FEPS Fresh Thinking

The day after the official presentation of the new European commission by the President-designate Jean-Claude Juncker, the press remains ambiguous in its analyses. Some have praised the audacity to try a new structure with the designation of the 7 Vice-presidents, while the mergers and splits within some of the portfolios are still quite incomprehensible. Others are falling into the traditional trap of looking which post is attributed to which country, thus indulging the old ways of the previous mandate – within which the Commission was perceived as no more than the Council’s Secretariat. Finally others vehemently question the competence of some of the designated Commissioners. Of course, it is not easy to fulfil the wishes of all – but one can wonder, whose desires this Commission reflects. Even from a distance, it seems to fall short in terms of responding to the citizens’ wish for change – as expressed during the European elections

Four remarks:

1. President Juncker tried to appear as ready to tackle the key challenges of the EU for the next five years. Nominating popular Foreign Minister of the Netherlands, Frans Timmermans as First Vice-President responsible for better regulation (put simply: “in charge of preventing the EU from becoming even more bureaucratic and incomprehensible”) , he makes a serious attempt to respond to the citizens’ disengagement and find new paths for the EU integration. This is at the first glance not bad, but has to be implemented – which can prove more than tricky, with the fragmented EP and no urge for any Treaty change within the Council.

2. In appointing 5 Vice-Presidents as Coordinators responsible for finding answers to the most profound EU challenges, President Juncker appears inclined to aim at further politicisation of the EU Commission and exploring ways towards a new grand, cross-party coalition for change. This is a departure from the strategy adopted by the President Barroso, who searched for no political calling other than remaining at disposal of the European Council. If Juncker can restore the EU Commission to its treaty-based powers, this would be another good symbol and perhaps a step forward in unlocking the dysfunctional and imbalanced set-up currently in place . President Juncker seems to show to the Council that following the last EU elections and the subsequent mandate voted by the European Parliament, he holds democratic legitimacy and is therefore accountable for his actions. This is also not bad at the first glance, but this has to be proven!

3. Nevertheless, the composition of the College seems to embody the conservative project for Europe. Nearly all of the 5 thematic vice-presidents originate from conservative family. This will influence what initiatives and in what way they will be carried forward. Progressives have another approach to topics like the Energy Union or the Jobs and Growth policies and what is even more frightening is the Social Europe dossier. There is a real difference in seeing how far Europe is going on Jobs, Growth and Social Affairs. When the appointed Commissioner of Economic and Financial Affairs, Taxation and Customs proposes something progressive he will first have two hurdles to overcome before the idea is discussed in the College. This is not to mention the fragmentation of the EP again, because of which it will be most challenging to ensure supportive majority in anything beyond the first reading. We all know how Europe functions. This is a clear invitation to pursue the lowest common denominator and a sign of paralysis that the EU may experience this term.

4. But, any essential manual of modern management or university book on how to organise an administration warns against the creation of confusing structures or too many hierarchies. Who, for example, holds the ultimate responsibility for the digital agenda? Is it the Commissioner or to the Vice-President? To whom do civil servants of the administration report? Who decides the priorities in each political area? Is it the President, the Vice-President responsible for a thematic area or the appointed Commissioner? All this will probably create confusion. The risk is that the College is then concerned more with internal coordination than with clear political guidance! The structure of new Commission is not lean, and the Commissioner-candidates are already using the administration for their own benefits, telling the press in their respective countries a lot of fairy-tales. This is no wonder, especially since the nomination of the High Representative and the President of the Council was predominantly reported as a deal in between the countries, regions, euro-zone and non-eurozone, pro- and anti-Russia approach etc. – but was not at all commented as a decision reflecting European (party) political scene as it now stands. Therefore, the Council will again be the real decisive body within Europe. Hence, President Juncker’s Commission represents stagnation in the developments of recent years. It looks back to the interests of the different individual nations and not forward towards a more European future-oriented Union. In this light, the newly nominated President of the Council, Donald Tusk may indeed achieve the impossible – becoming in his post ‘the’ face of Europe.

This is not what the last elections with the top candidates were about. This does not represent the ambitious plans that were laid before the European electorate!

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