Towards a European Commission with fewer competencies for more power?

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

juncker_tusk_dijsselbloem.jpg [Fabian Willermain]

Fabian Willermain argues that turning the Commission into an elected and accountable European government would both legitimise the institution in the eyes of the citizens and take some powers out of the executive’s hands.

Fabian Willermain is research fellow at Egmont, the Royal Institute for International Relations and he is also secretary general of Stand Up for Europe.

Since France’s President François Hollande declared his willingness to set up a “eurozone government”, many have seen the Eurogroup as an embryo of this much mooted institution. While we have to admit that the Eurogroup was at the centre of discussions during the “management” of the “Greek problem”, the repeated recent crises have mainly revealed failures in the management of the eurozone by the intergovernmental method. The day-by-day management of the crisis, with 19 ministers having dozens of meetings all ending in the early hours of the morning, would inevitably lead to the dismantling of the eurozone or even the Union itself. My opinion is that a “eurozone government” can only emerge within the current executive, the European Commission.

Furthermore, changes in the European institutional framework, both in practice and in the European political discourse, reinforce this position.

Indeed, in the first speech that followed his election as Commission President, Jean Claude Juncker enunciated very clearly that “The Commission is not a technical committee made up of civil servants who implement the instructions of another institution. The Commission is political. And I want it to be more political. Indeed, it will be highly political.” This ambition largely stems from the fact that for the first time since the first European elections in 1979, the Commission president was elected by European citizens. President Juncker likes to say that, unlike his predecessors, he was democratically elected and therefore has real legitimacy. However, the citizens themselves do not share the feeling of having voted for one of the most important positions on the European political scene.

Nevertheless, the principle of the “Spitzenkandidat” – which implies that the candidate of the political family most prominent in the European Parliament formally becomes the president of the EU executive – has become reality. This mini institutional revolution has meant that after the 2014 EU elections, the European Council had no choice but to propose the candidate of the European People’s Party (EPP), the largest political group in the Parliament after the elections.

In the same spirit, the hearings in the European Parliament have become a real baptism of fire for Commission candidates. A European Parliament report published on 19 June also invokes a series of recommendations that would further formalise the hearings for the European elections in 2019, to the point where the Parliament could reject an individual candidate for Commissioner.

For all practical purposes, the principle that the head of the Commission is elected by the European citizens should also be set in stone. And why not, in a more or less near future, have a president directly elected by universal suffrage by all the citizens of the continent? This would have the direct consequence of strengthening the presidency’s legitimacy and political authority – and that of the Commission, too.

If we observe an evolution of the Commission’s presidential election process, it remains true that the appointments of the other members of the Commission still depend on the member states. But then again, the president of a strong executive must be free to form his own team, or at least, be able to choose from several candidates proposed by each member state. This would mean the end of the perpetual negotiations between capitals over the selection of Commissioners.

Finally, in order to transform the Commission into a genuine European government, the system of one Commissioner per member state cannot continue. In other words, it should simply comply with Article 17, paragraph 5 of the Treaty of Lisbon.

In the same vein, at the Eurogroup meeting of 13 July, one of the most influential European ministers of finance, Wolfgang Schäuble, implied to his colleagues that if the Commission became a real political body, this would end up limiting its powers. Some have seen in these words an attempt to limit the power or the influence of the Commission. I think it needs a more nuanced reading. It is simply that a truly political Commission cannot manage competencies that more properly belong to a genuine executive. Competition policy is one example, as is any matter which requires some form of neutrality.

Therefore, some roles should be entrusted to independent agencies, as is the case in most European countries. Indeed, in all EU member states, Competition policy is under the responsibility of independent authorities. This does not mean that the Commission’s power of initiative would be removed from its field of competencies. Above all else, this would allow the European executive to be freer and have greater political authority in the European landscape.

European integration can only become legitimate in the eyes of citizens if political authority is channelled through a genuine European executive that is recognised and acknowledged by those citizens. In most member states it is the government and its ministers – rather than the parliamentarians – who attract the attention of citizens and the press. It is in this sense that I believe that for the EU to appear legitimate and effective it will require a true and powerful EU executive answerable to the European Parliament.

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