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19th Oct 2019

EUobserved

Campaigning commissioners blur the lines

  • EU commissioners Violeta Bulc and Margrethe Vestager, 3rd and 2nd from the right, at the campaign kick-off event of the European liberal party Alde. (Photo: Alde party)

EU commissioners Margrethe Vestager and Violeta Bulc will campaign on behalf of the liberals ahead of the May EU elections, the Alde party announced on Thursday (21 March).

This brings to a total of at least eight members of the European Commission who now have their eyes set on elections in the coming months.

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  • Frans Timmermans (c) campaigning in Slovenian capital Ljubljana (Photo: PES Communications)

But while Maros Sefcovic and Vytenis Andriukaitis – who are running for president in Slovakia and Lithuania respectively – have taken or will take a leave of absence during their campaigns, Vestager, Bulc and four others will keep their job as commissioners.

This is a direct consequence of new rules adopted by the commission last year.

"This is a new thing that was voted in, that European officials can run also on European elections," Bulc told EUobserver on Thursday.

"If you want to run on domestic elections, then you have to take a leave of absence," she added.

The commission's code of conduct for commissioners was changed in 2018 to make it possible for commissioners to campaign in EU elections without having to give up their job.

However, it came with an important caveat: they are required to defend decisions made by the commission as a whole.

"Members so participating in electoral campaigns shall undertake to refrain from adopting a position in the course of the campaign that would not be in line with the duty of confidentiality or infringe the principle of collegiality," the new rules said.

But why has the commission decided to make this differentiation between national and EU elections?

The commission's spokespersons were asked this question several times in the past few months.

Sefcovic

On 25 January, journalists wondered why Sefcovic, a commission vice-president, had announced a leave of absence to run in the presidential campaign in Slovakia, while second-in-command Frans Timmermans would continue in office, even as he was the Party of European Socialists' lead candidate to succeed EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.

Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas explained that when a commissioner wants to campaign for national elections "obviously we are talking about a different category of elections" than if it were for an EU post.

"College members who would like to participate in a national election have to be able to distance themselves from their current office," said Schinas, referring to the formal name of the combined 28 EU commissioners, the college.

The issue returned to the commission's daily press conference in early February, after commission vice-president Valdis Dombrovskis had announced he wanted to be elected as a member of the European Parliament in May - and possibly return later as EU commissioner for his country, Latvia.

The question remained: why was it purportedly easier to combine the job of EU commissioner with running for EU office than when running for national office?

Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva gave a bit more insight into the idea behind the differentiation.

"I think you see sometimes statements by national politicians that do not necessarily coincide with what the European Commission is thinking," she said.

"I think this is part [and] parcel of how national and European politics interact. However, according to the code of conduct, as long as you are a member of the European Commission you have an obligation to defend the collegiate position that the European Commission takes on different files," said Andreeva.

"Therefore it is natural I think in the European DNA that if you are campaigning to become a representative of the European Union it is much more natural that you coincide with the positions that the European Commission takes," she noted.

The reasoning seems to make sense, because indeed you often see national politicians 'blaming Brussels' for decisions their compatriot ambassadors, ministers or leaders also were involved in.

But it is strange that the commission has decided to accept this attitude, rather than challenge it.

Why allow EU commissioners to take a leave of absence, head to their home member state, and score political points by bashing the EU?

This approach only further deepens the gap between the national and EU level.

Would it not set a better example if Juncker had demanded from his commissioners that they defend their commonly agreed policy, especially if they are running in national elections?

Then there is the matter of dividing time.

Two places at once?

Whether you run for national office, or for a European post, you cannot outrun physics.

It is therefore impossible for EU commissioners to be at two places at the same time, i.e. working for the common EU good as commissioners while also campaigning for their political party.

Health and food safety commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis acknowledged as much when announcing his bid to become president of Lithuania last month.

Andriukaitis said he would take leave from 1 April until 13 May.

But his colleague responsible for transport matters, Violeta Bulc, was not concerned about combining the two tasks of being a commissioner and hitting the campaign trail.

"If you follow what I am going to be doing, you will see that it is possible," she told EUobserver.

"Luckily for a short period of time, so one month, it will be very demanding, but we will deliver according to the rules that we agreed on," she added - although in fact there are still two months until the EU parliament elections.

According to the commission rules, any work for the commission takes precedence over campaigning.

This does leaves the question when EU commissioner who are not on leave will have time to campaign, considering commission spokeswoman Andreeva's remark last month that "commissioners work 24/7".

The same month, Juncker sent his commissioners a set of guidelines, specifying again that they are allowed to campaign to become an MEP, or otherwise be involved in a party campaign.

"These activities must be clearly distinguished from their institutional activities as members of the commission," the guidelines said.

But how to determine what is part of their commissioners' job and what is political campaigning, will be a challenge.

For example, in the same week Sefcovic announced his bid for Slovak president, he met a former Slovak president, as well as the country's prime minister and foreign minister.

It is hard to believe that his bid was not discussed, although the commission denied this.

Timmermans diary gap

Another example: according to the calendar of meetings on the commission website, Frans Timmermans did not have any official meetings between 22 February and 11 March.

However, during this time he did go on the campaign trail, according to his personal campaign website.

Was there really nothing pressing during that period that required Timmermans' presence in meetings as EU commission's first vice-president?

Or have some commission meetings simply not been scheduled because he was going to go on campaign?

It is difficult to say, but it shows how easily the lines can get blurred.

Alternatively, if the vice-president is combining an official commission visit to a member state with campaigning there, that can also complicate things.

In 2016, the European Parliament took a stance over its president, Martin Schulz, who had tried to become president of the EU commission.

Schulz had used, at least indirectly, parliament staff to prepare for his campaign as lead candidate - or Spitzenkandidat.

MEPs said in a resolution "it was difficult to differentiate fully the [European parliament] president's political activities from his preparation as 'Spitzenkandidat' to head the Party of European Socialists in the 2014 European elections".

They also called for a "clear segregation of office holders' functions and candidacies for European election campaigns".

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