July 22, 2014
Andrew Duff looks at the third, concluding phase of the Spitzenkandidaten experiment for the appointment of the new European Commission. He finds that the initiative now lies with President-elect Jean-Claude Juncker.
We have now entered the third and final phase of the constitutional innovation, introduced by the Lisbon treaty, on the matter of the election of the new European Commission.
The first two phases of the Spitzenkandidat experiment have been remarkably successful: the political parties duly put up champions to lead their election campaigns for the European Parliament; the more successful of those, Jean-Claude Juncker of the European People’s Party, was then nominated on 27 June by the European Council – despite some squealing – to succeed President Barroso. On 15 July, the European Parliament returned the compliment by giving Juncker an endorsement of 422 votes – a respectably larger vote than that the 409 votes it had accorded Martin Schulz, the runner-up Spitzenkandidat, for his election as President of the Parliament.
The third stage will tell us whether the new method really works. Will the President-elect, enjoying the strong dual legitimacy of both Council and Parliament, be able to shape the formation of the new Commission more or less to his taste?
Size and shape of the new Commission
Jean-Claude Juncker makes it clear he wants a gender balanced, pluralist college which delivers results. Good. But it is worth noting that his pitch for greater efficiency and effectiveness is already hampered by the decision of the European Council (of which he was then a part) to resile from the formula of the Lisbon treaty whereby the size of the Commission would be reduced in 2014 to two-thirds the number of member states. So he is lumbered with finding 27 colleagues for whom he needs to give respectable (if not always large) jobs.
The first shoes to fill are those of Cathy Ashton, the first Vice-President of the Commission who is also the EU’s High Representative for foreign affairs and who chairs the Council of Foreign Ministers. The treaty gives the power of this appointment to the European Council, with the consent of the President-elect. On 16 July, as we saw, the European Council failed to make the appointment of the High Rep. There are several reasons for this failure, mostly good, and all highly political: party, region and gender are all relevant factors in reaching a decision on top of the question of individual expertise and inclination. The fact is that nobody yet quite fits the bill. The problem is that without Ashton’s successor in the frame the rest of the package deal will be elusive.
The European Council cannot be envied, not least because the size of the package deal is smaller than it used to be. The Spitzenkandidat exercise has deprived the prime ministers of their former freedom of manoeuvre over the Commission presidency itself. There is also a sequencing problem: not all the jobs they have to fill come up at once. The precipitate decision to appoint a new NATO secretary-general earlier this year deprived the leaders of another useful bargaining chip. Herman Van Rompuy, the current President of the European Council, appears to be in no hurry to see his successor appointed (his term continues until the end of the year), while the post of chair of the Eurogroup does not need to be filled until next summer. And nobody dare speak of the identity of the President of the Convention which will have to be called in due course to revise the EU treaties.
So having failed to find a foreign minister, the European Council has left the matter officially until reconvening on 30 August. In the meantime, each government must make a formal nomination to the new Commission. Several prime ministers are rather unhelpfully pitching for specific (and often the same) portfolios. Most, including Cameron, Hollande and Merkel, are ignoring the need for gender balance. Renzi, while proposing a woman, is going for broke on the High Rep.
Jean-Claude Juncker, whose job it is to distribute jobs within the college, can – and, by all accounts, will – stand up to these unseemly demands from national capitals. His role has subtly changed, in this third phase of the process, from being the President-designate of a political party into President-elect of the Commission, whose task it is from now on to seek and find the general interest of all states and citizens.
Each Commissioner-designate will run the gauntlet of European Parliamentary hearings in September, where they will be tested for their competence, European commitment and indubitable independence. Then the entire Juncker college, plus its full political programme, is subject to a vote of MEPs – an open ballot by simple majority – in October. No national government in Europe is subjected to such a thorough inquisitorial parliamentary process.
The direction to take
Juncker already has the advantage of having published his ‘A New Start for Europe: Political Guidelines for the next Commission’, with ten political priorities covering jobs, growth, fairness and democratic change. These offer an intriguing contrast to the ‘Strategic Agenda for the Union in Times of Change’, which was offered up by the European Council at its June meeting. The latter document fulfils the European Council’s role of defining the general political directions and priorities of the Union for the next five years. The European Council wants an EU which is ‘stronger outside, more caring inside’. It advocates ‘stronger euro area governance and stronger economic policy coordination, convergence and solidarity’. But couched in such (inevitably) wide and ambiguous terms, it falls to the new Commission, and especially its President, to set the real political and legislative agenda – not least in terms of democratic renewal.
On the High Rep, Juncker says he wants ‘a strong and experienced player to combine national and European tools, and all the tools available in the Commission, in a more effective way than in the past’. He will establish a cluster of Commissioners under the new High Rep for the dossiers of trade, aid and development as well as for the key geographical regions. He also wants Commissioners with specific portfolios on rights issues and on immigration policy.
In terms of economic policy, Juncker will take forward the 2012 (but since seemingly abandoned) paper of Van Rompuy on ‘Genuine EMU’, and pursue enhanced convergence in the economic, fiscal and labour market policies of the eurozone. In legislative and budgetary terms, there will be a new special fiscal capacity for the eurozone, more emphasis on the social dimension, and better parliamentary control of the EU’s economic governance at both European and, where relevant, national levels.
Come the autumn much more flesh will be needed on a programme for the Commission if it is to serve Europe usefully for its full five year term. If the second term of Jose Manuel Barroso was characterised by crisis management, the first (and only?) term of Jean-Claude Juncker must be a time of steady reform and consolidation – the era of internal enlargement of the Union. In particular, a further round of budgetary reform (including revenue) is badly needed, and new financial instruments created to bolster investment beyond the €300bn so far envisaged.
In constitutional terms, the EU must be let to evolve logically so that its capacity to act effectively and legitimately keeps pace with the demands made on its system of government, at home and abroad. Not least among the challenges is Britain’s problem with European integration – a problem which grows larger by the day, and remains to be confronted, not least by the British themselves.
In this context, Jean-Claude Juncker has made a good start on his mandate. He is making a serious pitch for the appointment of a more political Commission whose task is to drive an agenda aimed at building a stronger, more united and democratic Union. As a federalist, I wish him well. Were I a nationalist, I should be worried.