In an exclusive interview with EurActiv, Elisabeth Guigou confirms her interest in succeeding Michel Barnier as France’s commissioner in Brussels, calling for a root-and-branch reorganisation of the European Commission, arguing that the EU’s flagship institution should be less “hassling” and “more political”.
For months, it was an open secret that Elisabeth Guigou was jockeying for France’s seat at the European Commission, a position that will be left vacant after the May EU elections.
A former Euro MP and justice minister under Lionel Jospin during the 1990s, Guigou signaled her intentions in early April, challenging Pierre Moscovici, who recently left France’s economic ministry in a bid for the Brussels position.
Although she is seen as the underdog, Guigou is determined to put up a fight, underlining her long-standing involvement in European affairs.
“I can rely on a solid experience of European issues, gained in all positions I have held,” says Guigou who was as an advisor to former Commission President Jacques Delors in the 1980s, and later coordinated France’s positions in Brussels for the Prime Minister’s office before taking on more senior roles.
“As Minister for European Affairs, I negotiated the Treaty of Maastricht in the two intergovernmental conferences. I also represented, with Elmar Brok, the European Parliament at the Amsterdam Conference,” she told EurActiv in an interview.
Now President of the French Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, Guigou eyes a Vice President role at the Commission, possibly replacing Catherine Ashton as part of a foreign affairs portfolio she believes should be expanded to cover also economic relations with third countries.
“We see with the Ukrainian tragedy how interesting it would have been to have a more political and more coordinated approach to all the policies that we conduct vis-à-vis Russia,” she argues.
Guigou refuses however to lay the blame on Ashton, who was often criticised in the media for failing to represent the European Union in international forums. “She was not prepared for this position, since her application was submitted at the last minute. Second, she had to build the [European External Action Service], which was extremely difficult,” Guigou said, downplaying Ashton’s responsibility.
Less hassle, more politics
A seasoned EU specialist, Guigou knows reforming the Commission will be no easy task, chiefly because countries have refused to relinquish their right to appoint “their” commissioner in Brussels. The result is a bloated EU executive with 28 portfolios, overlapping responsibilities, and an effective veto right for each member state due to the Commission’s “collegial” decision-making structure.
“The failure of the outgoing Commission is its lack of debate, of political vision, because the portfolios were overly secluded, which was intentional,” she says, noting that many decisions were taken as ‘A’ points, meaning, without discussion at the weekly meeting of the “college” of commissioners.
However, Guigou is optimistic that the time is now ripe to introduce radical change at the EU executive.
“Why now? I think we have realised that the Commission needs to be managed more politically. It must no longer be perceived as an organ that churns incomprehensible and even hassling procedures for people, but rather focuses its efforts on key policy priorities that meet the needs of European citizens.”
In her view, the Commission’s 28 portfolios need to be regrouped around a small number of “clusters” corresponding to the executive’s core economic competences – competition, trade, economic and monetary affairs, internal market and energy.
Crucially, she says this vision is widely shared by the two leading candidates for the Commission President job, Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz, who want to implement similar reforms.
“I want to be part of this political adventure,” Guigou said, adding: “The time has come because it is the voters who will choose the next President of the Commission.”
The EU executive, she believes, “will inevitably have a more political approach, more centered around the daily concerns of citizens”. Voters would probably hardly disagree with that.
>> Read the full interview with Elisabeth Guigou (in French)
The European elections will be held in all EU countries in May 2014. The Lisbon Treaty states that the European Parliament shall elect the commission president on the basis of a proposal made by the European Council, taking into account the European elections (Article 17, Paragraph 7 of the TEU). This will apply for the first time in the 2014 elections.
The European Parliament, parties and many others have pushed for European political parties to nominate their front-runners in the election campaigns. This will make the European elections a de facto race for commission president, politicise the campaigns and could increase voter turnout, they say.
But others have argued that the European parties’ push for their own candidates may not be the best solution. Raising expectations could easily lead to disappointment, Herman Van Rompuy has repeatedly said, calling for caution in case the council chooses another candidate than the winning party’s frontrunner.
- 22-25 May: European elections held across the 28 EU member states
- 27 May: Informal EU summit meeting to discuss election results and candidates for EU top jobs
- 26-27 June: Appointment of new EU Commission President at EU summit meeting
- 14-17 July: EU Parliament votes to approve or reject Commission president nominee at a plenary sitting
- Summer: Each country nominates a candidate for the European Commission. The New Commission President then distributes portfolios internally
- September: The 28 commissioners are scrutinised in individual hearings before the newly-elected Parliament
- October: EU Parliament votes to approve or reject the new Commission in its entirety