28 October 2014

Brussels top teams in place. Will the tall ship find a star to steer her by?

With the European Parliament vote now behind it, the new European Commission under President Jean-Claude Juncker will enter into office on November 1st to begin its 5 year mandate. This follows the elections of the new European Parliament in May and the appointment of Donald Tusk, the former Polish prime minister, as president of the EU Council on 30 August. It ends the lengthy process of leadership change-over in the three core decision making bodies of the EU. Real work can now commence.

Key structural changes

That President Juncker has introduced the greatest structural change in the college of Commissioners since its conception by the Treaty of Rome in 1957 should not go unnoticed. For the first time, 20 individual commissioners will have to work in clusters with colleagues who cover adjacent responsibilities under the authority of 5 Commission vice-presidents who will have overall political oversight based on the Commission’s policy priorities. The top priorities of the new Commission are revealed through the attributions of the vice-presidents: jobs, growth, investment and competitiveness; the euro and social dialogue; the energy union; the digital single market; the budget.

Another first is the new role of First Vice-President: Mr. Timmermans will vet the Commission activities and proposals to assess whether the EU level is appropriate for the measures conceived. No proposal from an individual commissioner will be put to the table of the college without the consent of the vice-president in charge of the policy area.

This novel approach should result in the work of the Commission being more focused on its key priorities than it has been in the past when every commissioner tried to get ideas and proposals pushed through. As a result, fewer legislative initiatives should be expected. Debates in the college of commissioners are also likely to be more political than technocratic.  The question of whether a policy or a legislative proposal is opportune and desirable is now likely to precede any of the more granular discussions.

In his speech before the vote in Parliament, President Juncker emphasized the need to restore the “community method”, the process by which the Commission brings forward proposals for consideration and adoption by the Council and the Parliament.  Recently, the Commission was often perceived as the executive body, merely putting into practice the policy guidelines received from the prime ministers in the EU Council. By restoring the institutional orthodoxy based on the Treaty, Juncker emphasizes the Commission’s independent role, solely bound by pursuing the general interest of the whole of the EU.

His Commission, he said, should also be judged by its success in bringing citizens again closer to the European integration ideal. In that respect, one would hope that the newly elected Members of the European Parliament and the ministers in the Council, who ultimately take the decision based on the Commission’s proposals, would increase their efforts to properly explain and defend in public the measures they adopt when meeting in Brussels. Too often, MEPs and ministers – when speaking to their constituents – criticise the requirements “imposed by Brussels” that they have voted upon themselves, shifting the blame for difficult or unpopular decisions back to the Commission.

European Parliament: a key arbiter of political power

The process of the appointment of the Juncker Commission has once again emphasized the role of the European Parliament as the central forum for European debate and the arbiter of political power.  And while Mr. Juncker became president of the Commission because his party, the EPP (Christian-democrats), obtained the most seats in the European elections, gaining the support of a stable majority composed of the EPP, the S&D (socialists and democrats) and the ALDE (liberals and democrats) meant taking on board the political wishes of the three parties.  These included a reshuffling of portfolios of his commissioners after the parliamentary confirmation hearings and the replacement of one candidate commissioner deemed incompetent. 

Policy Priorities

More fundamentally, the policy priorities of the new Commission more closely reflect the desires of the coalition.  Critical voices noticed that climate change and environmental issues or consumer protection initiatives, two key policy fields for the previous Commission, seemed to get less attention. In addition, Mr. Juncker explicitly ruled out any new Member State joining the EU in the next five years – words that will be heard loud and clear in Serbia and in Turkey.

Improving transparency on trade negotiations conducted by the Commission on behalf of the Member States with third countries, such as with Canada and the US or Singapore and Korea, has been a persistent demand of the Parliament.  As such, Mr. Juncker has had to offer MEPs safeguards and nuanced language on the contested inclusion in trade agreements of the standard clause on investor-state dispute resolution mechanism through arbitration procedures. 

The new Commission appears focused on a limited number of key policy priorities. Less legislative initiatives are expected, and its role at the centre of the EU decision making triangle, facing Parliament and Council, appears to have been regained.

Guardians of the Treaty?

With less bureaucratic proposals to produce, the fresh commissioners can turn their attention to their role as guardians of the Treaty, ensuring that EU legislation adopted in the past is properly implemented by Member States and that national legislative and administrative decisions are fully compliant with EU rules. Enforcing competition law, ensuring that unfair trade is tackled and that the internal market functions remains core business as always. The first test of the solidity of the new team’s resolve to hold Member States’ governments to their own commitments will be the scrutiny of the draft national budgets for compliance with deficit and debt restrictions.  These measures, proudly announced by the EU governments as essential to prevent another euro-crisis, appear harder to respect when ministers are faced with the practical and political consequences.

On top of these immediate challenges, new Commission most fundamentally will have to be vigilant to uphold the fundamental freedoms of movement of people, goods, services and capital, solemnly enshrined in the Treaty, against the roaring anti-EU voices of protectionism that wish new barriers to be put up between the 28 Member States and their 550m citizens. The efforts required from the Juncker team to communicate continuously and effectively with the people and governing instances to explain the tall ship of Europe’s course should by no means be underestimated.

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