Juncker gives key portfolios to German allies, austerity backers

Journalists wait to see the Juncker Commission. [Georgi Gotev]

Jean-Claude Juncker, the incoming head of the European Commission, unveiled an EU executive team today (10 September) that handed key economic responsibilities to French and British commissioners, but overseen by others, in a new-look hierarchy.

Appointing Britain’s Jonathan Hill to a brief including banks and the integration of EU capital markets was widely seen as a gesture to Prime Minister David Cameron, a vocal critic of Juncker and his support for a powerful Brussels that Cameron says could push the UK to quit the European Union.

Pierre Moscovici, the nominee of French President François Hollande, and a proponent of government spending to boost euro zone growth, will run economic and monetary affairs.

But in a sign of the balance struck between the competing interests of the 28 EU member states, both the economy and finance portfolios will be overseen by two vice-presidents on Juncker’s Commission.

Former prime ministers Jyrki Katainen of Finland and Valdis Dombrovskis of Latvia will be respective vice-presidents, with oversight of Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness and The Euro and Social Dialogue.

Both northern euro zone countries are allies of Angela Merkel, and backers of austerity.

Germany, as the economic powerhouse of the Union, will undoubtedly have a major say in its affairs. Berlin’s representative, the outgoing EU energy commissioner Günther Oettinger, will be responsible for the Digital Economy portfolio, notably the telecoms industry.

The introduction of an upper layer of seven vice-presidents without their own direct portfolios, including a powerful first vice-president in the shape of Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans, was explained by Juncker as a way to improve the coordination of the Commission’s work.

Others have long pointed out that giving each member state a seat on the executive has made it increasingly unwieldy, as the EU has expanded greatly.

However, some analysts questioned whether the overlap of responsibilities could also now create confusion and fuel rivalries between the various commissioners.

Jobs and growth

Juncker, a former prime minister of Luxembourg, whose appointment by EU leaders in June was fiercely opposed by Cameron, said his goal was to provide the European Union’s half a billion people with better prospects after tough years of unemployment and stagnation that fuelled a surge in support for anti-EU parties in May’s election to the European Parliament.

“In these unprecedented times, Europe’s citizens expect us to deliver,” Juncker told a news conference. “After years of economic hardship and often painful reforms, Europeans expect a performing economy, sustainable jobs, more social protection, safer borders, energy security and digital opportunities.

“Today I am presenting the team that will put Europe back on the path to jobs and growth.”

In a surprise move, Cameron’s Tory ally Hill, a former public relations consultant and leader of the House of Lords, who is little known even in London, was given a revamped portfolio entitled Financial Stability, Financial Services and Capital Markets Union. He will be in charge of relations with the European Banking Authority.

One analyst described Hill’s job as “a major peace offering” by Juncker to Cameron, who welcomed the appointment as showing that efforts to create a banking union was not the sole preserve of countries using the euro currency. Britain has feared that eurozone efforts to regulate financial markets to guard against new crises could hurt London’s dominance as a banking centre.

Keeping Britain in the bloc is a major goal for EU leaders in the face of Cameron’s demands for Brussels to devolve powers and plan for a 2017 referendum on continued British membership.

The nomination of Nordic allies of free-trading Britain to key roles in global trade negotiations and anti-trust policy may also offer London comfort.

Danish liberal Margrethe Vestager will be in charge of the powerful competition portfolio that gives the EU a big say in the expansion or merger plans of the world’s biggest companies.

Sweden’s Cecilia Malmström will have the task of negotiating the world’s biggest trade agreement between the United States and Europe.

Miguel Arias Cañete of Spain will be energy and climate change commissioner, though former Slovenian former premier Alenka Bratušek will have the more senior post of vice-president overseeing the development of an energy union.

El?bieta Bie?kowska of Poland is commissioner for the Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and Small Business.

Juncker noted that he had nine women on his commission, the same number as in the outgoing team led by José  Manuel Barroso – something that members of the European Parliament had said would be important to their confirmation of the Commission in office.

Of the seven vice-presidents, three are women, including 41-year-old Federica Mogherini of Italy, who was chosen directly by EU leaders as the Union’s foreign affairs chief.

‘Right hand’

Dutchman Timmermans will become, in the president’s own words, Juncker’s “right hand” as first vice-president with direct access to the work of all the other commissioners.

Critics of Juncker’s appointment had questioned his willingness to heed those like Cameron resistant to the continual expansion of the powers of Brussels, as well as of his ability to take on such a major managerial workload.

Hugo Brady, an expert on the European Union at the London School of Economics, said it was “very clever” to have appointed as deputy Timmermans, a leading veteran of European diplomacy from a country often sceptical of EU centralisation.

“Juncker has done a very good job of marshalling quite an array of big beasts. A lot of decisions are quite courageous,” he said, noting a mix of left- and right-wing politicians.

“Hill for financial affairs is a major peace offering to Cameron. It is clever, it is political and it is generous,” Brady said. “The Commission is also well stacked up with fiscal hawks, in a gesture to Germany.”

The new Commission is due to take office on 1 November, subject to its confirmation by the European Parliament. 

Speaking to the press, Commission President-elect Jean-Claude Juncker said that in these “unprecedented times” and after years of economic hardship and often painful reforms, “Europeans expect a performing economy, sustainable jobs, more social protection, safer borders, energy security and digital opportunities”.

“Today I am presenting the team that will put Europe back on the path to jobs and growth. In the new European Commission, form follows function. We have to be open to change. We have to show that the Commission can change. What I present to you today is a political, dynamic and effective European Commission, geared to give Europe its new start. I have given portfolios to people – not to countries. I am putting 27 players in the field, each of whom has a specific role to play – this is my winning team."

He said that his proposed team includes 5 former Prime Ministers, 4 Deputy Prime Ministers, 19 former Ministers, 7 returning Commissioners and 8 former members of the European Parliament. 11 of these have a solid economic and finance background, whilst 8 have extensive foreign relations experience, Juncker said.

MEP Georgi Pirinski (S&D, Bulgaria), expressed his disappointment for what he sees as an unbalanced Commission, in which the centre-right is given dominant positions. Pirinski, a former Foreign Minister, hints that the support of his group for the Juncker team in Parliament should not be taken for granted. Speaking to EURACTIV, he stated:

“The test for Jean-Claude Juncker was to propose a Commission which would clearly meet the demand of European citizens to turn to a new course for the European Union. This course would give priority to a social market economy, which would put an end to stagnation by stimulating demand through both investment growth and improving real incomes, thereby boosting the creation of attractive jobs. In short – the objective is to put an end to "business as usual".
“The first impression from the candidates’ portfolios announced by Juncker today is that he did not give clear signs of his readiness to deliver on this necessary and desirable change. On the contrary - through what appears as a new organization of the EU executive, he in fact preserves the dominant position of the conservative vice presidents and commissioners in charge of economic and financial policy. The issues of employment and social policy are subordinated to a vice-president from this political family.
“The support the Socialists gave to Juncker in the European Parliament on 15 July was linked to the firm understanding that when he would choose his team and would fine-tune his program, he would take into account the urgent need give a leading role of the social aspects in the work of the new Commission. This is why the proposed composition and structure raises serious questions about the possible support of the Group of Socialists and Democrats in the upcoming discussions on nominations and votes”, Pirinski concluded.

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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