THE NEW COMMISSION - SOME INITIAL THOUGHTS
New Commission President Barroso surprised even seasoned Brussels-watchers by announcing the distribution of portfolios for his new College of Commissioners a full week before his own self-imposed deadline and, even more significantly, in the middle of August – a month during which EU business has always previously ground to a total halt during the traditional holiday month. This was a significant gesture clearly intended to mark out his Presidency of the Commission as being dynamic, streamlined, efficient and business-like and, arguably, in contrast with his predecessor. And the strong start was not missed by member states: Michel Barnier, French Foreign Minister, saluted the “authority and rapidity” with which Barroso organised his team.
Much has been written about the new Commission and it is not the objective here to repeat this. The goal here is to identify some of the compromises struck by Barroso in allocating portfolios and, more importantly, to try to draw out some of the features of the new Commission which the team and the allocation of portfolios may signify.
At the outset, however, it is important to note that Barroso’s early announcement of portfolios should not be over-estimated. Though allocating Commission portfolios requires a delicate and highly sensitive political balancing act, it is in some respects the easy part. Far more of a challenge for Barroso lies ahead in the long term, specifically in making his team act collectively, thereby fulfilling Barroso’s ambition that the new Commission works as “team players committed to the European general interest”. Also, most immediately, the 24 Commissioners-designate must survive unscathed the confirmation process in Parliament. On the latter, hearings in respective committees will be held during the weeks beginning 27 September and 3 October, with a vote scheduled on the College as a whole in Strasbourg during the week beginning 25 October. The Barroso Commission takes up office on 1 November 2004.
The Allocation of Portfolios – a “Liberal Commission”, “Rewarding wartime allies of the past”, or astute choices for the future?
Commentary on Barroso’s Commission and his allocation of portfolios vary between it being described as a “reformist team” (The Guardian), “a seemingly useful new EU Commission” (The Times), “recompense for those who supported with him [Barroso] the US intervention in Iraq” (Le Monde), and as having placed “prominent liberalisers in the principal portfolios” (El Pais). The Times even commented that “what Donald Rumsfeld designated “New Europe” has done well out of arrangements at the Commission”. In his own words, Barroso aimed at creating a Commission known for its “efficiency and effectiveness”.
One should not take these different interpretations too far. What is accurate is that Barroso has to date steered a highly politically astute course between the competing demands made upon him – of which there are many. Not only did he need to balance competing political interests as in any coalition government nationally but, possibly even more crucially in Brussels, Barroso faced the challenge of striking a balance within the multidimensional complexity and multi-faceted cleavage lines of competing interests relevant in EU politics. These include: large countries versus small countries, new countries versus old, pro-Iraq war allies and foes (a new cleavage), the need for gender balance, traditionally dirigiste countries versus liberal countries, southern countries versus northern countries, etc. And, in addition, he has a team (notwithstanding the precise wording of the treaty which gives him some role in choosing his college) which is certainly not of his making and comprises individuals whom he is unlikely even to have met before in many cases. All this is more difficult than welding together a coalition government nationally – it attests to the enormity of the challenge faced by Barroso.
“Everyone got something”
Some examples of the balancing act Barroso achieved are:
• The large member states France, UK and Germany did not get the so-called super-Commissioner for economic policy which they were widely reported to have sought – but German Günter Verheugen (a Socialist) became Vice President and gained the key economic post, significantly enlarged and re-named, Enterprise and Industry. Verheugen has also been specifically tasked by Barroso to be responsible for representing “a coherent Commission view in the Competitiveness Council”, and to be Vice Chair of the Group of Commissioners responsible for the Lisbon Strategy (with Barroso as Chair).
• France gained a Vice Presidency of the Commission (for Jacques Barrot, the Commission’s eldest member and an ultra loyal Chirac supporter). See also below.
• The UK did not gain a Vice Presidency of the Commission but did win the key and important Trade portfolio for socialist Peter Mandelson (who is likely to be a controversial figure in the new Commission – see below) who, succeeding Pascal Lamy, has a difficult act to follow. Mandelson is said to be “delighted” with his portfolio, as is the UK government. In the words of British Conservative peer Lord Brittan, a previous occupant of the Trade Commissioner post, “Frankly, it is more important than most [national] cabinet jobs”.
