Thoughts on Team Juncker

It happens only once every five years, so I’m willing to describe as a pleasure yesterday’s eye-squinting, fast-research exercise in tweeting out the announced composition of the new EU Commission under President Jean-Claude Juncker. A couple of conclusions did come to my mind as a result – conclusions which I think you might find as outside the mainstream.

But first the one proviso that should always be kept in mind on this subject. The US and EU government are of course very different in their structure and their powers, but perhaps it would be useful nonetheless to remind ourselves of the nearest analog in Washington DC to the Commission. It is of course the President’s Cabinet, a collection of administrators appointed (and confirmed) to head executive-branch departments in widely different fields of expertise (Foreign Policy; Agriculture; etc.).

Naturally, it is strongly assumed that those Cabinet secretaries will operate solely with the national interest in mind, and not any interests of the particular state or region that they come from. That is the going assumption for EU Commissioners, as well – yet, incongruously, there a system persists whereby each EU member-state gets one of its own on the Commission! The US counterpart to that – just to show how ridiculous the practice is – would be an insistence that each of the 50 states (and Washington DC, Puerto Rico, etc.) have a representative taking up some function in the President’s cabinet.

It’s supposed to be about expertise and administrative ability, not about where one comes from. Truth be told, it is unlikely that the number of jobs there are to do can really be stretched to equal the number of all member-states: there has to be some degree of duplication and/or “make-work” assignments to artificially inflate the quantity of posts available. (For example, Andrus Ansip, Digital Single Market; Günther Oettinger, Digital Economy). I understand the Brussels powers-that-be are well aware of this consideration, and that they made an effort in connection with the Lisbon Treaty to address it to some degree by introducing a cut-back regime in which it was NOT true that every member-state would be guaranteed a Commissioner. However, I also recall that squelching that was one price Ireland demanded for finally voting the “correct” way in its umpteenth referendum on Lisbon.

1) Right, with that out of the way . . . consider the following, typical of the general tenor of tweets in reaction to yesterday’s announcements:

It’s snarky, it’s maybe a bit superficial – but it’s also a clever point. And I would simply like to add to it the name of Tibor Navracsics, the former Hungarian Foreign Minister who has been assigned the portfolio for “Education, Culture, Youth & Citizenship.”

How Hungary gets a Commissioner at all is something beyond my understanding; more to the point, how it is getting €22 billion euros in economic assistance from the EU is really beyond my understanding. For make no mistake, with its almost-total government control over the press and now its assault on NGOS, Hungary currently resembles no other polity so much as Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and is heading even beyond that to a final destination which is that of Alexandr Lukashenko’s Belarus.

Really, the question of how the EU will react as one of its member-states takes a decidedly authoritarian turn that is completely inconsistent with all European norms is one of the biggest tests facing it at present – a test that, unfortunately, few people are aware of, but a test that it is nonetheless so far solidly failing. As that country’s ex-Foreign Minister, Tibor Navracsics is fresh off of a challenging assignment as point-man in what must be seen as the quite successful effort to whitewash the goings-on in his country to the outside world so that, in fact, few people are indeed aware of how repugnant they are to what we expect of EU member-states and how urgently remedial action at the EU level is required.

Further, in recent public statements Hungarian strongman Victor Orban explicitly rejected liberal democracy. What is more, the fastest-growing political party there is called Jobbik, which is explicitly anti-Semitic and anti-foreigner and even has its own uniformed thugs marching around in imitation of Hitler’s SA. True, Jobbik is not in government, but Orban is clearly pleased to foster its existence with government support if only to be able to say “If you don’t put me in as your Conservative government, you’ll only get something worse!”

Is this who we want in charge of EU matters of Education, of Culture, of Youth – of Citizenship? Fox-in-a-henhouse indeed!

UPDATE: A couple of readers – one might have a Hungarian-sounding name – have written to ask, given that Hungary still has to have its Commissioner, as above, which portfolio would I then give them.

