Expert: Barroso can make Commission count again

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Reappointed President José Manuel Barroso has a unique opportunity to “recuperate the role” of the European Commission and “really influence policymaking” in the coming years, Antonio Missiroli, director at Brussels think-tank the European Policy Centre (EPC), told EURACTIV in an interview.

Antonio Missiroli is a director at Brussels-based think-tank the European Policy Centre (EPC).

He was speaking to Olof Gill.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

How will the role of Commission president change now that José Manuel Barroso has secured his reappointment? 

One important thing to keep in mind is that compared to the past, what changes this time around is the role and the powers of the president of the Commission. In the past, the president was appointed at the same time as the other commissioners, so the time afforded to him or her in shaping the college was much less significant, and the number of commissioners was lower, so there were less options. 

Now the situation is different. The president is no longer primus inter pares [first among equals], but, as the procedure of the past few months has shown, he will receive a completely different mandate. That means the president is going to have much more leverage in reshaping the structure of the Commission and with Lisbon, this superior role of the president will become ever more apparent. 

It seems that Barroso is going to great lengths to placate the various political factions within the Union in order to have an overall consensus and not politicise the future of his own college. Does that not detract the increases in power you argue he will enjoy? 

First of all, this is a fact of life – it has always happened. The Commission has always had to be as representative as possible of political forces and realities across the EU. What has changed, to a certain extent, is the overall political balance across the Union. 

What Barroso is confronted with today is a Europe in which more than 20 of 27 member states are centre-right governments. He himself is centre-right. Due to the procedure for the appointment of the college, i.e. that yet again countries will only be able to appoint one commissioner, this will further strengthen the centre-right. Paradoxically, in the past, when bigger countries had two commissioners each, there was a possibility of rebalancing political families because in most countries the two commissioners were from different political camps. 

Now there is definitely a risk that the next Commission will be predominantly centre-right. Margot Wallström [Sweden’s commissioner from a centre-left party] recently said that she has always been in a sort of awkward position because she felt isolated politically in a Commission that was predominantly either centre-right or liberal. 

Due to a particular set of political circumstances, the liberals are over-represented in the outgoing Commission, because coalition governments often awarded the position to a liberal. So that is something Barroso may try to work on. Where there is a coalition government – and in particular a grand coalition, of which there are at least three in Europe currently – he will probably ask the party of the centre-right to give the position to the centre-left in order to have a more balanced Commission. 

Whether this will happen is difficult to say, but to come back to your original question, this is not necessarily a weakening of the president’s position. If he plays his cards well, he can use his early reappointment over the next few months to negotiate with member states to have a more balanced set-up for his Commission. He doesn’t want to be seen as presiding over a centre-right Commission. 

Do you think, therefore, that he is for a stronger policy-oriented Commission as opposed to a strengthened role for himself? 

I think Barroso will be confronted with a dilemma for himself. Does he want to remain as presidential as he has been during his first term, or does he want somehow to create a more collegial atmosphere in which exposure is diluted and shared? 

In the first term, it was entirely understandable that he wanted to stamp his own authority on the college. Now, if he’s going to leave in five years time, he may have an interest in diluting his responsibility. I personally think he will have a unique opportunity over the next two years to recuperate the roles of the Commission and really influence policymaking. 

He will be the most senior guy in town, and if Lisbon is passed, the new top positions, no matter how high-profile the personality of their holders, will need time to have their staff and procedures in place. I think they would need at least two years to see their positions fully developed, so in the beginning they will be weak. 

Barroso will have Spain and Belgium as his first rotating EU presidency countries, and they are very much Community-minded and will not rock the boat. So he has this window to make a difference. After that he will become a lame duck. 

The three new portfolios Barroso has mentioned are one for climate action, one for migration and security, and one for fundamental rights. Do you think that these are reflective of current political moods? Do they go far enough? 

Well, certainly the idea of having a commissioner for climate action is timely and in line with popular sentiments. Most European citizens think this is a priority, so therefore giving visibility to such an engagement is appropriate. It will be interesting to see what else, besides what is currently contained in the environment portfolio, will fall under that heading. Certainly, that commissioner will act at the climate change conference as the trade commissioner does at the WTO negotiations. 

As for the migration and security job, it had already been discussed in the past, as the JHA portfolio [Franco] Frattini had – even more than [Jacques] Barrot – had become awkward, because the commissioner had to go to the European Parliament on day one and act as the defender of individual rights and on day two had to go there to defend the security of citizens, and so on. This duality had become a little bit embarrassing with the relative growth of the JHA portfolio. 

In this past legislature it has become the policy area generating the most legislation – even more than the single market – and not only competencies, but also coordination functions have increased enormously. Therefore the idea of splitting the portfolio makes sense not only terms of quantity, but also in terms of reference to the Council. The commissioner for fundamental rights would deal with justice ministers and the commissioner for immigration and security will deal with interior ministries. 

The fundamental rights portfolio also follows a certain political logic, whereby Barroso wanted to show to some groups in the European Parliament that he cares about these matters. Personally, I see nothing wrong with that, it’s what political leaders are expected to do. 

Have you heard any discussions of other potential new portfolios that may not come about this time around? 

This leads us to a very sensitive issue. Of course the president could envisage other portfolios that make sense in terms of policy formulation and in terms of image and PR. 

If the president is serious about research and development and the new Lisbon Agenda, then it could make sense to have a commissioner for human capital, encompassing R&D and the modernisation of the European economies in a forward-looking manner. This would send a very good signal to public opinion and the outside world. Bits and pieces of other portfolios could fall under this, for example the commissioner for regional funding has chapters under his portfolio that also fund research and development. 

So this type of streamlining under the heading of certain policy priorities is something he can do. 