• Italy gained a Commission Vice Presidency for Rocco Buttiglione, with a key portfolio – Justice and Home Affairs. This portfolio is also relevant insofar as immigration issues are rising rapidly up the Italian political agenda prior the Italian general election in 2005.
• Small member states gained some key portfolios and many second-ranking ones: eg. competition policy (for Neelie Kroes-Smit, The Netherlands), information society and the media, including Television without Frontiers (Viviane Reding, Luxembourg), financial programming and budget (Dalia Grybauskaite, Lithuania), development (Louis Michel, Belgium) and internal market and services (Charlie McGreevy, Ireland)
• New member states similarly have little to complain about. Estonian Siim Kallas, for example, becomes Vice President and Commissioner responsible for Administrative Affairs, Audit and Anti-Fraud, Joe Borg of Malta takes Fisheries and Maritime Affairs (and chairs a taskforce on Maritime Policy), Janez Potocnik (Slovenia) gets Science and Research, and Markos Kyprianou gets the double portfolio of Health and Consumer Protection.
• The accusation that member states which opposed the Iraq war lost out in the allocation of portfolios is hardly accurate: in fact, France gained a Vice Presidency, Germany a key Vice Presidency, and Belgium and Luxembourg the portfolios its Commissioners-designate sought (Development, and Information Society and Media, respectively, the latter with the important audiovisual and media responsibilities explicitly added). On the other hand, Mandelson at Trade, Buttiglione at Justice and Home Affairs, and Barroso’s position itself, are quite enough to satisfy pro-war allies that they did not lose out either.
• Finally, not only do southern countries hold the Commission Presidency but the Spanish Commissioner Almunia retains (from the outgoing College) the key Economic and Monetary Affairs portfolio, the Greek Stavros Dimas gets Environment – today a major dossier.
Is there a big idea?
The Delors Commission 1985–95 still stands out for its achievements: the completion of the internal market, the rapid integration of East Germany following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the creation of the single currency, the integration first of Spain and Portugal and then of Austria, Sweden and Finland into the Union, the Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty (the latter introducing not least co-decision as well as, of course, laying the path towards the single currency). In contrast, the Santer Commission (1995-99) was forced to resign in disgrace as a result of fraud and mismanagement. The Prodi Commission (1999-2004) was lacklustre, and President Prodi especially can hardly be regarded as a good communicator (except perhaps in Italian).
The presidency of Delors benefited from the fact that his Commission was in office during a decade which saw profound and momentous change in Europe. The Delors Commission continues to be the gold-standard against which future Commissions are judged. Under President Delors the Commission was transformed from a sleepy and largely technocratic backwater headed by retirees from domestic politics, into a political agenda setter wielding important instruments of policy touching directly the lives of European society, industry and citizens. President Prodi, on the other hand, failed to make much from what could well have been one of the most momentous events in the history of the EU namely, its largest ever enlargement in May 2004.
What really marked out the Delors Commission, however, was its ability to generate new and strategic “big” ideas and to achieve the political compromises necessary for their implementation. The completion of the internal market by 1992 is the obvious example; the creation of the single currency another. Neither the Santer nor Prodi Commissions succeeded in matching Delors’ ability to identify the political objective, weigh competing interests, and set out a road map to achieve it. Neither did they emulate the Delors’ team’s ability to drive forward the Commission services, sometimes ruthlessly and always single-mindedly, towards an over-riding political objective.
It is worth recalling that Delors, however, was hardly known outside France prior to his nomination as Commission President in 1994. He had been French Finance Minister under Mitterrand, had only ever been elected to the European Parliament (being chair of its Economic Committee 1979-81), and was a “second choice” candidate – UK Prime Minister Thatcher in fact supported Delors for Commission President over his compatriot Claude Cheysson – who was seen by her as being “too left wing”! In contrast, Santer and Prodi were both former Prime Ministers and both assumed the office of Commission President with high expectations of them – not least as being sufficiently able to follow in the footsteps of Delors.
