Musical Chairs at the New European Commission

The European Union’s Lisbon Treaty is set to officially go into force on Tuesday (December 1), but the breakthrough that finally assured that that would happen after all came a month ago, when Czech president Václav Klaus finally signed it on November 3. By that point it was also clear that Commission President José Manuel Barroso had enough support to be re-appointed to his position for another seven-year term, so that Klaus’ signature set off a scramble, led by Barroso but by no means under his full control, to name the appointees for the EU’s list of top jobs a list slightly-expanded by the new treaty.

The headlining appointments were of course the new posts of EU President (actually, “President of the European Council”) and High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. These went, respectively, to Belgian premier Herman van Rompuy and to the English Baroness Ashton, who has been serving as EU trade commissioner – two relative nonentities whose selection says quite a lot, most of it discouraging, about the sort of political horse-trading that lies at the heart of how EU politics operates. But just as significant is the composition of the new 27-member team of EU commissioners, with Mr. Barroso at their head, since this truly constitutes the EU’s “cabinet” of leaders heading bureaucratic departments (actually termed “Directorates-General”) covering specific areas of policy. It is the changes and personnel-shifts occurring here that offer insights into transformations in policies and priorities over the past five years since the last EU Commission was formed.

For one thing, there are to be a couple new Directorates. One will be responsible for “Climate Action” and headed by new Commissioner Connie Hedegaard of Denmark, who already has gained a prominent public role for herself as the Danish government’s climate change negotiator and spokesperson. Then there’s a new “Home Affairs” directorate, headed by Sweden’s Cecilia Malmström – no idea either who she is or what this new directorate is all about. And then it seems that the old directorate of Development and Humanitarian Assistance has split into two: Development, and Humanitarian Assistance. To make way for the new directorates, the old ones for Multilingualism and Consumer Affairs have been subsumed in others (the former into Education/Culture, the latter into Health – huh?). Give the Commission officials some credit: They have to find a way to create a full 27 meaningful, substantive portfolios, one for each member-state, so that explains all this mixing-and-matching.

Otherwise, though, there will be a large contingent of officials who were Commissioners in the last Commission simply being switched around to new positions. While Barroso of course stays in the top job as President, Baroness Ashton’s new role (from her previous position as Trade Commissioner) effectively constitutes one such intra-institutional move. Here are the others:

  • Joaquín Almunia of Spain goes from Economic and Monetary Affairs to Competition.
  • The Netherland’s Neelie Kroes, who had been in charge of Competition, goes to “Digital Agenda.”
  • Viviane Reding of Luxembourg, who had been in charge of the last Commission’s equivalent “Digital Agenda” office, “The Information Society,” now goes to Justice.
  • Siim Kallas of Estonia used to be in charge of Administration and Audit, but now he goes to Transport.
  • Antonio Tajani of Italy used to be in charge of Transport, but now he’s Industry and Entrepreneurship.
  • Slovenia’s Janez Potočnik used to be in charge of Science and Research, but now he is Environment.
  • Olli Rehn used to be in charge of Enlargment, but now he takes over Economic and Monetary Affairs.
  • Latvia’s Andris Piebalgs used to be in charge of Energy, now he is Development.
  • Cyprus’ Androulla Vassiliou used to be Health, now she is Education, Culture, Multilingualism, and Youth.

OK, those are the former commissioners who are staying on in new jobs. Of course there are a bunch of brand new commissioners as well, but you can survey the entire team of Commissioner-candidates (who must be approved as an entire slate by the European Parliament) here.

Why All Change?

But what does all that mean? For instance, why are so many old faces staying? Well, it’s actually quite understandable when the same person is kept as a Commissioner, especially when he/she is regarded as having done a good job, for coming up with a new person to send to Brussels can be a thorny problem: it is a very political football that often brings controversy and horse-trading within the nation involved, and is thus preferably avoided. But why then do they need to go to new jobs? For certain of these positions the holder has, over the past five years or more, become truly the “face” of the EU on the respective subject – I mean in particular Neelie Kroes at Competition and Olli Rehn at Enlargement – and it would afford large multinationals and EU-applicant countries tremendous peace of mind to see the same persons stay in those jobs – not at all because Ms. Kroes or Mr. Rehn have been particularly soft or accommodating, but simply because then there would be a greater prospect of truly consistent policy. To take another example in this vein: Why does Ms. Vassiliou have to move on from Health, especially at this time when swine flu is a threat to the public throughout the EU? Assuming that she has done a good job there – I can’t offer an opinion – it simply makes sense to keep her in that particularly sensitive policy-area.

