22nd Feb 2024

'Political' commission starts work with nod to past

  • Jean-Claude Juncker - his will be the "last chance" commission he recently told MEPs (Photo: European Parliament)

The new European Commission started work Monday (3 November) amid promises to be more political by making commissioners defend new laws to the public.

President Jean-Claude Juncker, a veteran EU politician who regularly speaks off the cuff and who has referred to his mandate as the “last chance” commission, wants it to shake off its technocratic image.

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Practically this will mean getting his 27 commissioners to get out of their offices to present new policies and ideas.

“We will strive to have more commissioners coming in person in this press room,” said spokesperson Margaritis Schinas.

“I am confident that on Wednesday I will have either president Juncker or first vice-president (Frans) Timmermans (in the press room)" he said referring to the traditional midweek meetings when the commission decides on policies.

But commissioners will also be given free rein to be opinionated across the board.

Danish commissioner Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition, told Politiken newspaper that Juncker has “very clearly asked us commissioners to take up some of the debate in our home countries. Also if it is outside of our working area.”

She mentioned her country’s eventual referendum on its justice and home affairs opt-out as one area where she could take a stand.

EU figures of the past

Juncker himself has also chosen a very political start to his presidency by opting to spend his first working day in Frankfurt for the launch of former German chancellor Helmut Kohl's book - a book that is notable for its criticism of the EU's handling of Russia as well as the original decision to let Greece join the eurozone.

He will round off the week by taking part in a debate with another figure considered part of the EU's yesteryear - former commission president Jacques Delors.

Both the German and the French politicians were in power in an era when the Franco-German engine (considered essential for the political survival of Europe) was running smoothly and when the commission was working in tandem with Paris and Berlin.

Alongside the shaken-up commission executive with its more hands-off president and new system of seven powerful vice-presidents, comes a more streamlined spokesperson service - again to push commissioners to take the mic more often.

From the over 40 spokespeople belonging to the previous Barroso commission, there will be just 12 covering several portfolios at once, of which the majority (7) is female and several (5) are former journalists. The head spokesperson is Greek while the rest of the team span 10 nationalities.

Political headaches looming

But although the commission has just taken office, the first political headaches are already looming.

One is Juncker's promised €300bn investment package, his flagship policy to tackle the EU's low growth and high unemployment.

While there have been many positive comments about the idea, it has been less clear where the money will come from.

Spokesperson Schinas said "before we talk about the presentation of this package, we have to make sure we have content."

"We are doing our upmost to make sure this commitment will be kept," he said about Juncker's plans to present the fund before Christmas.

Another highly sensitive issue is the €2.1bn surcharge to the UK's EU budget bill, which London is refusing to pay by the 1 December deadline.

Schinas noted that the deadline was "binding". He also noted that the rules in question - the implementing of own resources regulation - provides for very "specific legal obligations" and that for the whole budgetary procedure to stay "in tune", including the EU's own requirement of having balanced books, "everybody has to pay what is due".

EU budget commissioner Kristaline Georgieva will head up the contentious talks, with Schinas noting that "if fines are not paid by 1 December there is a process of interest-paying accumulated."

Meanwhile commission watchers will get their first glimpse of how the body's new internal architecture will work in practice on Tuesday when Jyrki Katainen, vice-president in charge of jobs and growth, and Pierre Moscovici, in charge of economic affairs, give a joint press conference on the economic forecasts for the EU.

One of the re-occurring questions concerning the new structure is whether it will lead to more or less infighting as the commissioners - several of whom were big hitters in former lives - work under a more hierarchical system.

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