Barroso, as is well known, was also most member states’ “second choice” for President – or third choice in some cases! His selection by the heads of state and government was long, drawn out and controversial. In the short time since being selected, he has won approval by Parliament, helped in part by creditable performances before meetings of its individual political groups, and allocated portfolios rapidly. It is undeniable that Barroso has made a good start and has shown himself to be a skilful and compelling communicator who effortlessly changes language as many as four or five times in a speech. MEPs have, so far, been charmed by Barroso.
There is evidence that he has also started the quest for a “big idea”, in the form of the Lisbon agenda. Barroso appears to be driving towards this tangible political objective, both in his appointments and in his rhetoric. The ambitious economic reform programme set out by the EU’s Heads of Government in Lisbon in March 2000 is designed to achieve the strategic goal of “building the most competitive and dynamic knowledge based economy in the world, capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion”. While the commitment to the Lisbon objective has been reiterated by successive European Councils, tangible progress towards it has been less than notable.
In announcing his team, Barroso singled out the Lisbon agenda, and economic reform, as in need of being revitalised. Indeed, Barroso will personally coordinate all efforts to reinvigorate the Lisbon strategy. He also went further, in declaring at his press conference announcing his team, that he was placing “reform-minded Commissioners” in key posts. Barroso went so far in articulating the economic reform agenda that he came in for criticism from French MEPs: one commented that “all the key economic and budgetary posts” had gone to Commissioners “who had demonstrated their systematic liberal orientation”. This is a slightly exaggerated conclusion. Nevertheless, it does appear that Barosso is seeking to weld together a coherent programme for the new Commission based on the Lisbon agenda.
Some features of the new Commission
• Margot Wallstrom is remarkably well-placed in the new Commission. She becomes de facto the public face of Europe. An intelligent, photogenic, young, able, and Scandinavian woman having previously served in the Prodi Commission as Environment Commissioner, Wallstrom will henceforth be Barroso’s senior Vice President, explicitly “replacing the President when absent”, and representing the Commission in the General Affairs Council. Wallstrom is likely to be a “star” of the new Commission – but the scale of the task before her in “communicating Europe” is enormous, particularly as Europe enters a referendum environment in many member states on the Constitition. Her success – or otherwise - in this post will determine her chances of becoming the next Swedish Prime Minister.
• Future Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson will be under exceedingly close scrutiny by the media. While certainly able and a trusted confidante of Tony Blair, his two resignations from ministerial office in the UK could undermine his tenure in office in Brussels. The British press is well known for its focus on the more irrelevant aspects of European Union politics: Mandelson could attract adverse attention and there is a risk that the British media will focus on other things than the significance of his job, which is an important one. Also, his predecessor Pascal Lamy – whatever one thinks of his politics – is brilliant. Lamy has a detailed and comprehensive grasp of his dossier and was Delors’ Chef de Cabinet previously. As Delors’ sherpa in the G8 during the 1990s and similarly a key architect of the original WTO agreement during the same decade, Lamy could hit the ground running as Trade Commissioner. The same can not be said of Mandelson who, while pro-European, is only so in a British sense and therefore in a way which may prevent him from fitting in well in Brussels circles. He is also stridently Atlanticist, which may also rest uneasily in some Commission circles and, arguably, more of a communicator (he master-minded the Labour Party’s return to government during the 1990s) than a master of detail.
• Another interesting choice is Italian Commissioner Rocco Buttiglione – conservative and Catholic, but with one of the most politically sensitive and potentially controversial portfolios: Justice, Freedom and Security. A sensitive, liberal approach to this policy area will be essential.
• Another potential star of the new Commission, arguably, will be Louis Michel. Former Belgian Foreign Minister and Deputy PM, Michel is certainly one of the most politically experienced members of Barroso’s team. He sought, and gained, the Development portfolio.
• As well as being Vice President, Günter Verheugen has won a major dossier. This is by no means only because he is German – it may well owe as much to his ability and his success during the Prodi Commission with enlargement. He has, however, been criticised for lacklustre public performances. He is as close to being a “super-Commissioner” as it is possible to be while still allowing Barroso to be able to deny that he has accepted the idea of having a “super-Commissioner”! Interestingly, Verheugen has not only seen his DG re-named to include explicitly “industry” (as it was during the Santer Commission) as well as “enterprise” but he has also retained (at least for the present) the major responsibility for pharmaceutical licensing, which was widely discussed as being likely to be hived off to DG Sanco from November 2004. Also added to his portfolio compared to the similar portfolio held by Liikanen 1999-2004 is the “application of treaty rules on free movement of goods”, from DG Markt. Again significant from a pharmaceutical industry perspective, henceforth pharmaceutical licensing and parallel trade in pharmaceuticals will be dealt with by a single Directorate General. His dossier has also gained Space (from DG Research) and the increasingly important Security-Related Research.
