Timmermans to wield veto right over ‘excessive bureaucracy’ (UPDATED)

Frans Timmermans at the opening night of the Crossing Border Festival 2008 [Flick/Maurice]

Frans Timmermans [Maurice/Flickr]

“He will be my right-arm,” said European Commission President-elect Jean-Claude Juncker, refering to Frans Timmermans, as he unveiled his new team on Wednesday (10 September), promising a more effective European Union which can deliver results, and restore its lost credibility.

The Dutch Foreign Minister, a social democrat, will watch over the subsidiarity principle, whereby the EU should only intervene where it can act more effectively than national or local governments.

Under the new European Commission lineup, Timmermans will officially be First Vice-President in charge of Better Regulation, Inter-Institutional Relations, the Rule of Law and the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

The brand new position reflects the EU’s aim to focus on areas where it can make a difference.

“This is our last chance,” Juncker said in reference to the May European elections, which saw a steep rise of right-wing extremist and eurosceptic parties in the European Parliament.

“We have to present citizens with a European Union which can resolve the big problems and is timid or (non-existent) when it comes to minor problems.”

“We have to do better, we have to do less.”

Six vice-presidents to act as ‘filters’ for Juncker

One big novelty in the new Commission structure is the creation of 6 Vice-President roles without portfolios who will be in charge of coordinating groups of commissioners working in related policy areas.

Most importantly, all vice-presidents will have right of veto, and will have power “to stop any initiative, including legislative initiatives” of commissioners working under their watch, Juncker said.

“Vice-Presidents will lead project teams, steering and coordinating the work of a number of Commissioners. This will ensure a dynamic interaction of all Members of the College, breaking down silos and moving away from static structures,” the Commission explained in a statement.

As an example, Juncker said Valdis Dombrovskis, in charge of the euro and social dialogue, will “work closely” with both the French Commissioner Pierre Moscovici, in charge of economic and monetary affairs, and the Belgian Commissioner Marianne Thyssen, in charge of social affairs.

The pair will report to Dombrovskis “before” an item is put on the agenda of the Commission’s full weekly meeting College meeting, Juncker said, explaining the former Latvian Prime Minister will act as a “filter”.

However, Moscovici will still represent the Commission at the Eurogroup meetings of euro zone economic ministers, Juncker clarified in response to questions from journalists about the distribution of roles.

French opposition politicians were quick to denounce the decision and spoke of an unacceptable “tutelage” for Moscovici.

“For the first time in its history, France has no autonomous European commissioner,” said Philippe Juvin, spokesman of the French Delegation of the centre-right EPP group in the European Parliament. According to Juvin, Moscovici will need to have all his decisions validated before they are agreed to.

“This puts France to shame. It reflects a sad reality: the slow death of the French influence in the EU,” said Juvin.

Veto right

As First Vice-President, Timmermans’s role will be special, and will include a veto right over any proposal coming from any of the Commission departments. “The First Vice-President can stop any initiative, including legislative initiative, coming from a commissioner’s team,” Juncker said.

Most of the vice-president positions were attributed to former Prime Ministers, reflecting the importance that Juncker gives to the 6 new vice-president roles.

“A prime minister is somebody who coordinates, who animates a group, keeping in mind the big priorities,” Juncker said, adding that one of Timmerman’s main attributions will be the “fight against excessive bureaucracy”.

“The vice presidents are not super-commissioners,” Juncker assured but will act as “filters” for the Commission President.

With 5 former prime ministers, 4 deputy prime ministers, 7 returning Commissioners, 19 former ministers and 8 former MEPs, the Commission has the right team to address a very difficult geopolitical situation and strengthen the economic recovery and build a United Europe that delivers jobs and growth, Juncker said.

Open Europe, a British think-tank close to the Conservative Party, has hailed the nomination of Timmermans as Commission First Vice-President, calling it "a positive development for the EU and for Cameron’s reform hopes."

"Timmermans was instrumental in coining the Dutch Government’s maxim for EU reform 'national where possible, Europe where necessary' and its ‘subsidiarity review’ which had the stated aim of 'a more modest, more sober and at the same time more effective' EU".

For the euro-critical think tank, Timmermans’ appointment can be seen as "a sign that Juncker’s Commission will make a serious attempt to focus EU action on core tasks and give the principle of subsidiarity some teeth. One caveat will be the number of staff and level of leeway which Timmermans is given, if both are limited, so will be his impact," Open Europe said in a briefing note about the new Juncker Commission.

About Moscovoci's appointment, Open Europe said that, "With former Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen in the VP post overseeing Moscovici, Germany has ensured that there is a voice in favour of austerity and structural reform to balance out the French preference for fiscal expansion."

More generally, Open Europe was happy about the creation of new Vice-President positions overseeing policy ‘clusters’, saying many of these posts are "held by liberal eastern member states."

However, it did question whether this would work in practice. "If the new Vice-Presidents can facilitate better policy co-ordination there is the potential to streamline decision making, although given the many areas of overlap, there is also the potential for turf wars. Smaller member states are well represented in the group of VPs which could lead to de-facto political stalemates in certain areas between high-profile commissioners from larger states and the VPs."

In theory, however, all decisions in the College of Commissioners "will still be taken by a majority of all Commissioners in a secret vote," Open Europe said.

The European consumer's organisation BEUC was more cautious about Timmermans's appointment.

“The focus of Juncker I on ‘better regulation’ is explicit. It is evident that laws need to be efficient. But, let’s be clear, a one-sided reduction of regulatory burdens on business does not equate to better law-making and should never be at the expense of consumers, the environment or workers. To shy away from taking necessary actions can be a very costly exercise for our societies in the long-term.

As far as the Party of European Socialist (PES) is concerned, the appointment of Timmermans as First Vice-President is welcome. "Vice-President Timmermans will act as President Juncker’s Deputy and ensure a strong PES voice across all areas of the Commission’s activity. In addition, we are delighted to see that the key portfolio of Economic and Financial Affairs has been awarded to Pierre Moscovici, giving a strong voice to our political family in the reform of the stagnant European economy."

For green activists at Friends of the Earth Europe, the appointment of Timmermans is clearly bad news. "The creation of a First Vice-President position in charge of ‘better regulation’ is highly alarming," reacted Magda Stoczkiewicz, director of Friends of the Earth Europe. "If this signals a strengthened attack on so-called ‘red-tape’ – which has so far been pushed hardest by the UK – then it could put essential measures to protect people and the environment at risk. Health and safety, environmental protection, labour and consumer standards are not administrative burdens but essential rights of European citizens that must be protected.”

The European Commission is the EU body responsible for proposing and enforcing legislation, implementing EU policies, and representing the EU in the world.

The Commission is elected every five years, and it is composed of 28 members informally called “Commissioners”. Every member country appoints one Commissioner. The Council nominates one of the 28 members to become the president of the team.

The European Parliament then has to approve the president-elect, and later on his new team.

Every Commissioner is responsible for an EU policy. The parliament organises hearings before voting on whether to approve the whole Commission, to check if each one of them is fit for the job.

Once the parliament approves the new team, the Council of the EU instates the new Commission.

  • 29 Sept.-3 Oct.: European Parliament to hold hearings with commissioners-designate
  • 1 Nov.: Mogherini to take on the role as the EU's High Representative
  • 1 Dec.: Tusk to take on the role as Council President

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