Photo of Jean De Ruyt

Ambassador Jean De Ruyt is a senior public policy advisor in Covington’s EU public policy team.  Ambassador De Ruyt, a non-lawyer, is among the most experienced diplomats in Europe.  Most recently, he served as the Permanent Representative of Belgium to the European Union and was chair of the Committee of Permanent Representatives during the 2010 Belgian Presidency of the Council.

Ambassador De Ruyt works with Covington's transatlantic government affairs team, which includes experienced lawyers as well as former senior policymakers.  The team advises clients on a range of European public affairs issues, including the EU policy-making processes, functioning of the European institutions, development of EU legislation and accession of new EU members.  Ambassador De Ruyt has particular expertise in the workings of the EU Council and EU institutions more broadly, transatlantic relations and United Nations development policy.

Ambassador De Ruyt was closely involved in Europe’s response to the financial crisis and the resulting legislation at the European level.  He was instrumental in the creation of the European diplomatic service and, as the Permanent Representative, facilitated the resolution of a variety of state aid and competition policy disputes for Belgian companies.

Ambassador De Ruyt was involved in the negotiation of the European Single Act and the Nice and Lisbon Treaties, in initiatives relating to the implementation of the Oslo agreements in the Middle East and in the rebuilding of peace in Central Africa.  He also participated in the stabilisation of former Yugoslavia and the development of NATO and European Defence.

Last week marked a hand-over from the technical Brexit negotiations back to the negotiators’ political masters.  After four rounds of talks on the future EU-UK relationship, it appears that the UK and the EU are increasingly talking past each other.  With both sides seeming to accept that the transition period will finish at the end of this year, a no-deal exit from current arrangements at year-end looks increasingly likely.  It will take significant political will on both sides to step back from the brink, yet their focus is on the more immediate challenges of COVID-19.

This blog post outlines the negotiations to date, the main points on which the UK and EU disagree, the prospects for the “high level meeting” that will follow this June, and the principal considerations in whether a deal can be reached this year.  If no deal is reached, the UK will either have to trade with the EU on World Trade Organization terms – which would hit UK businesses and consumers hard – or accept an extension of transitional arrangements with the EU – which it has repeatedly ruled out.

Opening Positions

Both UK and EU had to expedite the preparatory work on their initial positions.

Thanks to informal “seminars” conducted in January, the Commission was able to present proposals for the negotiating mandate, which would then be given to the EU negotiator, Michel Barnier.  These “Negotiating Directives” were approved by the Council on February 25 (see here).

These are very similar to the initial mandate given by the Council in 2018, and focus on preserving the EU’s internal market. The EU, however, had to adapt to the UK’s new position, set out in the Political Declaration of October 17, 2019, asking for a trade relationship “on the lines of the FTAs already agreed by the EU in recent years with Canada and with other friendly countries”. The EU stated that it was prepared to offer a “zero tariffs, zero quotas” agreement, but on the condition that the UK commits to a “balance of rights and obligations, and a level playing field”. It also insisted that the entire deal should fall under an “overall governance framework”.

Two days after the presentation of the EU mandate, the UK published its own “negotiating strategy” (see here).  This makes it clear that London is not prepared to compromise on the recovery of its full national sovereignty.  It confirms the UK Government’s strong intention to fully regain its “legal autonomy” and the “right to manage (its) own resources”.  The UK “will not agree to any obligations for our laws to be aligned with the EU’s, or for the EU’s institutions, including the Court of Justice, to have any jurisdiction in the UK”.  As to the structure of the deal, the UK would also like to see the comprehensive free trade agreement concluded separately, and “supplemented by a range of other international agreements covering, principally, fisheries, law enforcement and judicial cooperation in criminal matters, transport, and energy”.

The distance between these two positions showed just how difficult a negotiation this was likely to be.

The Negotiations’ Terms of Reference

On February 28, the two sides agreed on the “Terms of Reference” for their talks – essentially, their format and calendar (see here).

  • The negotiations are led by the Commission’s chief Negotiator (Michel Barnier), Head of the Task Force for Relations with the United Kingdom (UKTF) and on the UK side by the UK’s Chief Negotiator (David Frost), Head of Task Force Europe (TFE).
  • Several “negotiating groups” meet alongside the plenary negotiating sessions, working under the guidance of the Chief Negotiators and/or Deputy Chief Negotiators. There are 11 such groups: on “Trade in goods”, “Trade in Services and Investment and other issues”, “Level Playing Field for open and fair competition”, “Transport”, “Energy and Civil Nuclear Cooperation”, “Fisheries”, “Mobility and Social Security Coordination”, “Law enforcement and judicial cooperation in criminal matters”, “Thematic Cooperation”, “Participation in Union Programmes”, and “Horizontal arrangements and governance”.
  • Full rounds of negotiations were, in principle, supposed to take place every two to three weeks, alternating between London and Brussels.


