Three cheers (and questions) for the new Commission

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

“The new European Commission unveiled last week by José Manuel Barroso constitutes an almost optimal solution. The president has demonstrated once again his tactical skills by making the most of the cards he had been dealt by the member states’ governments,” write Antonio Missiroli and Janis Emmanouilidis, senior researchers at the European Policy Centre (EPC), in a December paper.

“The set-up of the new college is a virtuoso act of balancing – in political, geographic, personal and even gender terms. The distribution of portfolios and competencies, the allocation of vice-presidencies, the treatment of incumbent commissioners vis-à-vis newcomers – all display a profound knowledge of the rules of European politics as well as familiarity with ‘selling’ EU policy.

Barroso has shared out jobs fairly among the three main political families, between bigger and smaller countries, old and new members, and – in the end – even between men and women. He has also highlighted new policy priorities by assigning them dedicated portfolios and administrative resources: climate action, energy, and the ‘digital agenda’. 

He has finally split the Justice, Liberty and Security portfolio by giving primacy to fundamental rights and citizenship – conferred to his most senior vice-president, Viviane Reding – and by giving home affairs proper to a Nordic liberal, Cecilia Malmström. He has also emphasised the need for improving inter-institutional links (especially in light of the new and complex institutional architecture and the increased powers of the European Parliament) by appointing an ad hoc vice-president supported by the Commission’s Secretariat-General. 

In other words, well (and cleverly) done. This Commission has a good chance to pass the hearings planned for January in the European Parliament relatively unscathed. Although it is impossible at this stage to rule out bad showings or personal problems for individual nominees, it is the overall ‘package’ that seems convincing and, above all, consensus-oriented. 

Having said all this and praised Barroso’s masterful stroke, it also seems fair to raise a few questions. 

First of all, the post-Lisbon Agenda – a key priority in the foreseeable future – does not seem to fall neatly into any one commissioner’s portfolio. 

Secondly, immigration and asylum policy remain part of the new Home Affairs portfolio. Fortunately, the initial idea to call it Security and Immigration was dropped, as it would have sent all the wrong messages inside and outside Europe. Still, in perspective, there is room here for a separate portfolio, which could bring together the competencies and units currently spread around other Commission services. 

Thirdly, and finally, EU foreign policy is unlikely to remain confined to the domain supervised by Catherine Ashton and the new commissioners who will work with her. External issues related to trade, innovation, the regulatory aspects of the single market, energy security but also climate change, visa and immigration policy may well be part of an ‘extended’ family of EU policies that require better coordination and coherence. 

Besides these rather concrete issues, there is also a more general but no less crucial question to raise: once the Lisbon Treaty is in force and all the new teams fully in place, what is likely to be the next big overarching project the EU engages itself in? In the 1990s it was first the single market and then monetary union, soon followed by the ‘big bang’ enlargement. Ever since we have been caught in the throes and labours of delivering the new treaty. This is over, at long last […] – but what is next?” 

Preventing collective decline and irrelevance while adapting Europe to a globalised and less ‘Western’ world are indeed urgent imperatives – but they need to be driven by a less defensive and more tangible common project. Maybe the MEPs could start asking the new Commissioners this question during the hearings next month?” 

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