international analysis and commentary

Top EU jobs and the new balance on the Continent

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After agreeing on two of the EU’s top jobs on August 30th, a political battle is now being fought on the portfolio allocation in the new European Commission headed by Jean-Claude Juncker. Serious obstacles were overcome to reach an agreement on the election of Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk as new the President of the European Council and Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini as the new High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

In the Council, the unanimous agreement among EU governments was a necessary condition. As is well-known, the selection process for any top EU job is the result of long and complex negotiations between member states and a delicate balance of several criteria: political membership, gender, geographical origin, equilibrium between Eurozone and non-Eurozone members. 

The choice of Tusk, Polish Prime Minister since 2007, is historical because he is the first politician from the former Eastern Bloc to take on one of the most important EU positions. Before Tusk, only Jerzy Buzek was able to reach the spot of President of the European Parliament, but neither the political prestige nor the power granted to the President of the Parliament are comparable to the ones held by the President of the Council.

Tusk was selected due to his long and largely positive record as PM as well as his membership in the European Popular Party (EPP) – which holds the Parliamentary majority – as well as his political closeness to German Premier Angela Merkel. Two other important reasons explain Tusk’s appointment: reassure the Eastern members that the EU is compact in protecting its members and recomposing the fracture between Eurozone and non-Eurozone members.

The appointment of the Polish PM has also mitigated the main criticisms against the nomination of Mogherini as the new High Representative for Foreign Policy: the concern voiced by various members was that a somewhat lenient attitude toward Russia would prevail.  
Now, Tusk’s and Mogherini’s appointment provide the context for the allocation of the portfolios in the EU Commission, which is at least equally relevant. The outcome will shape the next five years of European politics and to some extent the future of the European project.

Although the portfolio allocations are still not official, the winners and the losers of this battle seem pretty clear. The incoming Commission headed by Juncker, will have the same conservative political affiliation as the previous one, also reflecting the political majority which will sustain it in the European Parliament. The EPP will be the most represented party, with more than 15 out of 28 commissioners, followed by S&D (Socialist & Democrats) with seven commissioners, and the ALDE (Alliance for Liberal and Democrats) with five commissioners. ALDE is clearly overrepresented compared to the number of seats obtained in the last European election and it may be a strategy to overcome some of the possible resistance during the confidence hearing in the European Parliament.

More than the political affiliation of its members, this Commission stands out for its clear German footprint. The most important portfolio will rest in the hands of the current Commissioner Jyrki Katainen – who has been managing Economic and Financial Affairs since last June. The other and more relevant candidate for the position, France’s Pierre Moscovici, supported mainly by France, Italy and the other southern countries, will become the new Commissioner for Competition. An important role, but still a defeat for French President Hollande and his plans to change the political economy of the Eurozone. In light of this setup, in the near future the European Commission will likely maintain its orientation towards the imposition of strong fiscal discipline on its members; therefore, the economic policy characterized by austerity and budget cuts will not substantially change.  Germany has also managed to get the important portfolio of Trade for its Commissioner Günther Oettinger – a particular relevant position now that the negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership enter a crucial stage.

France, Italy and the “no austerity” front are not the only losers in this portfolio’s battle, as the UK also failed to reach some of its goals. David Cameron, UK Prime Minister, aimed to place Jonathan Hill in the slot of Internal Market or Legislative Simplification. Juncker’s orientation is to assign Hill to the Energy and Climate change portfolio – an important portfolio but probably not what London expected. Furthermore, this portfolio seems to have very limited political freedom due to the fact that most of the duties will be shared with Valdis Dombrovkis, the Latvian Commissioner and Vice-President for Energy Policy.

The incoming Commission will bring other relevant changes. The Eastern Members have designated as commissioners figures who had previously held or are currently holding positions of prime minister or head of state, and the high caliber of their candidates is earning them heavyweight’s roles. Indeed, four out of six vice-presidents of the Commission will be from Eastern members – Slovenia, Latvia, Estonia and Poland. 

Romania and Bulgaria seem to have obtained minor portfolios from their candidates compared to the previous term, a sign of political mistrust towards these two countries. Romania lost the financially relevant Agricultural portfolio also for the “bad” reputation gained by its former Commissioner Dacian Ciolos. However, after proposing a new commissioner instead of the outgoing Ciolos, Romania seems to have gained the Regional Policy portfolio during last round of negotiations.

Another sign of the new political climate in Brussels is the abolition of the Commissioner for Enlargement replaced by the one responsible for Neighbourhood Policy, which has been playing a significant role due to the conflict in eastern Ukraine and the political tensions with Russia. The former Commissioner for Regional Policy, Austria’s Johannes Hahn, will be promoted to this highly and politically sensitive new portfolio.

Cecilia Malmstrom, confirmed for a second term as Swedish Commissioner, will move from Home Affairs to the Justice and Anti-fraud portfolio, while former Danish Economic Minister will likely receive the Environment portfolio.  

What is already clear is that Germany’s influence will be consolidated, with firm control over economic policy, neighborhood policy and trade. Simultaneously, France seems to be losing its grip on EU institutions, while the UK remains distracted by its own soul-searching (with the upcoming Scottish independence referendum and then national elections next year). Poland and the Baltic states have played their cards very effectively, capitalizing on both the Russia-Ukraine crisis and the traditional divisions among the older EU members. In all this, the distinction between Eurozone and non-Eurozone members appears to be fading.