Continue Reading The Brexit Negotiation – In Deadlock?

Every new team entering the Berlaymont to head up the European Commission starts out with bold and ambitious plans. Time after time, reality intervenes, and their plans are upended.

This was true for the second Barroso Commission in 2010, when the aftershocks of the Global Financial Crisis and the Greek and Euro crisis that followed

Two days before NATO celebrated its seventieth anniversary in Watford, close to London on December 3–4, Ursula Von Der Leyen started her 5 years as president of the European Commission. She had announced that her Commission would be ‘geopolitical’, and appointed a commissioner, the French Thierry Breton, to deal with ‘Defense Industry and Space’, among

On September 10, Ursula von der Leyen, President-elect of the European Commission, presented her new team. If approved by the European Parliament, they will take over from the Juncker Commission on November 1, 2019.

This blog outlines the proposed structure of the new Commission, each Commissioner’s portfolio, and the key regulatory priorities that the President set for each member of her team.

A Three-Tier Commission

The new President of the Commission was confronted with the same problem as her predecessor: each Member State sends a Commissioner to Brussels, but there are not 27 substantive portfolios to dole out. (The UK does not intend to send a Commissioner to Brussels, reflecting Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s stated aim of leaving the EU on October 31, before the new Commission takes office, “come what may”.)

President Juncker addressed the issue by establishing a “cluster” system, with seven Vice Presidents and 20 “simple” Commissioners. In practice, however, Juncker’s Vice Presidents were not given control of specific Commission Directorates General (“DGs”), meaning that they were often relegated to “coordinating” the work of other Commissioners, without the support of officials needed to develop their own policy priorities.

President von der Leyen has only slightly modified this structure, and focused on restructuring the various Commissioners’ competences to fit her “political guidelines”—the new Commission’s policymaking priorities.

The new College will effectively have three “tiers” of Commissioner:
Continue Reading The New European Commission 2019-2024

After the election of the new European Parliament on May 24-26, the European Council met three times to discuss the package of appointments of EU’s new leaders (see our blog ‘elections and appointments in the European Union’ …) .

The white smoke came on Tuesday July 2 with the selection of new presidents for the European Commission, the European Council and the European Central bank as well as the High Representative for Foreign affairs. The day after, on July 3, the European Parliament elected its new president.

The new Parliament, on July 16, ‘elected’ Ursula von der Leyen as president of the EU Commission, confirming the choice made by the European Council.  The new European Commission will be assembled over the summer, in time for hearings in the Fall, before they take office on November 1.

 A Team of Convinced Europeans

The new leaders selected by the European Council have one characteristic in common: they are all convinced Europeans, favoring further EU integration and a leading role for EU and other multilateral institutions. This is noteworthy, at a time when nationalism, populism and euroscepticism seemed to have gained ground in many European countries. The message is that there is still a strong majority for the continuation of an ambitious European project.

  • Ursula von der Leyen, appointed to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the EU Commission, is a close ally of Angela Merkel since her first term as chancellor. As German Defense minister she was a strong promotor of European defense: “Europe’s army is already taking shape,” she said recently. In 2016, she published a very ambitious White Paper on Defense – in shop contrast with the traditional German reticence on the issue.
  • Charles Michel, who will replace Donald Tusk as president of the European Council in December, is a convinced European, as are the vast majority of his compatriots. As Belgian prime minister for the past five years, he led a coalition including a Flemish nationalist party, the N-VA, but this did not prevent him from promoting further European integration. This made him one of the closest allies in the Council of French President Emmanuel Macron.
  • Christine Lagarde, appointed as successor to Mario Draghi as president of the European Central Bank, played an important role in EU policy during the financial crisis of 2008. As the French Finance Minister, she presided over the Ecofin Council during the French presidency, at the peak of the crisis. She is credited, together with president Sarkozy, with keeping the EU united and even able to influence the global reaction to the crisis. As IMF president during the past eight years, among her many achievements she can count contributing to the preservation of the Eurozone by having the fund participate in the rescue of Greece.
  • Josep Borrell, the Spanish Foreign Minister and the nominee for the post of High Representative, entered politics as a close ally of Spanish socialist leader Felipe Gonzales, who brought Spain into the European Union during the Eighties. He was President of the European Parliament from 2004 to 2007. Being himself Catalan, he is a strong opponent to the secession of Catalonia from Spain.
  • The leaders also suggested giving senior positions in the new Commission to Frans Timmermans and Margarethe Vestager, who were among the most prominent operators in the Juncker Commission and had been nominated by their party groups as “Spitzenkandidaten”, or lead candidates, for the Commission Presidency.


Continue Reading The new European Leadership

The EU elections began on Thursday, May 23, and run to Sunday, May 26.  These are likely to see a significant change in the make-up of the European Parliament, with the main center-left and center-right parties losing overall control.  It will also kick off formally the process for appointing a new European Commission – which, this year, comes alongside the appointment of a number of other senior European figures.

Indeed, the five most important institutional leaders of the EU – the presidents of the European Commission, the European Parliament, the European Council and the European Central Bank, as well as the High Representative for Foreign Policy – will be replaced in the months to come.  None of the current incumbents will remain in post.

This change of guard will shape the future of the continent for years to come.  The main player in the appointment process, which will start at the end of May 2019, is the European Council made up of Heads of State and Governments.  The 28 EU leaders will have appoint four of the five most senior EU positions almost simultaneously.  As usual, they will need to respect a subtle balance between political groups, larger and smaller countries, Eastern and Western, Northern and Southern candidates, and a gender balance.

A dinner of the European Council has been planned for May 28, just after the Parliamentary elections.  The Council’s president, Donald Tusk, hopes to arrive at a “package deal” in the regular European Council on June 20-21.  Considering the difficulty of the task, as outlined below, this objective is ambitious.  But the EU leaders have a clear interest in not postponing the decision until after the summer, when other challenges will await them – notably, the decision on the new seven-year financial framework, and Brexit.

After a brief overview of the likely results of the European Parliament election, we will examine what is at stake for each of the five positions to fill.

The Election of the European Parliament

Elections take place simultaneously in the 28 Member States between May 23 and 26.  The turnout is expected, as previously, to be lower than for national elections – for the 2014 elections, it was an average of 42,54%.

In the European elections, fringe and populist parties tend to get more votes than at the national level, this election being seen by many as an opportunity to cast a protest vote with fewer consequences.  In the current political context, this phenomenon will probably be amplified.

It is thus expected that, this year, the two main political groups combined (the center-right Christian Democrats of the EPP and the center-left Socialists of the S&D), will no longer have the absolute majority.  They will therefore lose control of Parliamentary proceedings and major committee appointments.  This time, they will have to take into account the centrist Liberals, who will likely be boosted by the arrival of Emmanuel Macron’s party, “La République en Marche” (campaigning for the European elections as “Renaissance”), which will want to reproduce in the Parliament the influence their leader exerts on the European Council.

Contrary to what some believe, the “Eurosceptic” wing is unlikely to dominate the Parliament and will almost certainly not be able to influence the appointment of the leaders of the institutions.  But if some of the larger populist parties manage to assemble in one political group, they might have a sizeable “nuisance” value.  Indeed, it is expected that Salvini’s Lega, Le Pen’s “Rassemblement National” and the “Alternative für Deutschland” (perhaps joined by UKIP or Farage’s Brexit party) will assemble in a new right-wing block, dubbed the “European Alliance of Peoples and Nations” political group, which could secure more than 80 seats (out of 751).
Continue Reading Elections and Appointments in the European Union

Until recently, even those in Europe who favour the development of an autonomous EU defense capability avoided referring to the setting up of a “European army”.

When the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) was included in the Nice treaty in December 2000, the British government of Tony Blair was adamant about the exclusion of a European army as a final objective, even if he had been the one to launch the project in August 1998 as part of an effort to get the UK closer to the EU mainstream.

It was therefore surprising to hear French president Emmanuel Macron use the words in a radio interview in November 2018: “We have to protect ourselves with respect to China, Russia and even the United States of America, he said, “we will not protect the Europeans unless we decide to have a true European army”. Even more surprising was hearing Angela Merkel a week later endorse the formulation in a speech to the European Parliament: “The times when we could rely on others is past,” she said, “we have to look at the vision of one day creating a real, true European army.” And a few weeks later, the German defense minister Ursula Von der Leyen went even further: “Europe’s army”, she declared, “is already taking shape”.

