Who will hold the initiative in the Juncker Commission?

Berlaymont [Sébastien Bertrand/Flickr]

In theory, the 28 European Commissioners share the power to initiate legislation. But this may well change with the concentration of power in the hands of the President and his entourage of 7 Vice-Presidents. EURACTIV France reports.

“I am not going to start a career as a dictator at my age,” the European Commission President-elect, Jean-Claude Juncker, promised on 10 September, citing General de Gaulle.

Juncker’s proposed new architecture for the College of Commissioners, which centralises power with the President and his seven Vice-Presidents, has surprised many political observers in Brussels who are used to a Commission taking decisions by consensus.

Not anymore: the power of legislative initiative, which is the prerogative of the Commission according to the treaties, could effectively be taken from the “junior” Commissioners and placed in the hands of the eight “senior” ones.

Crucially, it would appear that any legislative bills initiating from the ‘simple’ Commissioners will need the approval of their superiors in order to move forward.

All vice-presidents will have power “to stop any initiative, including legislative initiatives” of commissioners working under their watch, Juncker said as he presented his new team on 10 September, raising questions as to the new power structure of the new Commission.

Theory and practice

In practice, things may be different however. “The treaties specify that the legislative initiative is in the hands of the College of Commissioners, and that will not officially change,” says Daniela Corona, a researcher at the College of Bruges. But the concentration of this power with the Vice-Presidents, who will have the power of veto over the work of their ‘subordinate’ Commissioners, is a new development, he said.

It remains to be seen how effectively they will impose this pyramidal structure on the Commission.

From a legal viewpoint, proposals for new European laws must have the support of the College of Commissioners before being proposed to the European Parliament and the Council. And a simple majority of the 28 commissioners sitting in the College is sufficient for them to be endorsed. However, initiatives must appear on the agenda in the first place, and only the President of the Commission can decide to put an item there.

Double validation

“The President of the Commission already had exorbitant powers over the College of Commissioners, and thus over the legislative initiative. He can also dismiss a Commissioner, as shown by the Dalli affair,” Daniela Corona points out.

Clearly, the objective of this new organisation is also to avoid excessive legislating. Indeed, the process involved has become more complicated: initiatives must now be validated by the Commissioner and the Vice-President concerned before being presented to the College of Commissioners.

“This will also re-politicise the Commission,” believes Charles de Marcilly, head of the Brussels office of the Robert Schumann Foundation. “In recent years, the political level had fallen to the level of Directors General, while the Commission endorsed the texts. There were very few votes in the College of Commissioners, as projects were adopted by consensus. This had to change,” he said.

Yannick Jadot, the French Green MEP, is questioning the “excessive concentration of powers that could result in the loss of collegiality”. “This is not healthy in my view; all it takes is a Vice-President to oppose a project and the whole thing will come to a halt!”

Centrist parties, however, welcome this new organisation. But critics on the left side of the political spectrum point out that their enthusiasm can be explained by the fact that the Liberals have an “enormous” five Commissioners on the new executive team. “Because after all it is surprising that the centralisation of power should so delight the Liberals”.

March goals

The normal functioning of the new Commission may also be upset in the first year. 

In the past, an official road map of bills to be implemented the following year has been established from December, so that the Directorates General could gradually fill the list.

This time, the calendar will be in turmoil for at least a year, because some of the Commissioners have three months, from the start of December, in which to present their first projects. This is the case for the French Commissioner, Pierre Moscovici, who has until March to present his roadmap.

There will be other smaller upsets. If all Commission reshuffles come with their share of cardboard boxes and musical chairs, the Juncker Commission will have to do rather more than switch round a few offices, in the Berlaymont Building in Brussels. To start with, the High Representative for foreign policy will arrive for the first time in the Berlaymont.

But the addition of Vice-Presidents with no administration directly at their service also changes the situation. At the top of the administration, the Directorates General have already changed in advance of the new Commission, although nothing is yet set in stone.

The role of the Bulgarian Commissioner, Kristalina Georgieva, in charge of Budget and Human Resources, will be essential in this reorganisation.

Critically, Commissioners without their own workforce may find it hard to make their ideas heard, which could have political consequences. “We will also find ourselves with a lot of civil servants with technical knowledge and specialisations in areas that do not necessarily interest Juncker, like transport or the REACH regulations on chemicals,” Charles de Marcilly anticipates.

Away from national alliances

With the new configuration, one of Juncker’s main goals is to create a true government, representing the general interest, rather than a sum of individual interests.

Pervenche Berès, a French Socialist MEP for the last 20 years, would like to see this objective fulfilled, but she is concerned about the power that France will wield in the new setup. “When we had a problem with a text, Barroso always told us to go and see our Commissioner,” the legislator recalls.

Now, MEPs will have to find political allies, rather than relying on their national Commissioner, and take on the powerful Vice-Presidents: the Dutch, Bulgarian, Slovenian, Finnish, Lithuanian, Estonian and Italian Commissioners. This will doubtless be easier for members of the centre-right EPP and the Liberals, who have three and two Vice-Presidents respectively, than for the Social-Democrats, who only have two. Both are also in areas with little regulatory power: Federica Mogherini with Foreign Policy and Frans Timmermans with Better Regulation and the simplification agenda.

The new Commission presented by Jean-Claude Juncker on 10 September is organised in a pyramid structure, with clusters of Commissioners responsible for interconnecting subjects organised beneath 7 Vice-Presidents.

>> Read: The paradoxical appointments of the new Commission (In French)

  • 29 Sept.-3 Oct.: European Parliament to hold hearings with commissioners-designate
  • 1 Nov.: New European Commission expected to take office

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