• Dutch Neelie Kroes Smit lists over a dozen company directorships on her CV, including Lucent, Volvo and Thales. She is clearly much more sensitive to industry concerns than her predecessor at Competition, the much more academic Mario Monti. She is required, of course, to resign her company positions prior to taking up office. As in the case of Mandelson and his predecessor Lamy, she too has a difficult act to follow. Her reputation is good, however, not only for being clever but also tough. She is stridently economically liberal. For her, she seeks to run government like a business!
• Olli Rehn (Finland), is the youngest Commissioner. Entering the Commission as a replacement for Erkki Liikanen as Commissioner for Enterprise and Information Society, he has now been appointed Commissioner for Enlargement. Rehn will be dealing with controversial issue of Turkish accession, one of the most politically sensitive issues facing the EU in recent history. The decision on Turkish accession, based upon the current Commission’s report due in October, will be made under Rehn’s leadership at the December 2004 European Council.
• A relative surprise for Brussels watchers was that DG Sanco remains intact. While the portfolios of transport and energy, agriculture and fisheries, and internal market and taxation, were all split by Barroso to ensure sufficient (and sufficiently meaningful) portfolios for each member of his team, the obvious option of separating consumer policy from health policy was not chosen. Consumer and health remain together in a single portfolio with a single Directorate General. It could well be that there is a perception that individually consumer policy or health policy would still be relatively minor portfolios. This is a perception not matched by reality and it would not be a surprise were Parliament to seek to divide these responsibilities into two portfolios as a result of the confirmation hearings.
• With a Cypriot (Markos Kyprianou) responsible for health and consumer protection and a Greek (Stavros Dimas, current Commissioner for Social Affairs and Employment) responsible in future for environment, there is already mounting trepidation within some environmental and health groups that that the Barroso Commission may herald a more relaxed “southern European” approach to policy. Industry may find the future more comfortable on, for example, chemicals – including REACH - and possibly also on other controversial dossiers such as food claims.
• The appointment of Charlie McCreevy (Ireland) to the internal market and services portfolio may see someone whom some in Ireland have characterised as Europe’s most right wing finance minister bring some of the magic to the EU which has seen his home country achieve some of the most sustained and spectacular year on year growth over the past decade and where GDP has increased to amongst the highest in Europe. However, many in the Irish Republic are also saying that McCreevy is getting out just in time, as the Irish economic bubble might be about to lose some of its buoyancy. McGreevy will have to wrestle most immediately with the controversial and certainly strategic Services of General Interest dossier.
• Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the Austrian Commissioner-designate responsible for external relations and European neighbourhood policy, will need all her diplomatic skills to now undertake the mammoth task of engaging the EU’s partners globally. She has a solid track record however, adeptly negotiating the political minefield which saw the EU’s relations with Austria rupture dramatically when Jorge Haider’s extreme right wing party joined the Austrian government as a coalition partner some years ago.
• Jacques Barrot (France) apparently does not get much. Some have referred to the “déclin vertigineux” of France in the new College, and how France has “perdu quasiment toute influence”. These are exaggerations and it may well be that Barrot’s responsibility for transport matters can be used as assiduously to promote French interests as any other portfolio – with the added advantage that Barrot gets a Vice Presidency too.
• Finally, one feature of Barroso’s announcement which has gone almost entirely unnoticed in the press is his decision to re-group the College of Commissioners in the Berlaymont building. This is another significant move by Barroso to ensure greater collegiality among his team. The Santer and Prodi Commissions suffered from frequent turf-battles between Directorates-General and Commissioners. Returning all Commissioners and their cabinets to a single building, the renovated Berlaymont, will encourage collegiality and make it easier for Barroso to provide political direction along the lines of his predecessor, Delors.
Full biographies of the new Commissioners can be found at:
President Barroso’s announcement of the portfolios is at: