EU Commissioner Mariya Gabriel, responsible for cultural heritage, resigns

Mariya Gabriel is no longer European Commissioner of Culture. Image: © European Union 2019 – Source: EP (CC-BY-4.0)

EU Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth Mariya Gabriel has been called to Sofia to form the next government of Bulgaria. Her recent resignation creates a challenge for EU policy at a crucial time. The consequences of her departure and who will be the new commissioner for culture and heritage are not clear yet.

As Commissioner for Culture, Gabriel was responsible for the implementation of the New European Agenda for Culture, the promotion of creative industries and supporting the Creative Europe Programme. The last mentioned initiative is the Commission’s flagship programme to support the culture and audiovisual sectors in Europe, with a budget of €2,44B, and is an important supporter of projects in the heritage sector. One of the most recent actions was the dedication of support to the safeguarding of Ukrainian culture and heritage.

Succesfuly petitioned

The inclusion of ‘Culture’ in the Commissioner’s title was made relatively recently, at the start of Gabriel’s term in 2019. Due to a strong lobby from the cultural heritage sector and a petition, the world ‘Culture’ was added back to her job title, even though the commission was already concerned with supporting culture, and the word was taken out earlier. However, having the word included meant that the cultural (heritage) sector would gain more visibility in Europe, an important aspect of politics.

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen said during a speech before the election of the new Commission in 2019 that “culture and education are what link our history with our future. This is what makes us unique. Our soul, our culture, our diversity, our heritage.”

Grateful to the Youth

Gabriel joined the EU executive as the commissioner for digital affairs in 2017 and assumed the portfolio of research, innovation, education, and culture two years later. On Monday 15 May, Von der Leyen accepted Gabriel’s resignation and expressed gratitude for her “constructive and friendly contribution.” Von der Leyen wished Gabriel well and expressed confidence in her European experience being beneficial to Bulgaria.

Gabriel herself thanked the people and stakeholders she worked with over the past few years, but explicitly put culture in the spotlight: “Talents, innovation, excellence – all this would lose its spirit and drive without culture”, she tweeted. “It is Europe’s soul & inspiration. Young people are those who can preserve our heritage for the next generations. Dear young people, I am grateful for all our meetings, and for your energy, vision, and ideas!”

Mariya Gabriel on Twitter

Schinas & Vestager

With Gabriel’s departure, Vice President Margaritis Schinas (Greece) will be responsible for education and cultural (heritage) matters. At the same time, Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager (Denmark) will handle the innovation and research aspects of the portfolio, Politico reported. Additionally, Gabriel’s cabinet will be dissolved as a result of her resignation.

Unfortunate timing

Nonetheless, the timing of Gabriel’s departure is unfortunate for EU research policy. The Commission is expected to develop and publish a strategic plan for the second half of the €95.5 billion Horizon Europe research program, for which the Commissioner was responsible as well. Mattias Björnmalm, secretary general of the university association CESAER, describes the situation as “particularly unfortunate”, ScienceBusiness reported.

Finding a replacement for Gabriel will be challenging: a new commissioner would have limited time to fully grasp the role and make a significant impact. The absence of a commissioner or the appointment of a new one may pose difficulties for policies when their budget and significance need to be defended against cuts and diversions resulting from crises.

Who’s next?

Which leaves the question: when will the new European Commissioner be selected? Bulgaria has to pick a new candidate for the commissioner role in agreement with the President of the European Commission. The candidate will be questioned in a public session by the European Parliament’s relevant committee. Afterwards, the committee will discuss the candidate’s qualifications privately and decide whether to approve or reject them.

If a new commissioner is chosen, they might not keep the same responsibilities as Mariya Gabriel. This could result in a reshuffling of roles within the team of President Von der Leyen, like a game of musical chairs.

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