The New EU Commission: Germany A Relative Winner

On Thursday the new European Union Commission President José Manuel Barroso unveiled his scheme for dividing Commission portfolios among the commissioners named by the other 24 EU member-states (other than his own Portugal, that is). Not only did he do this a full two weeks before the deadline he himself had promised for presenting his portfolio distribution, by most accounts he did a rather good job with his decisions of whom to put where. As the Financial Times Deutschland put it, he rather skillfully reconciled the different goals of “fulfilling a wish for everyone, yet remaining the chief at the center, all while forming a competent team.”

German Bundeskanzler Gerhard Schröder (currently visiting Romania, among other reasons to visit for the first time the grave of his father, killed there in the Second World War), for one, is happy with what Barroso has come up with. This is despite the new Commission President’s evident shunting aside of pressures by the Union’s bigger countries to name a “supercommissioner” in charge of industry and economic affairs, i.e. one with authority over other commissioners. The Germans particularly thought that that would be appropriate for their own commissioner, Günter Verheugen, but it didn’t happen – or did it? This question constitutes the core of most German press coverage of the new Commission roster.

As is turning out often to be the case, the best coverage comes from Handelsblatt (Approval Among EU States for the New Commission – free registration required). And it’s here that we get to read about comments from Schröder that might make you believe that in Verheugen Germany has that “supercommissioner” after all. The German Chancellor pointed out the “elevated position” that Verheugen will have, as chairman “over several [other] commissioners, whose duties have to do with competitiveness.” Well, it is also true that Barroso made Verheugen one of his Commission vice-presidents – him and four others, of which it seems that the Swede Margot Wallström will be the “first vice-president among equals,” i.e. first to stand in for Barroso when he is not present, and working most closely with him in the matters of relations with other EU institutions and public relations generally. And yes, a large part of Verheugen’s remit will be to pump some life into the “Lisbon process” – that is, the campaign to fulfill the declaration made by EU heads-of-government at their summit in 2000 to make the EU the world’s most dynamic and competitive economy by 2010. But ultimately Barroso has put himself directly in charge of that effort.

The Handelsblatt article offers a couple more information-nuggets in other areas. For instance, for all the congratulations circulating around for Benita Ferrero-Waldner, current Austrian foreign minister and designee to be the commissioner in charge of EU foreign relations, it’s recognized that she is actually just a place-holder for Javier Solana to take that job when its role is expanded with the ratification of the proposed EU Constitution (if that in fact happens). And the article also points out the very interesting implications of the naming of the Latvian commissioner, Ingrida Udre, as responsible for taxes and customs. The issue is still simmering within the Union of what has variously been called “tax dumping,” specifically, of certain member-states (usually new ones from the East) having radically-lower corporate taxes than others. This appointment of a Latvian to take charge of the issue suggests strongly that efforts by Germany, France, and others to “converge” these tax rates more – mainly by getting the low-taxers to raise their tax-rates – will probably get nowhere.

REGIONAL AID DEFINITELY HEADING EAST NOW

Another inference, concerning regional aid, can be made from Barroso’s list of appointments. This system within the EU of granting money to relatively poorer or under-developed areas takes up the second-biggest chunk of the Union budget, after agriculture. One consideration that somewhat tempered the enthusiasm for enlargement among countries like Spain, Greece, and Portugal was that, while they were the EU’s poorest counties in the old fifteen-member Union and so got most of this money, this would stop once the much-poorer countries from Eastern Europe joined to make it a Union of twenty-five. Wasn’t there some way to temper this, to make the change in money-flow with the accession of those new members not so abrupt? Apparently not; Danuta Hübner of Poland has now been put in charge of regional aid, which graphically reinforces what will be its overwhelming Eastern European focus from now on.

Elsewhere, both the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the Financial Times Deutschland agree that, if there is a loser in Barroso’s roster, it is France, with the French commissioner Jacques Barrot “only” getting the transportation portfolio. But French President Jacques Chirac set himself up for this, as Barrot was supposedly a relative “lightweight” as a nominated commissioner in the first place, and plus he speaks no other language than French. But again, although Germany got less than the “supercommissioner” it had wanted, the German press is generally confident that it did rather well with the responsibilities that Verheugen was assigned. As Gerhard Schröder himself pointed out (and the FAZ reported), you would expect that, since Germany is after all the biggest net-payer into Union coffers. Any Commission and Commission President needs Germany’s support in its activities; and, Schröder promised, Barroso’s Commission will certainly get it.

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