Perhaps these people are bored or burned-out after five years in charge of a demanding portfolio and require a change? No, if you think about it, that just does not make sense, especially when you consider that they are moving on to nothing “better” than simply another commissioner position. For the vast majority of these politicians, their service as EU Commissioner will be the highlight of their public accomplishments – the lead entry, if you will, of the Wikipedia entry that will preserve their names to posterity. In this light, then, just as is the case with those who win the US Presidency, or become UN Secretary General, “burn-out” or fatigue cannot enter into the equation. If you are in such a position and are truly encountering such difficulties, then first of all you keep that information private, and secondly you simply take some vacation or whatever other temporary expedient is required to get you back to speed. But you don’t give up that vitally-important public role in which you’re doing such a good job, and for which your public depends on you – definitely not, not until the rules of the game (e.g. the Constitution, the UN Charter) and/or the public who decide whether you should hold the function finally tell you to leave it.

Some other EU Commission conclusions:

  1. The most remarked-upon appointment has been that of Michel Barnier, to Internal Market and Services. This portfolio was previously held by Charlie McCreevy of Ireland, and its awarding to the French representative (that is, from being held by an official from a somewhat lesser EU member-state to one from one of the major ones) now demonstrates how important it has become. But we knew that: Internal Market and Services apparently has under its jurisdiction the question of how to regulate financial markets, in the wake of the financial and economic travails of the past year or so, to include possible new rules for the financial markets found in the City of London. So the big boys (Germany, France, the UK – especially the last-named) were all reportedly keen to get their own representative appointed there. Clearly, the UK lost in the end – gaining Baroness Ashton at Foreign Affairs as a sort of compensation – and the French won. It should be very interesting indeed seeing what sort of policy proposals for new financial regulation come out of M. Barnier’s office.
  2. Another big winner – very surprisingly – is Romania, whose Dacian Cioloş is the candidate for Agriculture and Rural Development. The Common Agricultural Policy still take up the vast majority of EU funds; also, this is a policy-area that has seen many attempts at reform in the past (mainly designed indeed to cut down on that vast tranche of EU funds to which agriculture lays claim). It’s surprising to see it awarded to someone from Romania, hardly an EU member-state in very good standing nor with much of a reputation for honest political dealings or public administration (although still not as bad as Bulgaria);
  3. By similar logic, the campaign somehow to harmonize tax-rates throughout member-states (particularly those imposed on businesses) is also dead for this Commission. How do we know? The portfolio for Taxation and Customs Union goes to Algirdas Semeta, a Lithuanian.
  4. On the other hand, the topic of energy is now big. But we also knew that: as successive Russian/Ukrainian natural gas-delivery crisis have shown, the EU has up to now done a very poor job in coming up with any common energy policy, particularly when it comes to securing energy supplies from the outside. We also know that this portfolio is now important because it is going to the Commission’s German representative, Günther Oettinger, former Ministerpräsident (Governor) of the state of Baden-Württemberg.

    FAZ has an interesing piece on Oettinger (Oettinger does not want to push any further for atomic energy). Do not misunderstand that headline, though: the article makes clear that Oettinger is simply taking himself out of the debate over nuclear power within Germany, which is fully acceptable since he is about to become a European-level functionary. By the way, back when he was part of that debate he was rather a partisan of nuclear power. He is also quoted in the article as insisting that he really owes German Chancellor Angela Merkel nothing for his appointment, that he will not serve “at her sufferance” (GE: Gnaden). That’s the way things are supposed to be, at least; the EU Commissioners are supposed to ignore their national affiliations and instead merely try to serve as the best-possible experts in their assigned fields. But then you remember that one such Commissioner must be allotted to every member-state, and you start to suspect that national politics can never be far away from any Commissioner’s consciousness.
  5. I interpret as well a fading of the EU’s emphasis on enlargement. This is of course because the candidate to be the new Enlargement Commissioner is one Śtefan Füle of the Czech Republic. (He served as Czech ambassador to NATO from 2005 to this year; he also is old enough to have gone to university under the old Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, and in fact to have been a member of the Czechoslovak Communist Party from 1982 to 1989.) Not only is the Czech Republic one of the Union’s smaller countries, but it also is not particularly regarded as competent in the contributions it makes, primarily because of the disaster that was the Czech presidency of the EU in the first half of this year. So what is the attitude of Mr. Füle on probably the most important enlargement issue, namely Turkey? Can that Muslim country be seriously considered for full EU membership? Does anyone know what he thinks? At least the views of the new EU president, Herman van Rompuy, are plain: he has made clear in the past, in his then-capacity as a Belgian politician, his skepticism about Turkey.
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