The new European Commission unveiled last week by José Manuel Barroso constitutes a quasi-optimal solution: the President has demonstrated once again his tactical skills by making the most of the cards he had been dealt by the Member States’ governments.
The setup of the new college is a virtuoso act of balancing – in political, geographic, personal and even gender terms. The distribution of portfolios and competencies, the allocation of vice-presidencies, the treatment of incumbent commissioners vis-à-vis newcomers – all display a profound knowledge of the rules of European politics as well as familiarity with “selling” EU policy.
Barroso has shared out jobs fairly among the three main political families, between bigger and smaller countries, old and new members and – in the end – even between men and women. He has also highlighted new policy priorities by giving to them dedicated portfolios and administrative resources: “climate action”, energy, and the “digital agenda”. He has finally split the Justice Liberty and Security portfolio – grown exponentially over the past few years and increasingly torn between the rights/justice and the security/home components – by giving primacy to Fundamental Rights and Citizenship (conferred to his most senior Vice-President, Viviane Reding) and by assigning Home Affairs to a Nordic liberal, Cecilia Malmström. He has also emphasized the need for improving inter-institutional links (especially in light of the new and complex institutional architecture and the increased powers of the European Parliament) by appointing an ad hoc vice-president supported by the Commission’s Secretariat-General. He has brought together two policy areas which are closely linked to each other – namely enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy (do we really deal differently with, say, Serbia and Ukraine?) – into a single commissioner’s job. He has eliminated meaningless or powerless portfolios such as “multilingualism” and “communication”. And he has rewarded loyalty, merit and effectiveness shuffling all second-term commissioners into new significant responsibilities while preventing the establishment of personal or national fiefdoms.
In other words, well (and cleverly) done. This Commission has a good chance to pass the hearings planned for January in the European Parliament relatively unscathed. Although it is impossible at this stage to rule out bad showings or personal problems for individual nominees, it is the overall “package” that seems convincing and, above all, consensus-oriented.
It is also a package set to strengthen Barroso’s personal leadership. The new Commission is bound to be even more “presidential” – although it is too early to predict whether it will also be stronger as an institution. In addition, President Barroso is likely to be the pivotal and most senior figure in the new Brussels setup – especially in light of the recent appointments of Herman van Rompuy as President of the European Council and Catherine Ashton as new double-hatted Foreign Policy “Chief” – but we have to wait and see what he will make out of this hard-won privilege.
Unfinished business …
Having said all this, and praised Barroso’s masterful stroke, it seems also fair to raise a few questions – some concerning the Commission itself, and some concerning the EU at large.
First of all, the post-Lisbon agenda for growth and jobs – which will be a key priority in the foreseeable future – does not seem to fall neatly into any one commissioner’s portfolio, although the “digital agenda” given to the experienced Neelie Kroes could well be expanded (and even re-branded) when the new priorities will be agreed in 2010.
Secondly, immigration and asylum policy remain part of the new “Home Affairs” portfolio. Fortunately, the initial idea to call it “Security and Immigration” was dropped, as it would have sent all the wrong messages inside and outside Europe. Still, in perspective, there is room here for a separate portfolio, which could bring together also competencies and units currently spread around in other Commission services, starting with DG EMPL and DG RELEX itself.
Thirdly, EU “foreign policy” is unlikely to remain confined to the domain supervised by Catherine Ashton and the new commissioners who will work with her (including one for enlargement and ENP, one for international cooperation, humanitarian aid and crisis response and notably the more traditional one for development). External issues related to trade, innovation, the regulatory aspects of the single market, energy security but also climate change, visa and immigration policy may well be part of an “extended” family of EU policies that require better coordination and coherence.
Fourthly, and finally, both the single market and monetary union may require a thorough and open-minded review in light of the experience made so far (especially since the global financial and economic crisis broke out) and the challenges of decades to come. Some ideas to this effect have come or are to come from the “wise men” tasked with revisiting them, from Jacques de Larosiere to Mario Monti and the Reflection Group chaired by Felipe Gonzalez. Yet the Commission is the principal “think tank” we have – and it should live up to its mandate of articulating the overarching European common interest without always “outsourcing” this essential function.
Maybe President Barroso could test more creative and flexible ways of organizing the work of his new team – e.g. by creating “pools” of commissioners (under his own direct supervision or that of vice-presidents) to address specific policy challenges that cross the boundaries of existing portfolios and require joined-up thinking.
He could also start imagining how to reshuffle the college if and when new members join the Union, in order to seize an opportunity to improve and adjust the initial set-up to respond to emerging policy challenges.
… and new focus
Besides these rather concrete issues, there is also a more general but no less crucial question to raise: once the Lisbon Treaty is in force and all the new teams fully in place, what is likely to be the next big overarching project the EU engages itself in? In the 1990s it was first the single market and then monetary union, soon followed by the “big bang” enlargement. Ever since we have been caught in the throes and labors of delivering the new treaty. This is all over now, as from today – but what is next?
The appointments of the past weeks do not answer this fundamental question, which may trump all other policy-specific priorities and expectations. In order to unleash new dynamism, the EU needs a new grand project and future-oriented raison d’être to prove its added value, well beyond the preservation of what has been achieved in the past. Preventing collective decline and irrelevance while adapting Europe to a globalized and less “Western” world are indeed urgent imperatives – but they need to be driven by a less defensive and more tangible common project, and one that can be perceived as such by all EU citizens. Implementing the Lisbon Treaty and streamlining or updating a number of existing policies is only a means – but what is the end?
Next spring we will be celebrating with much rhetoric and pomp the 60th anniversary of the Schuman Declaration that launched European integration in the first place. Rather than simply reviving the rationale that inspired the founding fathers, we’d better start discussing what new rationale should inspire their grand-grandchildren: is the European project still about preventing war on the continent? What does peace mean in the 21st century? And shouldn’t we replace the 9th of May with the 9th of November – i.e. the date that symbolically marked the reunification of Europe 20 years ago and that could give all Europeans a common memory and shared narrative to move forward?