As Europe wakes up to a new executive, expected to be much more ‘political’, a chorus of reactions greets the change of structure of the new Juncker Commission, but analysts are adopting a wait-and-see attitude towards the new strategic rationale.
With 18 former ministers and prime ministers, the new Commission will be ‘a very political Commission, as incoming European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said presenting his new executive.
“This new Commission has the potential to break away from the guardianship of the Council. We count on Juncker to show such leadership,” Guy Verhofstadt, ALDE group leader said, stressing his disappointment at the number of women commissioners.
“What will play a crucial role in our assessment will be the commissioners designates’ commitment to our democratic values, the rule of law and which direction Europe should take,” Verhofstadt, referring to the hearings in the European Parliament, due for the end of September.
Juncker’s nominees are indeed subject to approval by the Parliament, which is expected to hold hearings on each appointee — but can only accept or reject the entire Commission, rather than approve some nominations, while blocking others.
In the past, the European Parliament has grilled a number of commissioners-designate. In 2004, MEPs forced Italy to withdraw the nomination of Rocco Buttiglione, whose portfolio was to include civil liberties, for his views on homosexuality and women. In 2010, Bulgarian nominee Rumiana Jeleva and commissioner-designate for humanitarian aid and crisis response – was forced to step down after making a flop of her hearing and showing little competence in the policy area.
Despite Juncker’s confidence that his team will not suffer any blow, sources point to Spanish commissioner-designate Miguel Arias Cañete.
“Miguel Arias Cañete as climate and energy change commissioner is a surprising choice, giving his connections to the oil industry,” said Greenpeace EU managing director Mahi Sideridou.
Another candidate likely to be attacked by political opponents is Slovenia’s current caretaker Prime Minister Alenka Bratušek. A video circulating in social media shows her singing “Evviva il comunismo e la libertà“, the best-known line from “Bandiera Rossa”, also known as Avanti Popolo, one of the most famous songs of the communist era.
Dens of intrigue
Beyond individuals, the structure of the new Commission makes analysts wonder whether it will achieve all it promises to achieve.
The European Commission, the EU’s executive, has evolved into dens of intrigue and bitter personality clashes. Above all, it has become an institution where individuals are not encouraged to speak up about its weaknesses or the incompetence of senior, tenured, and very well-paid staff, commented Carnegie Europe’s Judy Dempsey.
One wonders if Juncker’s new structure is aimed at cutting out the bureaucratic heaviness of the commission so he can deal directly with the vice presidents and get things done faster. Whatever the reason for the rejigging, power struggles cannot be ruled out, added Dempsey.
Juncker’s decision to give vice presidents a boosted role and making Dutch and Italian foreign ministers Frans Timmermans and Federica Mogherini, his right and left-hands, might create friction among former ministers, who might want to shine and drive their own portfolio rather than being dictated by a vice-president.
Commission sources insist that the new project teams comprising one vice president and the assigned commissioners will meet once a month and the vice president will have a coordinating role rather than a top-down approach.
“The idea is to prepare the work together so that there is better coordination on initiatives, that’s the role of the vice president,” the source added.
The new Commission College will have seven vice presidents, each leading a project team that the executive said mirrored political guidelines, such as Energy Union; Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness and Digital Single Market.
Observers though question the new combining of portfolios, like climate action and energy.
There is no strategic rationale for this and, if confirmed, it reduces our capacities to respond adequately to the global climate crisis both at home and abroad, said Mark Johnston of the European Policy Centre.
Also, the merger of the environment and fisheries portfolios, environmental protection overall has also been weakened by the new line-up, he added.
“Everywhere else in the European political arena environment and energy matters are with good reason handled separately. Greenhouse gas pollution and energy systems are quite different phenomena and so are measured and regulated in different ways,” he argued.
As ever with EU appointments, much will depend on the teams who will support the commissioners, analysts concur. But the big question is the role the EU’s new foreign policy chief will play. Mogherini, takes over that job from Catherine Ashton on November 1.
“With Juncker focused on jobs, growth, and the future of the euro, this could be a chance for Mogherini to give the EU the strategic direction and focus it sorely needs. If not, the EU can forget about being a real foreign policy player,” said Dempsey.
Surely, Juncker bets on that as he bets on the Dutch Timmersman to restore confidence and trust of European citizens in the EU.