You wouldn’t expect the European Parliament to make life for the new Commission easy, and it hasn’t. Giving prospective Commissioners a rough ride in public hearings in early October, MEPs astutely extended their powers beyond what the treaties legally give them. Even if they delay the new Commission coming into office by a few weeks, that is of little consequence in the eyes of parliamentarians, busy flexing their muscles building Europe.
Even before the Parliament proved to be difficult, the member states had a problem to solve when selecting the new President of the Commission: Jean-Claude Juncker, long-standing former Prime Minister of Luxembourg, and a leading member of the European Peoples Party (EPP), the international grouping of Christian Democrat parties. He was acceptable to every member state in the European Council bar two: the UK and Hungary. But this time – for the first time – the new President was elected by a qualified majority. Prime Ministers Cameron and Orban were simply outvoted. Since the Lisbon Treaty came into force, qualified majority voting is the rule for choosing the new President. In June, the European Council voted 26 to two in favour of Juncker.
At the same time the European Council should have cut the Commission back to no more than 20 members, as also stipulated in the Lisbon Treaty. But member states agreed (unanimously) to waive this rule, keeping one seat at the Commission table for every country, despite the whole College now being as unwieldy as the Council itself. So Juncker had to assemble a big team of 27 Commissioners, one future colleague from every member state bar his own. The new President exerts only marginal influence on just who is nominated by each state. Although Juncker wanted more women – up to 40 per cent, he said – member states sent him only nine, no more than the previous Commission. Member states deal the cards; Juncker simply has to play with them as best he can.
Juncker’s list includes seven Commissioners from Barroso’s previous team, three former Prime Ministers, one deputy PM, five current MEPs (whose parliamentary seats will be taken by substitute candidates from the countries concerned) and two former MEPs. It has considerable experience and political weight. The EPP – the biggest political group in the EP and player in most governments in the EU – dominates with 13 Commissioners in addition to Juncker himself. The Socialists and Democrats have eight seats, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe has four, and the European Conservatives and Reformists have just one – from the UK.
Juncker may have had little say over the ‘unelected bureaucrats’ who the member states sent to Brussels to be Commissioners (and eurosceptics love to demonise) but he does have a big say in what responsibilities they have. And that is where the European Parliament is now challenging him for control.
In his inner circle of seven Vice-Presidents, Juncker has three women: Federica Morgherini from Italy (High Representative for foreign and security policy), Kristalina Georgieva from Bulgaria (responsible for budget and human resources) and Violeta Bulc from Slovenia. (As I write, Bulc’s responsibilities are not yet confirmed, and there is also doubt whether she will actually be Vice President.) Beside them, four men: Frans Timmermans from The Netherlands (the Senior Vice-President, from the S and D group, responsible for better regulation, inter-institutional relations, rule of law and the Charter of Fundamental Rights), Andrus Ansip from Estonia (responsible for the single digital market), Valdis Dombrovskis from Lithuania (for the euro and for social dialogue) and Jyrki Katainen from Finland (for jobs, growth investment and competitiveness).
Legally speaking, Parliament cannot reject any individual Commissioner; it can only reject the whole list. But MEPs demanded that the Hungarian nominee, Tibor Navracsics, should not be responsible for the citizenship dossier, and that Alenka Bratusek from Slovenia should not be a member of the Commission at all, let alone a Vice President. MEPs threatened to reject the whole list if she was not replaced to their satisfaction.
That was enough to concentrate minds. Slovenia nominated a new candidate – Violeta Bulc, the deputy PM of a new government – and Juncker bowed to parliamentary pressure. MEPs have secured de facto the power, if not the right, to reject individual candidates for Commissioner.
That gave Juncker another headache: how to reshuffle his team, including his inner circle of Vice Presidents, bearing in mind their individual responsibilities while maintaining gender and political balance. And then how to get both member states and Parliament to approve the new slate.
Vice-presidential responsibilities are very broad, coordinating a team of ‘ordinary’ Commissioners who will have responsibility for just a segment of each overarching dossier. Pierre Muscovini (France), for instance, responsible for economic and financial services, taxation and customs, is in Jyrki Katainen’s team, along with six other Commissioners. Vice-President Katainen will have to knock those seven heads together to get a coherent proposal from his team before it goes on to the full Commission for approval. Likewise Jonathan Hill (UK), responsible for financial stability and capital markets, is in Andrus Ansip’s team, and Vice-President Ansip will have to break down the departmental silos in the Commission to create coherent proposals from his seven-strong team.
Juncker has cleverly attributed portfolios to a number of Commissioners’ portfolios which are of special interest to their country of origin. Jonathan Hill, for instance, as a former financial lobbyist, clearly knows a lot about the City of London. It could be playing to strength, potentially turning poachers into gamekeepers – or his appointment may turn out to be what one commentator described as “giving the fox the key to the hen house.” And can Vice-Presidents from small countries command respect through strength of personality from ‘ordinary’ Commissioners from larger states? The big six – Germany, France, the UK, Italy, Spain and Poland – are not renowned for giving way gracefully in Brussels, and in his initial plan, all of Juncker’s VPs are from smaller countries.
Juncker set out his policy priorities under five key headings in his campaign manifesto before the European Council vote in June. Growth and jobs head his list, with a strong emphasis on the Digital Single Market, harmonising telecoms, copyright, data protection, radio spectrum rules and competition across a currently fragmented market. This is closely followed by the Energy Union, which entails pooling resources, developing infrastructure (especially connectors), negotiating in common (especially with Gazprom) and fast-tracking renewables. Third on his list is a reasonable and balanced outcome to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment negotiations (TTIP), abolishing tariffs and building transatlantic product standards while safeguarding European levels of health and safety, social and data protection. His fourth priority is to reform the Monetary Union, softening the effects of austerity for states in financial difficulties, and involving a stronger external role for the Euro-Group in the IMF. His final priority is keeping Britain in while allowing the eurozone to integrate further, which means at least maintaining the integrity of the Single Market and its four freedoms – what he calls his negotiating “red lines.”
Juncker and his reshuffled team now have to clear the last hurdle of parliamentary approval before they take office, planned for 1 November. But the political heavyweights, the Heads of the Political Groups in Parliament, who will direct the rank and file MEPs for the final vote, may demand more time to allow MEPs to review the newly distributed responsibilities in more detail. Juncker has yet to win them over, but in his final negotiations he does have one more card up his sleeve. Each Commissioner will give him a pre-signed resignation letter just in case they subsequently fail to cut the mustard. MEPs will be watching closely in case Commissioners fail to do as they promised in the Hearings. They can always demand Juncker plays that card.