Juncker’s Commission vice-presidents are a well-intentioned, but bad idea

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Could giving his vice presidents power over other commissioners backfire on Jean-Claude Juncker? [EPP/Flickr]

The Juncker Commission will have vice-presidents with power over other commissioners but that may create more problems than it solves, writes Mark Rhinard.

Mark Rhinard, senior research fellow and head of the Europe Research Program at UI, the Swedish Institute of International Affairs.

On the same day Jean-Claude Juncker announced which policy issues would be given to which members of his new Commission, he introduced an unprecedented organisational innovation; powerful, coordinating roles for some commissioners over others.

Juncker hopes these vice-presidents will improve policy coherence and operating efficiency, but they may create more problems than they solve.

Vice-presidents have always existed within the College of Commissioners, the political nerve centre of Commission decision-making. But the post was largely honorary, handed out by a president-elect to reward returning commissioners or to sweeten the deal for a commissioner receiving a lightweight portfolio. In past years, members of the Brussels chattering classes have regularly floated the idea of empowering vice-presidents with real coordinating power – perhaps even with power to take decisions regularly on behalf of the entire College.

Why hand over power to vice-presidents? Two perceived problems lie behind the idea. One is the difficulty of policy coordination in a stove-piped Commission. Policy management is organised along bureaucratic, vertical lines, with each commissioner responsible for her or his own turf. Vice-presidents, by coordinating “commissioner clusters”, it is often argued, could overcome those divides and force commissioners to work together toward more coherent policy outcomes.

Another perceived problem is size. The college, after recent enlargements grew from 15 to 25, then 27 and today 28 commissioners. The Commission’s major expansion prompts arguments that the college is now too large to operate effectively or to give each commissioner a sufficiently weighty portfolio. A better strategy, it is said, is to create hierarchies, with some commissioners reporting to others. That would allow for college business to proceed more smoothly, with the possibility for meaningful debate, for instance – something that was rare in college meetings under Barroso, who insisted on equality in principle (even if was difficult to achieve in practice).

Nevertheless, Barroso, like his predecessors, chose to manage such problems and resisted creating powerful vice-presidents. He preferred not to create hierarchies, nor to formalise the impression of first-class and second-class commissioners during his two terms at the helm.

Juncker has chosen to go in the opposition direction. He created seven vice-presidents with real policy coordination power over specific clusters. One of those even has a form of veto power over other commissioners, when proposals are deemed to violate the subsidiarity principle. Juncker’s move is unprecedented, and seems to vindicate those who floated the idea years ago.

But is it a good idea? Juncker’s new organisation is a noble attempt to address long-standing problems. However, it is likely to create more problems than it solves. Why? Three reasons stand out:

First, asking vice-presidents to coordinate commissioner clusters is no guarantee of policy coherence. Vice-presidents in the Juncker administration are “without portfolio”, which means they control no significant policy area or budget of their own. Former commissioners (Margot Wallström of Sweden, for instance, who was in charge of the fuzzy issue of communication) attest to the lack of respect and voice given to such commissioners when bruising internal conflicts emerge. Who is to say that a skilled and powerful commissioner from, say, a larger member state will allow herself to be ‘coordinated’ by a vice-president from a smaller member state – especially if that vice-president is seen as holding significant biases? The shrewd commissioner will bypass the vice-president, go straight to the president, and/or build alliances outside of her cluster.

Second, the creation of powerful vice-presidents could undermine the equally important demand for improved leadership and political direction in the college. Calls for better “direction from above” rose dramatically after the resignation of the Santer Commission in 1999, when a scandal dramatically revealed that the president had a poor grip over a college run amok. Subsequent treaty revisions gave the president more power. But a particularly skilled vice-president, through force of personality or coalition building, might build his own authority capable of challenging the president’s leadership. The result might be both poor policy coordination and a rudderless Commission.

Finally, hierarchies in the College of Commissioners undermine a central principle guiding the commissioner; collegiality. Since the inception of the High Authority, the predecessor to the Commission in the 1950s, proposals and decisions made by the Commission have been made in a collegial way. That means every commissioner has a meaningful say over a decision, and win-or-lose internally, each commissioner must support that decision externally, once it is made public.

Collegiality allows the Commission to present a united front in an often hostile institutional environment. It is an essential source of strength vis-à-vis other institutions. But the idea of first- and second-class commissioners suggests that commissioners are not equal: some will not have an equal say over all Commission decisions. It is not hard to imagine a disgruntled commissioner – for instance, one who lost in internal policy debates – seeking revenge by going outside of the Commission for support and succor. This would weaken the Commission as a whole.

To avoid these risks, Juncker will need to take extraordinary care in managing his new, hierarchical College of Commissioners – arguably more care than would have been required in a Commission of equals.                                                                                                                                                                 

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