My name is Julian. I am a 29-year old political analyst based in Berlin working for an independent, non-profit think tank.
Finally, the dust of institutional reshuffling which started with the 2014 European Parliament elections has settled. The last act of this procedure was the approval of Jean-Claude Juncker’s college of Commissioners by the European Parliament (EP). Before, the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) exercised their power of democratic scrutiny and quizzed each of the 27 Commissioners on their skills and their qualifications for the posts proposed to them. This procedure certainly was a great example of representative democracy – a procedure that should also become a model for national parliaments. Even more, the very fact that each Commissioner’s suitability for their respective portfolios was lively discussed in the Member States (at least with regards to the respective national Commissioners) highlighted that the European Parliament is at the core of bringing European politics closer to its citizens.
The European Parliament eagerly flexed its muscles rejecting the nomination of Tibor Navracsics due to his track record of being responsible to cut down freedom of press in Hungary as a previous member of the Orbán-government. However, in the end, he managed to be approved by the EP after Citizenship was taken out of his portfolio. The Slovenian candidate Alenka Bratušek was rejected by the MEPs and replaced by Violeta Bulc taking over the transport portfolio. Finally, the MEPs grilled the French nominee Pierre Moscovici, the UK’s Jonathan Hill and Spain’s Miguel Arias Cañete doubting their suitability for their designated posts – economic affairs, financial services and climate and environment, respectively. They only were approved after the biggest political groups in the European Parliament, the EPP, S&D and ALDE, struck a deal. The latter might be a paradoxical side-effect of the introduction of the Spitzenkandidaten-process: As these parties with the support of the Greens already had paved the way for Juncker to become Commission President, they had a hard time striking a balance between critically assessing his candidates but at the same time not damaging his reputation before he actually can begin his work. Even more, the invisible power of the growing number of Eurosceptic MEPs that will haunt the European Parliament for the next five years was already visible. A failure of approval for the Juncker-college would have given them the first opportunity to highlight the intrinsic deficiencies of European decision-making.
Thus, naturally, the public debate was dominated by interrogating the suitability of Juncker’s personnel. However, in my view, the really big deal is something else: Juncker has clearly stated that his Commission should no longer only be the ‘guardian of the Treaties’ but be more political and shake off its bureaucratic image. Member States have sent no less than four former Prime Ministers, several former Deputy Prime Ministers and Ministers of Foreign Affairs as well as numerous other former politicians with high-ranking political posts at one point in their careers injecting the new Commission great political experience. This highlights the growing trend that high-ranking representation in European institutions is increasingly important to European capitals. The new Commissioners have been encouraged by Juncker to actively present new policies and ideas and defend them publicly. He, personally, already fought his first battle with the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and with UK’s David Cameron defending the role and the work of the Commission. Moreover, the distribution of key resorts has been shaped more clearly than before along the lines of party politics. This is most obvious in the economic resorts in which the Commission has most competences and which have been staffed with conservative-liberal candidates. For example, even though the French Socialist Pierre Moscovici has been appointed to take over the portfolio of Economic and Financial Affairs, his decisions will be controlled by his conservative colleagues Valdis Dombrovskis and Jyrki Katainen. This is because Juncker has reshuffled the hierarchical structure of the new Commission. The new college of Commissioners is now organised alongside political projects which reflect the key priorities of his presidency, creating jobs and growth, achieving better regulation and less bureaucracy and accomplishing an energy union, a connected digital single market, a strengthened social dimension in the eurozone as well as a coherent EU foreign policy. Each of his seven Vice-Presidents will be in charge of these key areas and will lead and coordinate a team of Commissioners working together in order to improve coherence of the diverse portfolios. Thus, Juncker has managed to overcome the dilemma which was caused by the decision of the European Council to sidestep the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty in 2013. EU leaders had decided to uphold the rule that the European Commission has to accommodate a portfolio for a Commissioner of each of the 28 Member States thus constraining the functioning of the Commission due to a fragmentation of political Resorts.
If successful, the new hierarchical structure could help to overcome the institutional silo mentality and promote efficient and creative policy-making in order to tackle the most pressing issues in the EU: reviving growth, reducing unemployment and bringing public debt levels in a number of Member States down to sustainable levels. Great hopes are set here on Juncker’s 300 bn rescue plan. If not, however, Juncker risks that his college of Commissioners will be absorbed with personal conflicts, turf wars and general confusion with the definition, distinction and delimitation of portfolios and competences. Therefore, the first months of Juncker’s presidency will be crucial. Juncker’s strategy, to overcome Member States’ resistance to EU policies and to actively engage them by handing their nominees power in areas where their government is at odds with Brussels is a large venture. It will be essential to quickly build a bridge between the Member States of Europe’s north and its south and find a common position on the EU’s pressing socioeconomic challenges – the EU’s major cleavage in the course of the economic and sovereign debt crisis. The window of opportunity to tackle such challenges and to materialise these efforts in concrete policy substance which will be crucial in order to gain back support and legitimacy for his ‘last-chance’ Commission from Europe’s citizens, is narrow.