Author: Georgios Papanagnou
After weeks of speculation Jean Claude Juncker finally announced the synthesis of his new European Commission (EC). It includes 5 former Prime Ministers, 4 Deputy Prime Ministers, 19 former Ministers, 7 returning Commissioners. It also includes 9 women out of a total of 28 members (a mere 33% in terms of women’s representation, which ought to be a cause for concern and not jubilation). Amongst the EC members, 14 are affiliated to the European People’s Party (EPP), 8 to the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), 5 to the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) and 1 to the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR). In terms of innovation, Mr. Juncker decided to install seven EC Vice-Presidents (3 of them women), who will be in charge of policy clusters and shall coordinate the work of different Commissioners according to the political guidelines set out by the EC President during his campaign and in the spirit of the priorities he set out during his confirmation by the European Parliament.
Overall, Mr. Juncker seems to have made three key political moves:
Firstly, in a clear nod towards rising Euroscepticism, he gave First Vice-President Frans Timmermans (ex-Dutch Foreign Minister) the task of limiting “over-regulation” and making sure that Commission proposals respect the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality. Mr. Timmermans, who will be the President’s right-hand man, will also have the capacity to veto any proposal coming from any of the Commission’s departments.
Secondly, in the economy Mr. Juncker unsurprisingly opted to follow current European, austerity-focused orthodoxy. Hence, (as expected) he made France’s ex-Economics Minister Mr. Moscovici the new Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, Taxation and Customs. Mr. Moscovici belongs to the social democratic family but in the past has refrained from questioning austerity driven policies. At the same time, Mr. Juncker also installed two new Vice-Presidents with economic portfolios. Ex-Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis was named Vice-President for the Euro and Social Dialogue. He will assume control of the so-called European semester, which includes the enforcement of the EU’seconomic governance rules. Furthermore, ex-Finnish PM Jyrki Katainen is to become Vice-President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness. Crucially the two men, who are both fiscal conservatives and pro-market liberals, will be Mr. Moscovici’s supervisors.
Lastly, the President opted to downgrade the environment-related portfolios. Thus he grouped energy, climate and environment together under Alenka Bratušek, the Vice-President for Energy Union. Within this cluster, the President also merged four existing commissioner posts into two. Energy and Climate were combined into one post, under the leadership of Miguel Arias Cañete from Spain, whilst Environment and Fisheries were also merged and will be led by Karmenu Vella from Malta.
An EU-level grand coalition?
It is easy to see that the effects of the Spitzenkandidaten system are already being felt. This Commission includes people with some political clout. This is a sign of growing maturity in terms of EU politics, and as such it is welcomed. The EC has stopped being the refuge of the nationally “exiled” politician for some time now. The new Commission continues and reinforces this trend.
At the same time, this is a much more political Commission than previous ones. The introduction of the Vice-Presidents and their coordinating role do attest to the fact that there are certain political guidelines acting as common thread. However, whether this new Commission “has the potential to break away from the guardianship of the Council”, as noted by ALDE leader Guy Verhofstadt, is too soon to tell. It is not only the fact that member states in the Council of Ministers (not to mention the European Council) do retain a good deal of power over the EC, but also the matter of political affinities. Quite simply, Mr. Juncker was the conservative candidate and most of his top choices belong to that family. At the same time, Angela Merkel’s Germany exerts a great deal of influence within the Council, thus there will be fewer incentives for dissent.
Which leads to another consideration. This is indeed a more political Commission but given the fact that Commissioners are still chosen by national governments eight Commissioners come from the family of social democrats. Is this an indication of a “grand coalition government”, like those that exist all over the world, not least Germany at this moment? Or is it only resulting from the fact that Commissioners are still proposed by national governments, whose political colours vary around Europe, and Mr. Juncker’s obligation to reward the political families that voted for him in the European Parliament?
Despite some indications to the contrary, this is not a left-right “grand coalition” government. There was no large scale political bargaining and public discussions leading to its formation. And choices for Commissioners were made by national governments. This in reality is a balancing act between a clear centre-right agenda and a convoluted political system that accords national governments a privileged role in setting up the EU’s executive. Hence, even though as a step forward towards an EU Polity it is to be applauded – regardless of one’s political and economic preferences – one cannot help but note its limitations.
NB: The Commission proposed by President Juncker needs to be confirmed by the European Parliament and the European Council. The Parliament will hold hearings of individual commissioners, which may result in embarrassing revelations and even resignations, as has happened at least twice in the past. The final Commission, with whatever replacements, is expected to have been officially confirmed by end October and take office on 1 November 2014.