President-elect Jean-Claude Juncker secured confirmation for his new Commission from MEPs today (22 October), winning over a grand coalition of Socialists and centre-right MEPs, using a combination of charm and a few last-minute tweaks to policy.
Parliament’s largest three groups, the European People’s Party (EPP), the Socialists & Democrats and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) broadly voted, with 423 in favour, to support the proposed new 28-strong executive. 209 MEPs voted against, and 67 abstained, primarily, reports indicate, from the conservative ECR group.
The Greens, the European United Left and Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy groups all rejected the new team, whilst the Conservatives and Reformists abstained. Spanish Socialists are said to have voted against Juncker, as their leader Pedro Sánchez had recently announced.
Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the liberal ALDE group, said his force had decided to vote in favour of the “pro-European coalition” after lengthy discussions held late yesterday. One of the reasons, he said, hitting at outgoing President José Manuel Barroso, is that he expected the new Commission to no longer be “a secretariat to the Council”, where EU heads of state and government sit.
Speaking to MEPs ahead of the vote, Juncker warned that his Commission represented the “last chance” to win back citizens’ trust.
“Either we succeed in bringing European citizens closer to Europe, or we fail,” he told MEPs. “Either we manage […] to dramatically reduce unemployment, or we fail. Either we give a perspective to young Europeans, or we fail,” Juncker said in a debate that saw him deploy humour to placate both the right and left.
Juncker called himself “the big loser” in the restructured Commission, because “I have delegated most of my jobs and prerogatives to the Vice-Presidents.” Juncker joked that he retained the power to take those responsibilities back, however.
“I will not demand blind obedience from my Commissioners. I am too old to launch a new career as a dictator,” Juncker said, adding that the new Commission would be “more political” than the current one.
“I have seen Frans Timmermans referred to several times as my right hand man in the press,” Juncker said, adding, “I hope that he will also occasionally be my left hand too.”
Timmermans, the Dutch Vice-President for Better Regulation, Inter-Institutional Relations, the Rule of Law , and Charter of Fundamental Rights, emerged a star, following his hearing.
Juncker insisted that EU’s budget rules will not be weakened against a backdrop of demands by France and Italy for more flexibility in required budget consolidation, against efforts by Germany to maintain more discipline.
“The rules will not be changed,” Juncker said of the budgetary requirements, “but they can be implemented with a degree of flexibility”. The announcement came against a background of tension, as the EU executive prepares a review of the rules by the middle of December.
A bow to the left, and tweeks
In a nod to those in favour of social Europe, Juncker said: “I want Europe to be dedicated to being triple-A on social issues, as much as it is to being triple A in the financial and economic sense.”
The Luxembourgish President-designate announced some strategic tweaks to his proposed Commission, in order to clear the way for a broad coalition of support.
He told Parliament that responsibility for pharmaceuticals – initially assigned to the commissioner-designate for industry, El?bieta Bie?kowska – would be put back into the charge of the Commissioner-designate for Health, Vytenis Andriukaitis. Socialists were unhappy with the industry commissioner controlling the pharmaceuticals portfolio.
Hungary‘s nominee, Tibor Navracsics, will no longer handle the citizenship portfolio, Juncker said, responding to MEPs criticisms about Navracsics’ ties to the Hungarian government, which has clashed with the EU on civil rights issues. The portfolio will instead go to the new home affairs commissioner, Dimitris Avramopoulos of Greece. Navracsics was initially assigned Education, Culture, Youth and Citizenship, and will retain Education, Culture and Youth.
Juncker also promised that a highly anticipated €300 billion investment programme aimed at boosting growth and jobs in the EU will be presented before the end of the year. It is unclear at present how the scheme will be financed.
Clarity on finances still a priority for Parliament
Jean-Claude Juncker defended the division of economic and social responsibilities between Commissioners and Vice-Presidents, saying “there is a Vice-President for the Euro and Social Dialogue, a Commissioner for Economic Affairs and another for Social Affairs. The Vice-President will of course have to coordinate the initiatives of the two Commissioners, because the European Semester is about more than just the economy”.
This explanation was well received by MEPs
“I would like to see you intervene immediately in the case of a deadlock between these Commissioners,” warned Guy Verhofstadt, president of the liberal ALDE group. He added that this would be unacceptable if the Commission was to make progress.
The conservative, Eurosceptic ECR group welcomed the new Commission structure, despite abstaining from the vote.
Syed Kamall, President of the ECR group, praised Juncker for coming up “with an integrated structure focused on outcomes,” and said the ECR was “particularly impressed” with the nomination of Vice-President Frans Timmermans.
The new Commission will start working on 1 November, using the time available to assume the dossiers of the outgoing members of the college.