Jutta Urpilainen, EU’s development commissioner-designate. Photo by: Jukka-Pekka Flander / SDP / CC BY-ND

BRUSSELS — Provided she passes a grilling from the European Parliament in the coming weeks, former Finnish finance minister Jutta Urpilainen will lead the European Union’s development policy for the next five years.

Ursula von der Leyen, the former German defense minister who will head the European Commission from Nov. 1, unveiled her team of 26 commissioners Tuesday, saying each will be responsible for ensuring the delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals in their policy area and all will be accountable for overall implementation of the goals.

Urpilainen was assigned responsibility for development policy, dubbed “international partnerships,” while Slovenia’s ambassador to the EU, Janez Lenarčič, will manage humanitarian aid through the crisis management portfolio.

With the EU’s 2021-2027 budget talks and negotiations on a new agreement between the EU and 79 African, Caribbean, and Pacific states still in progress, a senior commission official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with commission rules, told Devex Tuesday that the development department, DEVCO, would now begin merging its work with Urpilainen and her team, avoiding any new policy moves.

Civil society in the EU’s de facto capital of Brussels breathed a sigh of relief at the appointments, after rumors that the nominee from Hungary, which has pushed for aid efforts to be focused on halting irregular migration, would get the humanitarian portfolio proved unfounded.

“It is good to have someone like [Urpilainen], who doesn’t have a single policy interest, like migration, but to the contrary, someone who knows, as a finance minister, how to use money to trigger change,” the commission official said.

“[Urpilainen's mission letter] puts a real strategy for Africa, emphasizing economic and investment opportunities, as the top priority.”

— Soren Peter Andreasen, general manager, EDFI

“We will have around €50 to €60 billion [$55-65 billion] to spend on development cooperation … One of the big open questions is, will we follow a path like the United States, to be very selfish on how we are spending our development cooperation money? Will we be more altruistic? And also how [is it possible] to use that to be more competitive vis-a-vis investments from China etc.?”

In her mission letter to Urpilainen, setting out her priorities, von der Leyen wrote that she wants her to work with Spaniard Josep Borrell, the incoming high representative for foreign affairs, on “a new comprehensive strategy for Africa” to “create a partnership of equals and mutual interest.” The strategy is intended to build on the EU-Africa sustainable alliance, announced last year but criticized as a vague repackaging of existing initiatives. 

The idea of creating a separate European commissioner for Africa, championed by German development minister Gerd Müller, was discarded after African leaders said they found it discriminatory.

Søren Peter Andreasen, general manager of the body representing European Development Finance Institutions in Brussels, described the mission letter as a “game-changer” because “it puts a real strategy for Africa, emphasizing economic and investment opportunities, as the top priority.”

Andreasen told Devex that “a progressive Nordic commissioner is a very good starting point for leading this agenda.”

Mikaela Gavas from the Center for Global Development, which recently issued recommendations to the new commission on relations with Africa, added that Finland consistently ranked in the top three of CGD’s commitment to development index during Urpilainen’s tenure as finance minister.

In an interview following her nomination over the summer, Urpilainen predicted that the partnership between Europe and Africa will become more important in coming years, and said it must go beyond aid spending. “There’s a massive human potential right next to Europe. Meanwhile, Europe is getting older,” she said in June. “How will we develop this fateful connection in a way that’s sustainable for both continents?”

All the nominees must now pass a confirmation hearing in front of members of the European Parliament in late September or early October. The hearings are one of the main chances for Parliament to exercise its power of checks-and-balances over the commission, the EU’s executive. In 2014, Slovenian candidate Alenka Bratušek was rejected after a poor showing in front of the MEPs.

Some members of the class of 2019-2024 have already raised eyebrows. Hungary’s László Trócsányi, in charge of the EU’s enlargement policy and relationship with its neighbors, including Turkey, seems assured of a rough ride from deputies over his role as justice minister in Budapest since 2014, where he oversaw laws that criminalized NGOs helping refugees.

Margaritis Schinas from Greece, chief spokesperson in the previous commission of Jean-Claude Juncker, was assigned a portfolio on “protecting our European way of life.” “The European way of life is built around solidarity, peace of mind and security,” von der Leyen wrote to Schinas in her letter outlining his priorities. “We must address and allay legitimate fears and concerns about the impact of irregular migration on our economy and society ... We must also work more closely together on security, notably on new and emerging threats that cut across borders and policies.”

"It is scary to see a proposal for a portfolio on Protecting the European way of life which includes a responsibility for migration and border protection,” Ska Keller, president of the parliament’s Greens/EFA group, said in a statement Tuesday. “We hope President von der Leyen doesn’t see a contradiction between supporting refugees and European values.” In 2014, von der Leyen temporarily hosted a Syrian refugee in her home.

Keller welcomed the first female president of the commission and gender-balance in her team of commissioners, as well as the decision to put the experienced center-left Dutch politician, Frans Timmermans, in charge of work on a “European Green Deal” to tackle climate change.

Humanitarian commissioner-designate Lenarčič, who has also worked at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and as secretary of Slovenia’s mission to the U.N., tweeted that he considered “helping prevent and react swiftly to crises within EU & most notably helping save lives across the world as most noble assignment.”

Update, Sept. 12: This story was amended to correct the term commissioner-designate.

About the author

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    Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.