Should these comments just be dismissed as wishful thinking or political posturing? Are we talking of a “paper army”, to quote “the Economist”? Or are we already there, as Ursula Von Der Leyen seems to believe?

The question needs to be looked at under three different angles:

  • The current political context
  • Changes in the institutional framework
  • Joint procurement and “pooling and sharing” of capabilities

*   *   *
Continue Reading Towards a European Army?

Transatlantic trade tensions, the Brexit negotiations, migration, and Eurozone reform will dominate the June 28 European Council. Each of these issues are potentially divisive, and the leaders know that a new dose of solidarity will be needed to address them properly.

They also know that next year will see additional challenges to the cohesion and

Four major issues dominated the EU agenda in the first quarter of 2018: institutional adaptations in view of next year’s elections and appointments; a threat by the United States to impose tariffs on imports of steel and aluminium; a proposal for a tax on technology companies; and the beginning of the second phase of the Brexit negotiations, focused on the transition period following the UK withdrawal. 

Budget and Institutional Arrangements 

On February 23, the European Council, in an informal meeting, discussed two communications from the Commission: one on the multiannual financial framework 2021-27, the other on the institutional “options” for the 2019 European elections – as to which, see our fuller analysis here.

On the budget, apart from the void left by the UK leaving the EU, the most sensitive issue discussed was the possibility of linking EU structural fund payments to Member States’ respect of “EU values.”

The institutional debate covered three main topics:

  • The replacement of Jean Claude Juncker, next year. The discussion in the European Council indicated clearly that the EU leaders want to get back to the letter of the treaty.  Read strictly, this gives them the right to select a candidate for the Commission presidency, to be confirmed by the Parliament – and not the so-called “Spitzenkandidat” or “lead candidate” procedure, in which the chosen President must be the lead candidate chosen by the political group in the European Parliament that received the highest number of seats in the elections.
  • The composition of the European Parliament after Brexit. The Parliament itself had suggested placing 46 of the 73 British seats in reserve for future accessions, and distribute the remaining 27 among 14 EU countries that are currently under-represented in the Parliament. This proposal is likely to be approved, the Parliament having renounced an earlier proposal for a “transnational constituency,” with parliamentarians elected across the EU – which was not popular with most Member States.


Continue Reading EU Policy Update for Q1 2018 – Budgets and Upcoming EU Elections, Steel and Aluminum Tariffs, a “Digital Tax” proposal, and Brexit

Europe in 2019 will not just be the year of Brexit. It will also witness the election of a new European Parliament (“EP”), the choice of a new president of the European Commission and of a new Commission, as well as the appointment of a new president of the European Council and of the European Central Bank. All this under the spell of the next “Multiannual Financial Framework,” a five-year budget plan for the years 2021-27, which will be under discussion throughout the year.

On February 13, the European Commission presented a communication on how to deal with the budget challenges, and another one on the institutional “options” for next year (see here). The heads of state and government will have a first informal discussion on all this on February 23.

They will not yet discuss names –  it is too soon – but will touch on how the leaders will be chosen, and the composition of the Commission and Parliament. Indeed, four years ago, when Juncker and his Commission were appointed, some of the institutional innovations of the Lisbon treaty were implemented for the first time, and it was agreed that their interpretation required further debate. But this debate did not take place until now: the challenges of the ensuing years – with the migration crisis, the rise of populism in many members states and the unexpected result of the Brexit referendum – prevented EU leaders from looking too much to the future.

A few ideas were launched in September 2017 by Jean Claude Juncker and the new French president, Emmanuel Macron (we reported on them here). They are further elaborated in the communication presented last week by the Commission. Five institutional issues are identified: the procedure for the election of the president of the Commission; the composition of the European Parliament; the composition of the European Commission; a possible double-hatting of the Commission and Council president; the organization of “citizen’s dialogues.”

We will examine each of them in their historical context and highlight the pros and cons of the options presented. 

  1. The procedure for the Election of the President of the Commission

For the replacement of Jean Claude Juncker next year, the Commission is proposing to use the same procedure that resulted in his election in 2014. It is called the “Spitzenkandidaten,” or “lead candidate” procedure, as the chosen president must be the candidate chosen by the political group in the EP receiving the highest number of seats in the election.


Continue Reading Elections and appointments in 2019: the EU institutional debate