Cluster model could help Juncker solve Commission puzzle

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

Jean-Claude Juncker [European People's Party/Flickr]

An influential think-tank’s proposal to streamline the European executive may hold the solution to incoming Commission President Jean Claude Juncker’s difficulties in apportioning jobs among his new team, writes Jeremy Fleming.

Jeremy Fleming is a EURACTIV journalist. He writes here in a personal capacity.

The Friends of the European Commission – an influential group which includes ex-Commission officials – is convinced that having five vice presidents overseeing and coordinating a number of commissioners in ‘clusters’ would improve the effectiveness of the institution.

The idea is to reconfigure the 28 portfolios available to the nominees of the member states in five new ‘clusters’ reflecting key policy objectives.

The cluster proposal is based on the notion that all the portfolios within a cluster would come under the supervision of a lead commissioner.

The proposal aims to streamline the administration, and address the group’s concern that “Commissioners are increasingly working within silos that reinforce a lack of coordination and operational efficiency within the Commission.”

The new management model could have an intriguing impact on the tricky diplomatic task of distributing roles in the new Commission.

This eluded heads of state and Jean-Claude Juncker meeting in Brussels on 16 July, but needs to be resolved by the end of August.

In fact there are three key complications at stake in determining the distribution of Commission jobs: the UK problem, the Russia problem, and the Eurozone problem.

The British problem

First, the cluster model would resolve the problem of awarding Britain a powerful portfolio even though the British prime minister is threatening to leave the bloc following an in/out referendum in 2017.

David Cameron has nominated a new Commissioner – Jonathan Hill, a member of the UK’s second parliamentary chamber, the House of Lords – and indicated he wants to secure an important portfolio in Juncker’s Commission, such as trade or the internal market.

The other member states may take a dim view of Cameron’s negotiating tactics, but if the UK is given a less significant portfolio, that would play into the hands of the United Kingdom Independence Party’s (UKIP) eurosceptic cause.

“If that is all they are prepared to give us, they cannot want us to stay,” goes the argument.

Under the cluster model, the trade and internal market portfolios would fall within the “Strong & autonomous Europe”; “Powerful economic area” clusters.

In plain English, that would mean even if the Brits were given such a portfolio, the roles would be subservient on paper to the supervising commissioners in charge of these clusters. Those more powerful commissioners would be the High Representative for foreign affairs and the new commissioner for economic affairs respectively.

So the cluster model could represent a means of offering the UK something significant, under the effective ‘supervision’ of another, higher-ranking commissioner.

The Russia problem

The cluster model would also help resolve the Russia problem of whether a new EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs will steer the bloc towards a more or less hawkish position towards Vladimir Putin.

The current situation in the Ukraine antagonised by the loss of flight MH117 has dislodged Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski from pole position as favourite for the High Representative role.

He is considered too hawkish towards Russia by EU states such as Germany, keen for Europe’s trading relations with Russia to be safeguarded.

Meanwhile eastern EU countries – nearest to and wariest of Russia – worry that Italy’s Commission nominee – foreign minister Federica Mogherini – will be a softer touch on Putin.

In the proposed cluster model, the High Representative would chair a group of five commissioners including the trade commissioner.

By balancing a less hawkish High Rep with a more hawkish trade commissioner – or vice versa – the cluster model could offer heads of state comfort that both positions will be balanced in a new commission.

The Eurozone problem

The final and perhaps most intractable problem faced by Juncker, is the Eurozone problem.

Whoever replaces Finland’s Jyrki Katainen as commissioner for economic and monetary affairs will inherit the key post in the new commission.

With stronger supervisory and budgetary controls now in place, management of the eurozone reforms will be critical to the future security of the currency zone.

The new commissioner with this portfolio will help to define policy affecting national budgets.

Where Prime Minister Matteo Renzi wants more flexibility in accounting for Italy’s spending – separating investment in longer-term growth from current expenditur e – Berlin views debt as debt, and is keen to keep it that way.

This difference of opinion is public and current, but is a taster of how defining the economic bloc as it emerges from crisis will bring sharp differences into focus where the interests of the debtor nations compete with the triple-A rated countries, led by Europe’s powerful paymaster Germany.

In this context the position of French President François Hollande – perceived as a defender of those nations favouring solidarity over consolidation – is interesting.

France has suggested that, if the economic portfolio were offered, its respected finance minister Pierre Moscovici would be available. Unlike Italy, the UK and other member states, France has clearly earmarked a preferred portfolio before the nominee.

This sends a clear message to Berlin that – whatever happens – the northern European countries will not be allowed unfettered control over a new eurozone finance ministry.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will want to see the stronger nations of the eurozone influencing the future shape of any putative eurozone finance ministry.

Here again the cluster model could offer the chance to balance an appointment from one side of the argument with appointments within the same cluster from the other.

Juncker faces a multi-storey puzzle as he seeks to balance his new commission in terms of gender, political grouping, geographic origin and the relative affluence of the nominees’ member states.

The recently proposed cluster model may aim to streamline the administration, but it could also serve as a tool to Juncker as he seeks to overcome some of the diplomatic obstacles hindering his path.

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