It is grilling time for Juncker’s Commission

Would you say that of designate Commissioners may face real troubles in the European Parliament, how strong (weak) is Juncker’s team in general in your opinion? Read few comments.

Aline SierpLecturer in European Studies, Maastricht University

It is not a good start for Jean-Claude Juncker. After his troubled election as Commission president, also his choice of Commissioners has sparked vivid protest both among national politicians and MEPs. The latest nomination of Jonathan Hill as EU Commissioner of Finances was met with a mixture of incredulity and anger. Hill, who had previously worked as a Lobbyist for the interests of British banks, does not appear the best fit for a position that involves overseeing salaries in the banking sector. As MEP Alexander Graf Lambsdorff said: ‘This is as if you’d ask the fox to guard the chicken coop.’ Equally controversial are Juncker’s plans to reorganize various tasks within the different areas of responsibilities, i.e. to move the European Medicines Agency (EMA) under the umbrella of the DG Industry. Also his selection of candidates for the DG Research and Innovation and the DG Energy was met with hesitation and cause a number of raised eyebrows.

This is indeed not a good start for Jean-Claude Juncker. He has very little time to reverse his choices now, the hearings in front of the European Parliament a scheduled to take place next week. Chances are very high that the EP will reject the whole Commission. If this happens, Juncker will face the same situation as José Manuel Barroso in 2004. He will be forced to reshuffle candidates and areas of competence. In 2004, Barroso’s Commission came out stronger than before, this time the opposite might be the case if Juncker does not seriously rethink his policies. But whatever happens, one thing is for sure: the Commission’s bumpy start and the current vivid debates have put some of the EU’s basic assumptions back on the discussion table. It is fundamental for the survival of a European democratic culture of reflection to have the sort of public arguments that we are currently witnessing. So even if Juncker’s Commission will remain weak, what will certainly be strengthened is the public awareness of what it means to decide on the future government of a whole continent.

Helene DyrhaugeAssistant Professor, Department of Society and Globalisation, Roskilde University

In general, the Juncker Commission is weak on gender equality and there are a few Commissioners-designate who will face a tough time in the hearings, most notably Miguel Arias Cañete (Commissioner-designate for Climate and Energy), who has close ties to the energy sector. However, several of the designate Commissioners are successful national politicians, several are former prime ministers or have been senior ministers, and 5 Commissioners-designate stood for the European Parliamentary elections and won a seat, including Maros Sefcovic, which gives legitimacy to the college of Commissioners.

There is an interesting trend here, both Maros Sefcovic and Siim Kallas went from Commissioner for inter-institutional relations and administration to becoming Commissioner for Transports, whereas Neil Kinnock went from being Commissioner for Transport to becoming Commissioner for Administrative affairs! Transport is a different portfolio from inter-institutional relations and administration, where the focus is more on relations between EU institutions. Transport is a mid-range portfolio with strong national policy preferences and economic interests from industry and trade unions.

An  ongoing issue is the wider agenda to reduce transport emissions and promote cleaner vehicles. DG Mobility has in general supported some efforts to reduce transport pollution, but not at the expense of free movement. Thus this is a classic clash between economic interests and the Single Market versus the environment  and climate change agenda.

One of the first issues the new Commissioner will have to deal with is the fourth railway package. Previously the Parliament supported the Commission and pushed for more market opening, but in February the Parliament watered down the Commission’s fourth railway package. There are strong national interests at stake, especially Germany is against further restructuring and it is supported by parts of the railway industry and the trade unions. The railway package is currently with the Council for first reading discussions. Thus Maros Sefcovic will have to use his diplomatic skills to protect the Commission’s agenda is heard against the increased opposition towards more railway liberalization.

Simon UsherwoodAssociate Dean, Senior Lecturer, Department of Politics, University of Surrey

Juncker probably made the best of the individuals offered to him by the member states, both in terms of the portfolios and the organisation. However, the EP will want to show that despite winning the Spitzenkandidat argument, it does not mean that it accepts everything about the Commission. Therefore, I would expect some tough questioning of individuals, especially when there are some obvious problems (Canete’s and his relationship with oil companies, Hill and his lobbying links, to take two examples).

The new matrix organisation will provide some cover for Juncker, so if he loses one of the non-VP people, then it doesn’t really effect him or his programme. Whether he wants to put up a fight is unclear, but I would guess he would prefer to keep the EP on his side, so a gift might be needed, especially if it helped him get another woman into the mix.

Frank HägeLecturer in Politics, Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Limerick

Given that Juncker’s candidacy was backed by the two largest party groups (EPP and S&D), his candidate list will probably not be fundamentally challenged. Individual nominees might get a tougher hearing than others (especially the UK nominee for the financial services portfolio), but at the moment, the mainstream party groups seem happy enough with the line-up and it does not look like the EP is planning to put up a fight. It is worth remembering that formally the EP can only accept or reject the entire list of nominations as a whole. In the past, it credibly threatened to reject the entire list to get individual nominees replaced or reallocated to different portfolios, but unless some problematic issues emerge in the course of the hearings themselves, there are no signs at the moment that this will also happen this time around.

