Returning commissioners: keeping portfolio and political responsibility

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

Piotr Maciej Kaczynski, independent expert on EU affairs.

Can an outgoing Commissioner keep his portfolio in the new Juncker College? This question is pending and relevant mostly for Commissioner Oettinger, who is seeking to keep his job as Energy Commissioner. According to Piotr Maciej Kaczynski, the answer is yes.

Piotr Maciej Kaczynski is an independent expert on EU affairs.

In fact, historically this is more than yes. Since 1958, in each of the Commissions, there was at least one person who continued their mandate from the previous College. Even when in 2009 President Barroso was shifting the portfolios around between many returning Commissioners, he kept his own… Before him, there were quite a few long-lasting Commissioners. For example, Sicco Mansholt held the position of a Commissioner responsible for agriculture for 14 years, until 1972 when he became the Commission’s President. Some years later, the same portfolio was hold by Franz Fischler in two Colleges until 2004. Henri Rochereau was responsible for the development policy in the sixties, followed by other multiple Commissioners Jean- Francois Deniau and Claude Choreysson. The third portfolio most frequently repeated is the competition policy. Hans von der Groeben ran the policy until 1967, during both Hallstein Commissions. When Albert Borschette took the dossier over in 1970, he managed it in the Malfatti, Masholt and Ortoli Colleges. More recently, Karel Van Miert kept the dossier over Delors III and Santer Commissions. Those are just a few of many cases.

It shows that a Commissioner returning to the College can, but does not have to keep, the same dossier. Also, the many names of returning Commissioners with the same mandate include the institution’s returning presidents Hallstein, Delors and Barroso.

So the Commissioners can return to the College with the same dossier. This has to be a political compromise of the President with the national governments approved by the European Parliament. Officially. But the Lisbon Treaty changed the empowerment of the President over his fellow members. With the unclear exception of the High Representative, the Commission President can draw and change other Commissioners’ responsibilities. All their tasks, all their political victories and all their faults are also the President’s victories, mistakes and responsibilities. Why? He has the power to fire fellow Commissioners. If you think that the President would never dismiss a big-member-state Commissioner, think back to former French Prime Minister Edith Cresson (Commissioner 1995-1999) – if President Santer could have, he would have dismissed her. Because he couldn’t, he dismissed the entire College of Commissioners.

Five years ago, President Barroso first negotiated with member states the names of Commissioners and what dossiers they should take. But alongside the Parliamentary hearings and confirmation, he has written letters to each of the Commissioners telling them what he expects of them. Hence one can presume that JCJ will have a similar approach. If the President gives other Commissioners their new jobs descriptions, their political responsibility is exclusively to him while his is wider to the Parliament, the Council, the member states individually, and the general public.

Member states cannot let off a Commissioner. The Parliament cannot let off a Commissioner. Only the President can. This is the power JCJ holds when he negotiates with the states already now.

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