I think his two key challenges, however, will firstly be how to organise external relations if the Lisbon Treaty is ratified, given that it creates a number of constraints [with the creation of the new ‘top jobs’], and secondly how to address the issue of the vice-presidents. 

There are basically two ways this can be addressed. One is to keep a sort of number two at the Commission, who under Lisbon could be the vice-president and high representative for foreign affairs. Alternatively, Barroso could have a set of vice-presidents that are comparable in political weight to the above position, balancing it off. 

That is not currently the case because at present, the vice-presidents are ceremonial – it’s a protocolary role with a difference in title and salary, and one member more in their cabinet. Sometimes the position has been given to reflect seniority, two-term commissioners for example, or as compensation for having had a weaker portfolio. 

So Barroso can stick to this formula or use a different logic, using the vice-presidents to balance off the power of the high representative, making them the coordinators of some policy areas. This would create so-called ‘pools’ of commissioners under the coordination of a vice-president. 

The price of this outcome for Barroso – and that is why it is a very sensitive decision for him – is that if you have four or five strong vice-presidents, your own authority could be diluted. Whereas if you are the only president, with one vice-president imposed by the treaty, you can say ‘I am number one, this is my number two, with whom I have to make deals, and then there are the other 25’. 

So this is a political and personal dilemma for Barroso. If he opts for this latter scenario, he will have to be very clever in handing out vice-presidencies. They shouldn’t all be given to big countries – that would send a very bad message. 

So just as an example, he could give the six big countries three vice-presidencies and three big portfolios, and then give the same to small countries. I think that logic could work. 

And if Lisbon, for whatever reason, does not come into force – what happens then? 

There is this idea of the 26 plus one [under the terms of the Nice Treaty, the college of commissioners must be reduced by at least one. As a result, constitutional experts have outlined a ’26+1′ solution whereby 26 EU countries retain a commissioner, and one country is assigned the post of high representative for foreign affairs currently held by Javier Solana]. 

But then you would be confronted with a political choice on the part of the country that is offered the High Representative, because on the basis of the current treaty, the position has less power than under the Lisbon Treaty. And therefore the whole organisation of the college would be different, as there would be no hierarchy in external relations. 

What other portfolios could be adapted or modified? 

The big challenge will be what to do with the single market. That is the portfolio that has been split and regrouped many, many times since the single market was launched. That is also where the strongest core competencies of the Commission lie. Within those competencies, there is an adjudicative role, where they have to release rulings on mergers, acquisitions and so on, and on the other hand, there is the role of guardian of the single market in terms of state aid. So maybe these functions should be split anyway – they are in part now, but not entirely. This is an area where a pooling of competencies under one vice-president would make sense. 

Should the migration and security portfolio emerge, is there not a risk that it will be perceived politically, particularly by the centre-left, as being a hardline ‘policeman’-type portfolio, given that as you pointed out this could be a strongly centre-right Commission? 

It depends on the details, but it is true that putting these headings together risks sending the wrong message, i.e. that migration is a security issue. If you look underneath the surface, immigration-related issues are already spread across different portfolios. 

So it remains to be seen whether beyond the discussion of portfolios, there could be some streamlining at directorate-general (DG) level. I understand that, if not soon, then perhaps in two years’ time – the Commission has the possibility to reorganise internally during its mandate – a sort of DG for immigration could be created, banding together the immigration competencies of DG Employement, JHA and so on. This could prefigure the creation of a specific portfolio for migration issues, something that would probably be badly received by member states at this point in time, as they might perceive it as the Commission claiming competence over the issue. 

So it is in a state of flux. 

How do you expect things to pan out timing-wise? 

Let me put it this way. If Ireland votes ‘yes’ [on 2 October], during the month of October talks and discussions will take place between Brussels and the capitals, and these discussion will, I believe, for the first time be over portfolios as well as names. 

I think Barroso will try to use the ‘grey area’ between an Irish ‘yes’ and the formal assessment of when the treaty can enter into force to deliberate on these matters. 

If the Lisbon top jobs come into force, and subsequently an entirely new power struggle emerges between Barroso and the new positions – particularly if they are high-profile personalities – would it not make sense for him to try and bolster his power as much as possible? 

As I said, Barroso is confronted with two challenges. One is internal, whether he should go for a very presidential Commission or not, and there are pros and cons to both. 

The second challenge is external, these other personalities. It is very difficult at this stage to make any guess because we don’t know who these people will be, and the treaty says very little. 

I think the function of the Commission has changed a little bit, and will change even more with the Lisbon Treaty. In the ‘golden era’ of Jacques Delors, the Commission had multiple functions and had the full support of the core member states, with the exception of Margaret Thatcher. 

Now the situation is completely different: there is no Franco-German engine, there are 27 member states with very hetereogenous demands to accommodate, and you also have a different institutional/political system wherein the policies that have advanced most over the past 10 years are not policies that fall under the exclusive competencies of the Commission. 

Very often the competence is hybrid – it is shared with the member states: JHA, foreign policy, even energy to a certain extent. So these are the big issues, and the Commission is not fully in charge. 

As a result, the Commission has had to learn to negotiate with the other EU institutions, and also to become more of a consensus promoter. 

With Lisbon in particular, the role of the European Parliament will increase, with co-decision in JHA, agriculture and so on, and as a result the Commission will have to become ever more of a mediator between the institutions and promoter of the common interest in the best possible sense, rather than executive branch that pushes policy through. So it will have to refine its skills in negotiating with the other institutions. 

The Commission will be co-shaping rather than shaping policy, and that is something that has not entirely dawned on many people in the Commission itself or the member states. This does not necessarily, however, mean a diminution of the Commission’s role. 

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