Christian SchweigerLecturer in Government, Department of Politics, Durham University

I read a lot of positive reports about the Juncker Commission but I have to say that I do not necessarily agree with them. I think that some of Juncker’s choices are highly problematic. It starts with Mogherini as High Representative whom he of course was not free to choose himself but who emerged from the usual process of intergovernmental bargaining between member state governments. To follow up Ashton who remained relatively pale in the job with probably the most inexperienced foreign minister in the EU-28 is quite a risk at a time when the EU faces fundamental and unprecedented external challenges. Mogherini may of course rise to the challenge and surprise us all as a more active High Representative who is ready to challenge the tendency of national governments to promote their own foreign policy interests. Also problematic from my point of view are Jonathan Hill as Commissioner for Financial Stability and Financial Services, Pierre Moscovici for Economic and Financial Affairs as well as Guenter Oettinger for the Digital Agenda and Tibor Navracsics for Education and Culture.
Hill apparently has stakes in the financial industry and has hardly made himself a name as an unbiased observer of the financial sector in the UK. Moscovici is widely held responsible for the deepening budgetary problems of France and hardly can be seen as a guardian of the eurozone stability and growth pact. Oettinger was seen as an unwise choice as EU Commissioner by Merkel in the first place as he entered the environment portfolio with no experience of national or international politics (the highest office he held before he entered the Commission was prime minister of the region of Baden-Wuerttenberg). To put him in charge of Digitial Agenda is a puzzling choice as he has no particular profile on this issue and admitted himself that this area is completely new to him. He and Merkel probably expected him to get Trade or a similar portfolio but Juncker had other ideas. Then there is Navracsics who as former Minister of Administration and Justice under Orban in Hungary of course became closely connected to the controversial autocratic restructuring of the Hungarian state. To put him in charge of Education and Culture may do little harm but still does not bear well for this not unimportant portfolio.
The overall media echo seems to suggest that Juncker was wise in people in charge of portfolios where ongoing disputes between the Commission and individual member states exist. The prime example is Moscovici, where many argue that his appointment puts Hollande under pressure to implement austerity measures because it will be the French candidate who will have to bring the bad news if France continues to break the SGP criteria. I am not so sure these choices are really so wise as
we could face a situation where the performance of these Commissioners in their portfolio is increasingly critically questioned (e.g. if Hills argues for deregulation of the financial industry and Moscovici for a relaxation of the SGP in individual cases).

Juncker can of course only work with the set of people he was presented with by the national governments but I nevertheless think that this Commission will turn out to be not too popular and face similar controversies as the Barroso Commission did (e.g. with Peter Mandelson). The light at the the end of the tunnel may come from Donald Tusk whom I expect to do a good job in mediating between the increasingly divergent interests of member states. I also expect Tusk to push national governments and the Commission towards implement reform of institutions, decision-making and to put more weight behind the EU’s foreign and security capabilities.

Paulo Vila MaiorAssistant Professor, the Faculty of Human and Social Sciences, University Fernando Pessoa 

The process leading to the formation of the Juncker Commission was markedly different from previous Commissions. The connection between the outcome of the European Parliament’s (EP) elections and the choice of the new president of the Commission is the reason. Since the main EU political groups nominated their candidates to the job, this vested the incoming Commission with stronger democratic legitimacy. In theory, it is also to expect a stronger political salience of the Commission due to Juncker’s past experience as president of the Eurogroup. Maybe this experience is relevant to give him the unequivocal leadership of the Commission. It is, at the same time, a precondition to make the Commission a prominent political player within EU inter-institutional relationships.

Nevertheless, “business as usual” also took place, especially when it the nomination of the other 27 members of the Commission. Since this is a prerogative of national governments (although the Lisbon Treaty provided for improved coordination functions of the president of the Commission), intense, time-consuming, backdoor negotiations carried the way until the team of commissioners was finally presented. Commitment, party-politics balance, and the prevalence of national interests in the distribution of portfolios were, as before, the main features. The negative impact of “business as usual” is that informed citizens might be suspicion of whether commissioners are really committed to act on behalf of the EU’s general interest or if, otherwise, they will be sensitive to national interests and distort their mandate. At the same time, as national interests prevailed at this stage it somehow blurred the gain stemming from the a priori nomination of candidates to president of the Commission.

This week nominated commissioners will have to pass hearings at the EP. As usual, it is expected that these hearings are a hard piece of work for many commissioners, especially to those who are not technically prepared for taking the portfolio they were named for, or those facing problems of personal reputation. According to the news, it is expected that the Spanish, the British, the Slovenian and the Hungarian candidates will (for different reasons) face a harsh time during their hearings on the EP. Yet, at the time of writing, there are no threats to the approval of the Commission based on a negative assessment of certain commissioners (as it happened with a Bulgarian commissioner in the Barroso II Commission and with an Italian commissioner in the Barroso I Commission).
Hearings of nominated commissioners are part of the parliament’s powers, especially if one bears in mind the political salience the EP is seeking for. The approval of the whole Commission (and the possibility to control it politically through debates, questions or even the motion of censure) ranks among the EP’s political influence. On the top of this institutional aspect, others must be also taken into consideration, namely the clash between political groups in the EP and the extent to which harsh hearings are likely in case a majority of MEPs dislike the commissioners being heard.

Some might object that such behaviour should be ruled out and objectivity must emerge when MEPs make an evaluation of commissioners. However, the EP – as any parliamentary institution – is a political body. Thus, politically based assessments are likely to emerge throughout the hearings without putting in jeopardy the nature of the process leading to the formation of a new Commission. It is, also for this aspect, “politics as usual”.

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