How about “Environment, Maritime Affairs & Fisheries”? Yes, the objection will arise immediately: “But Hungary is a landlocked country!” All the better! That way the Commissioner can truly be unbiased in his management of the portfolio! As things stand now, it’s a Maltese – Karmenu Vella – who is slated to take charge of such affairs when the Juncker Commission takes office, and he comes from a Mediterranean/Latin political culture in which, as we all know, one gets ahead by cultivating friends in government and gaining special favors from them, right? Mr. Vella will naturally favor his Maltese fishermen friends – he has been a politician from there, answerable only to voters such as those, and he likely will be that again when he leaves EU service.

Besides, Hungary was ruled by an Admiral, Miklós Horthy, from 1920 through 1944. So don’t go on & on to me about how Hungary is landlocked; these days that is the least of its problems.

2) Next conclusion: Even in Europe, we are truly screwed when it comes to Global Warming/Climate Change.

Remember who we just had covering that portfolio during Barroso II: Connie Hedegaard. She was from Denmark, a country that has shown itself to be quite serious about renewable energy. More to the point, she had been the point-woman and public face of the International Climate Change Conference of December 2009 in Copenhagen. Straight off of that she was taken up as the Danish EU Commissioner, with a remit consisting solely of Climate Change and, presumably, with the backing of the entire Commission to go out and do something to solve it.

Of course, that 2009 Conference had also turned out to be an epic failure: Obama, Merkel, and innumerable other heads of state/government (including the Chinese) traveled there in order to finally get an international accord on global warming accomplished before it was too late, for the sake us all. But they failed.

That seemed to take a lot of wind out of the climate-change-action movement’s sails. Even more than that, the US has now found itself awash in oil and natural gas from new extracting technologies, and so has forgotten its original motivation for cutting down on burning the stuff so much. Now we have greenhouse gas emissions rising at the fastest rate in 30 years. And, in the new Juncker Commission, we have this:

Note: “and Energy.” It’s a sure thing Commissioner Cañete will be much more involved initially with Energy than with Climate Change, not just because of his own professional proclivities as mentioned above but because of the upcoming cut-off of Russian oil and natural gas this winter, and because of the various long-term efforts by the EU to try to lessen the continent’s dependence on those supplies. Those efforts are likely to include greater acceptance of “fracking” and similar techniques to try to emulate that US oil-boom – whatever the subsequent effects on the world’s climate.

Like I said: we are screwed.

3) Finally, there is the curious case of the German Commissioner, Günther Oettinger: now in charge of Energy, soon to be in charge of “Digital Economy & Society.” My main complaint here is how many commentators are pointing to that development as evidence that “Germany always gets the powerful portfolios.” “Digital Economy & Energy”? Quite apart from the redundancy in that portfolio pointed out above, let’s remember the last Commissioner to hold it: Neelie Kroes of the Netherlands. Yes, she made a big splash there, but many of her most-lauded achievements – e.g. cutting down on mobile telephone roaming charges, bullying the Hungarian government to not shut down a dissident radio station (yet) – were in areas only tangentially related to her “digital” remit.

By the accounts I have heard, Oettinger is hardly the sort of personality capable of achieving the same sort of (apparent) success in this post. Indeed, indications I have gathered are to the effect that he is hardly the brightest among his colleagues; that his command of English is fitful, and indeed even his command of German (he is said to have a thick Swabian accent); in short, Oettinger is a classic case of “old politician put out to pasture to the EU” that, thankfully, is otherwise on the wane (as we can see, for example, in the great number of ex-Prime Ministers present in the newest Commission). Really, that the EU’s most powerful state would not only pass up the chance to put through a needed upgrade on its Brussels Commissioner, but would allow its man to be assigned to what is really one of the second-tier portfolios (I doubt this has ever been the case before) is quite suggestive – namely of the EU’s lack of any critical importance to Angela Merkel’s government.

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