A “Geopolitical” Commission – What’s in the Name?

The announcement of the new team in the European Commission by its recently nominated president Ursula von der Leyen was followed with great excitement by those interested in EU affairs. Despite some questionable choices, the overall proposal for the next College of Commissioners was largely accepted as well-fit. Yet, what remained unclear was why this Commission was branded as “geopolitical” in nature. In the context of wider confusion, this blog aims to answer what’s in the name.

Geopolitics” is a term originally coined by international relations experts, and as such, it stands for an approach to studying contemporary international affairs which puts a particular emphasis on the factor of geography. Over time, as the concept evolved, the perception of geopolitics moved beyond the consideration of geographical boundaries and grew to include economic, political, military, cultural and technological aspects in theory as well. Simply put, the term geopolitics is most commonly used to define and explain the behaviour of a state in relation to its geographic location. As the term is now increasingly used in the context of the EU (a supranational, sui generis entity) it seems the EU is gradually being identified with characteristics typically prescribed to nation states. In other words, linking geopolitics and the EU means that political realities are no longer exclusively shaped and produced by states. As traditional allies (the US, for instance) are increasingly turning their back on the EU, new actors such as China are rising, and actors such as Russia aim to shake up the global order, the timing of the appearance of this “Geopolitical Commission” should not be a surprise.

In order to untangle how the term geopolitics will be tied to the next Commission’s work, it is necessary to take a look at the “Political Guidelines for the next Commission,” the “Main principles of the working methods,” and the “Mission Statements” given by von der Leyen to the commissioners-designate. Namely, analysis of these documents shows three things:  (1) the European Commission will increase its focus on external action, (2) the position of the High Representative will be strengthened, and (3) the rise of external actors in the Western Balkans will be monitored more closely in the coming five years. Each of these points is explained in the following.

1. The European Commission will increase its focus on external action.

Traditionally, foreign and security policy has been the domain of member states. On the EU level, member states cooperate and unanimously agree to take action via Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). As the CFSP has yet to become communitarised, the practical impact of the European Commission in this area has so far been rather limited. In order to show that the Commission’s proposed policies are sensitive to geopolitical occurrences taking place in the external arena, the president-designate has promised that, going forward, the Union’s external actions will be systematically discussed and decided on by the College. To this end, she also pledged that all Commission services and Cabinets will prepare the external aspects of College meetings on a weekly basis. Furthermore, she emphasised the need to boost the EU’s defence policy, with the introduction of a new Directorate-General for Defence Industry and Space, as well as by strengthening the European Defence Fund. Such pledges on behalf of her Commission, and institutional changes within it, are to say that she perceives internal and external policies as “two sides of the same coin”- a point of view to be expected from an ex-defence minister.

2. The position of the High Representative will gain further importance.

Recognising that the Union’s external actions need to become more strategic and coherent, von der Leyen has decided to give a more important role to the High Representative, at least within the Commission, without changing the Treaties. In line with the planned greater external awareness of the Commission (for the purpose of better aligning the internal and external aspects of the Commission’s work), von der Leyen introduced a new collegial preparatory body named the Group for External Coordination (EXCO). As this body will be chaired by the High Representative (together with the Diplomatic Advisor to the Commission President), the president-designate also aims to enhance the working relationship between the Commission and the European External Action Service. Furthermore, she has chosen the High Representative to chair one of six overarching Commissioners Groups, called “A Stronger Europe in the World.” As chairman of the Commission Group, the High Representative will supervise the work of Commissioners Project Groups (which consist of meetings on more focused topics) and Interservices Groups (which bring together all relevant Commission services). In von der Leyen’s vision of the Commission’s role vis-à-vis EU external action, the High Representative is to play a prominent role.

3. The rise of external actors in the Western Balkans will be monitored more closely.

Reading the mission letter addressed by the president-designate to Laszlo Trochanyi (the Commissioner-designate for Neighbourhood and Enlargement), it is apparent that one of the key reasons for enlargement is the perceived significant impact of external influence in the Western Balkans. Even though external actors are never specifically mentioned, it is clear that she refers primarily to Russia (the EU’s historic adversary in the region) and China (which the EU has recently defined as a “systemic rival”). In terms of external action, it is expected that the Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement will continue to work closely with the High Representative, especially as the former was selected by the president-designate to represent the Commission in the Foreign Affairs Council.

Overall, even though von der Leyen has not explicitly indicated what she means by the term “Geopolitical Commission,” she has definitely left some clues. Most importantly, this branding indicates that the Commission will assert an increased role in the EU’s external action. As von der Leyen was unanimously selected by the European Council, this seems to tell us that this development has the backing of all EU member states. If so, the new Commission will try to leave its mark on foreign and security policy. Who knows, such efforts could well be leading down a road towards further communitarisation of EU foreign and security policy, and defence policy. Time will tell.

Photo credit: China Daily