12th Aug 2022


Success of Juncker team depends on 'uber-commissioners'

Incoming EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker has come up with a canny distribution of portfolios for this new team but a layer of 'uber-commissioners' is potentially the most important change.

While rumours and speculation abounded ahead of Wednesday's official unveiling of the team, Juncker managed to surprise most onlookers with the finalised version.

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Key jobs have been given to commissioners from eastern European member states and to women while Juncker himself, in contrast to out-going president Barroso, sees himself only as a "co-ordinator".

And while all commissioners were implicitly not equal in the outgoing commission, given the difficulty of finding meaningful tasks for 27 people, this has now been made explicit.

Dutchman Frans Timmermans will be "first vice-president" and will essentially have an enforcer role in the commission. He will be able to "stop any initiative" and can decide whether a proposed EU policy has the "right" to be put on to the political agenda.

He has to make this decision with the aim of reducing red tape in mind, with a key political signal from EU citizens in recent years that the commission should ease up on regulating.

But other brakes are in place too. The six other vice-presidents will also oversee teams of commissioners. No legislation is to make it through the commission bureaucracy without first having the green light from a vice-president.

If it works in practice - and much will depend on how judiciously the vice-presidents use their powers - the new structure should lead to a more effective day-to-day running of the commission where potential problems are spotted lower down the hierarchy rather than exploding at the top.

However there is great also great potential for overlapping roles, and a multitude of bosses.

This might mean that Juncker will have to bang heads together more than he had planned or at least more than his "I-don't-plan-to-be-a-dictator" statement indicated during Wednesday's press conference.

But if Juncker is indeed able to take a backseat role, it will give the commission a broader political stamp than the current one as Barroso tried to put his face to all of the key initiatives coming out of the commission.

A further noteworthy point for the new commission is that the German commissioner, Guenter Oettinger, was not given a major portfolio nor a vice-presidency (he is in charge of digital economy).

To have done so would likely have angered those who feel that Berlin's voice is already over amplified in EU political and economic decisions.

Nevertheless, there are sops to Berlin with Jyrki Katainen, an acknowledged fiscal hawk, a vice-president in charge of growth and jobs.

And while France got its coveted economic affairs post, its commissioner Pierre Moscovici will be overseen by both Katainen and another austerity-friendly vice-president Valdis Dombrovskis.

Juncker also avoided a fight with the UK by putting Lord Hill in charge of financial services - dear to London's heart and gave several other commissioners such as those from Greece (migration), Sweden (trade) and Ireland (agriculture) issues that are important domestically.

Meanwhile the environment and climate dossiers seems to have been downgraded having been merged with the maritime and energy portfolios respectively.

Enlargement too has been downgraded. Austria's Johannes Hahn will be in charge of "enlargement negotiations" rather than just enlargement as is currently the case. This reflects Juncker's statement in summer that the EU will not expand under this watch.

The least weighty dossiers have gone to Belgium's Marianne Thyssen (employment) and Hungary's Tibor Navracsics (citizenship).

The latter may face difficulties in the EP, which has to hear all commissioners, because he belongs to the increasingly authoritarian government of Viktor Orban. Meanwhile Spain's Miguel Arias Canete (energy) may also get a hard time from MEPs because of sexist comments he made earlier this year.

The new commission is due to go into force on 1 November. It will have five former prime ministers, and 19 former ministers and a slightly younger average age (53 years) than the outgoing Barroso team.

However with so many big egos on the team the success of the Juncker commission will depend on how smoothly the vice-presidents do their job and how well big political hitters in their former lives - but mere commissioners now - adjust to having a clear layer of authority over them.

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