Between the closures of its interior borders in the spring and the wave of terrorist attacks in the fall, the Schengen area has had a difficult year. In response, over the past month EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has proposed a new slate of reforms designed to strengthen the zone’s exterior borders and definitively end interior border checks. First, in a speech before the EU Parliament’s Schengen Forum, President von der Leyen outlined the grand contours of her Schengen area reforms. She called for more uniform screening procedures at the EU’s exterior borders and better information sharing and cooperation
amongst the immigration and law enforcement authorities of the EU member states. Second, in another rendez-vous with the EU Parliament, the Commission released plans for a new counter-terrorism regime focused on better risk assessment, fighting radicalization online and in prisons, security-based urban planning, and strengthening Europol.
Long desired by europhiles such as French President Emmanuel Macron, uniform exterior borders and a European border authority for the Schengen area had never really been put to serious consideration. But, like many long sought after EU reforms, they now seem to be inevitable eventualities under the leadership of President von der Leyen. It would be an understatement to say that the EU’s position on many issues has changed since Ms. von der Leyen was selected to lead the bloc’s executive arm at the end of 2019. And, while much of the EU’s metamorphosis has to do with the do-or-die moment that has been the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, it would be a misjudgement of equal magnitude to ignore the extent to which Ms. von der Leyen’s own willingness to wield political agency has remade the Commission’s relationship with the member states.
The first thing to understand about Ms. von der Leyen is that she is cognizant of the history and gravity of the EU’s decade of crises in the 2010s. Few will deny that the relentless wave of crises, starting with the 2008 financial crisis, then the Eurozone crises of 2010 and 2012, and finally the migration and terrorism crisis of 2015 and 2016, dealt a severe blow to many Europeans’ faith in the Union. The lack of a comprehensive EU-level response to the financial crisis made many member countries feel like they had to fend for themselves and the austerity measures imposed on the countries of southern Europe struggling during the sovereign debt crisis only deepened the divides between the wealthy nations of northern Europe and their poorer southern neighbors. Obviously, the old way of doing things was not working for the EU. For one, the bloc was always reacting to crises and doing so slowly; never with enough force. Unanimity requirements for many of the EU’s actions meant that oftentimes the most frugal or conservative countries decided how the EU would respond and stifled the reforms needed to improve the Commission’s competencies in preventing and responding to crises.
But, throughout the Commission’s response to the ongoing pandemic, President von der Leyen has demonstrated just how well she understands the challenges the EU faces and the need to be more proactive, more creative, and more unified in responding to shocks. This is best displayed in the ambitious relief plan proposed by the Commission and approved by the Parliament and the member states. In spearheading the relief plan, Ms. von der Leyen achieved what was considered unimaginable during the sovereign debt crisis: EU-level debt financing. The cornerstone of the EU’s relief plan is a 750 million euro fund to be borrowed by the EU Commission and distributed to member states according to their need, something that has never been done before and finally gives the EU Commission the right to borrow money on behalf of the entire bloc.
But, Ms. von der Leyen has also been willing to wade into even more fraught political questions such as the illiberal backslide occurring in Hungary and in Poland. Earlier this month, in response to the two countries’ veto of the relief plan due to the inclusion of a “rule-of-law” mechanism meant to protect the independence of each member state’s judiciary, President von der Leyen followed the lead of the French foreign ministry in signaling her favorability to use an obscure mechanism in the Treaty of Amsterdam to exclude Hungary and Poland and pass the relief plan only for the 25 other member states of the EU so that the plan would enter into effect on time at the beginning of January. Evidently, this was enough to get the two states to back down and agree to pass the relief plan, rule-of-law mechanism and all. Nonetheless, Ms. von der Leyen was able to not only reaffirm the EU’s support for the fundamental values upon which it was formed, but also telegraph her willingness to sidestep unanimity requirements when she feels they conflict with the EU’s fundamental principles or mission.
Despite her willingness to stand up to bad actors in the bloc, Ms. von der Leyen has also sought to realign the EU towards one of its most foundational values: solidarity. In her proactive COVID-19 vaccine rollout plan, the EU Commission has vowed that all member states will have equal access at the same time to the approved vaccines. Furthermore, Ms. von der Leyen took care to exclude from the EU’s relief plan the fiscal reform requirements that defined the sovereign debt crisis bailouts in order to mend the bloc’s relationship with southern European countries such as Italy and Greece.
None can deny that, in the last year, the political environment of the EU has radically changed. And, while the coronavirus pandemic has certainly spurred change within the EU, its magnitude and direction have been largely decided by Ursula von der Leyen. The President has shifted the realm of political possibility in the EU, having accomplished long sought after reforms such as EU-level debt financing and brought other long dismissed reforms such the weakening of the bloc’s unanimity requirements squarely into the sphere of possibility. Despite the struggles of the past year, the EU has been reinvigorated and has the chance to inspire optimism and excitement about the future of Europe once more. And much of this is due to the leadership of Ursula von der Leyen who, if her record so far is any indicator, will continue to construct an EU that is prepared for the challenges of the 21st century.