and Hungary, who opposed the use of the term “gender” arguing it should refer to “men and women” instead. Although that’s not her fault and the two countries can’t formally block the plan, the optics weren’t great.
What comes next: Trying to get “Team Europe” fully on board with the gender action plan.
Commissioner for energy
Performance review: Despite being in the shadow of Green Deal chief Frans Timmermans, Simson has managed to establish herself as a discreet but effective commissioner by rolling out a slew of new, well-received strategies on time and as promised, including for hydrogen, energy system integration, methane, renovation and offshore renewable energy. Grade B.
Best moment: Had the bloc’s energy supply been weakened or interrupted by the COVID crisis, she would have had to assume at least part of the blame. Since everyone’s lights stayed on, she can count that as a success. She also gets props for staying visible online during the dark springtime months: the plucky Estonian frequently tweeted about the virtual meetings she held with everyone who’s anyone in the energy world.
Worst moment: Her social media presence may be spot on, but her live appearances are still shaky. An October Parliament session made for painful watching as a largely silent Simson got panned by MEPs over Brussels’ failure to exclude fossil fuels from investment protection under the Energy Charter Treaty. She did her best to gracefully cover for internal Commission disagreement on the matter by shifting the blame elsewhere.
What comes next: Simson is set to unveil a big revision of energy infrastructure policy before the year is out, designed to ensure EU-funded projects meet climate and decarbonization goals. In 2021 she’ll have her hands full with the Fit for 55 legislation that has to deliver the bloc’s 2030 emissions-slashing goal. Both are controversial, so Simson will likely endure some heat.
Commissioner for environment, oceans and fisheries
Performance review: There are no other commissioners in the EU’s history that can say they turned 30 on the job. The young Lithuanian launched a slew of ambitious plans to improve the bloc’s track record on environmental protection, chemicals and the circular economy, landing him overall applause from green campaigners. Grade A-.
Best moments: The commissioner presented ambitious plans to protect biodiversity and rethink the bloc’s chemicals legislation despite pressure from industry and other departments. Amid the COVID-19 crisis, there was pressure from some business interests for the Commission to drop the Green Deal and embrace deregulation. But that was strongly resisted as a knee-jerk reaction.
Worst moments: Sinkevičius hasn’t impressed as much with the oceans part of his portfolio. Despite allocating extra cash to help fishermen during the coronavirus crisis, the commissioner has been criticized by fishermen for not putting forward a dedicated strategy, and by marine NGOs for failing to take emergency measures against France and Spain to stop the unintentional killing of thousands of dolphins in the Bay of Biscay.
What comes next: Having laid his green cards on the table in several strategies, Sinkevičius now has to actually deliver the legislation. Considering long delays to some of the department’s previous proposals — think single-use plastics guidelines and the bloc’s environmental action plan — Sinkevičius risks losing his fast-won plaudits from impatient campaigners.
Commissioner for financial services, financial stability and the Capital Markets Union
Performance review: The newest member of the Commission, McGuinness breezed through her nomination process to become financial services commissioner in October. Since then, she’s been busy learning the ropes but has yet to really stamp her authority on the agenda. Grade: incomplete.
Best moments: The Irishwoman brings some welcome straight-talking to the intangible world of financial services. Her desire to put consumers at the heart of her program may keep post-COVID financial policies grounded in reality.
Worst moments: McGuinness has not really hit the ground running and seems intent on getting up to speed by first meeting regulators and industry. Whether that’s admirable or not for a technical but sensitive subject matter, it’s not been a showy start.
What comes next: The former European Parliament vice president will have to prove her mettle with big upcoming legislative proposals on nonperforming loans and green finance. She’ll also have to master reviews of bank and insurance capital standards. The new year and the changing coronavirus dynamics should create space for her own personal touch.
Resigned as commissioner for trade
Performance review: Hogan had the biggest fall from grace. He started 2020 at the peak of his career, having racked up two landmark trade deals with Japan and South America’s Mercosur bloc in his previous role as agriculture commissioner. But a scandal over his attendance at a swanky golf dinner that breached Ireland’s coronavirus rules cost him his job, and he ends the year as an unemployed amateur golfer. Grade E.
Best moments: Before the calamitous and avoidable end to his career in Brussels, Hogan did squeeze through a mini-trade deal on lobsters with the U.S., which was seen as an attempt to calm trade tensions.
Worst moments: Even before “golfgate,” Hogan was a weakened figure, having bungled his bid for the world’s top trade job at the World Trade Organization. But it got far worse when he erred by attending the golf dinner, then refused to apologize, got pulled over by police for using his mobile phone while driving, failed to quarantine when he arrived in Ireland from Belgium, and inflamed the whole thing in a car-crash TV interview that turned his own government against him.
What comes next: Hogan already suggested his “political chapter” is over but the 60-year-old is still relatively young. The difficulty is that he has burnt his bridges in Ireland and Brussels.
Jacopo Barigazzi, Hannah Brenton, Laurens Cerulus, Hanne Cokelaere, Maïa de La Baume, Jillian Deutsch, Mari Eccles, Andrew Gray, Laura Greenhalgh, Louise Guillot, Jakob Hanke Vela, Melissa Heikkilä, America Hernandez, Aitor Hernández-Morales, David M. Herszenhorn, Laura Kayali, Thibault Larger, Karl Mathiesen, Barbara Moens, Arthur Neslen, Christian Oliver, Joshua Posaner, John Rega, Eline Schaart, Bjarke Smith-Meyer, Paola Tamma, Simon Van Dorpe, Hans von der Burchard, Zosia Wanat and Eddy Wax contributed to this article.