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20th May 2019

Magazine

Birth of the Juncker commission

  • MEPs voted in the Juncker commission on 24 October after a mini-drama over the Slovene commissioner and a struggle to get nine women commissioners (Photo: European Parliament)

Jean-Claude Juncker's commission had a difficult birth. For several weeks over summer it was unclear whether it would be up and running by the 1 November deadline.

A summit in July ended with EU leaders unable to decide on two top posts, amid an east-west row over Italy's proposal to let its foreign minister, Federica Mogherini, represent the EU as foreign affairs chief.

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  • Jean-Claude Juncker, a former Luxembourg PM, was nominated by EU leaders after his centre-right party won the most votes in the European Parliament elections (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Eastern member states feared she was too Russia-friendly. Others still argued she did not have enough experience.

In the end Mogherini was appointed to the post by EU leaders at the end of August. Easterners' concerns were mollified by the fact that Polish Prime Minister would take up the second post on offer – President of the European Council.

The top-posts debacle was linked to the forming the commission because Mogherini would also become Italy's commissioner.

As a novelty in the EU institutional set-up and only the second time to be tested, the foreign policy chief is also a member of the 28-strong college of commissioners, where each country has one representative.

Vice-presidents

The delay in appointing Mogherini stalled the forming of the commission as many EU governments were reluctant to make a clear nomination until the foreign policy position had been tied down.

In an interview with EUobserver early August, Juncker's chief of staff Martin Selmayr spoke of "dozens" of models for the commission, as some countries were considering several names with different portfolios.

And with several countries opting to send former prime ministers, finance or foreign ministers as their future commissioners, it was also a challenge to give everyone an important-enough portfolio.

What Selmayr and Juncker came up with was a new system of seven "vice-presidents" who would serve as Juncker's deputies and as "team leaders" coordinating the work of several commissioner within broader policy areas – including the economy, as well as digital and energy issues.

Juncker's right hand man

But out of the negotiations with the European Parliament it emerged that Juncker's "right hand" man, former Dutch foreign minister Frans Timmermans, would have an impossibly large task. He is to oversee everything from the Charter of Fundamental Rights to cutting red tape, to sustainable development through to the trickiest aspects in the ongoing EU-US free trade negotiations.

Meanwhile other 'regular' commissioners, notably Germany's Guenther Oettinger in charge of the digital single market questioned the authority of the vice-presidents and indicated he would not be taking orders from anyone.

According to the EU treaty, commissioners are all equals - at least when it comes to voting in the College. But the new model would see the seven vice-presidents "filter" legislative proposals before they even get to a vote.

While that is the thinking behind the model, much will depend on the personality of each commissioner. Forceful personalities who are clever at internal politics will likely be able to better make the case for legislation to be tabled.

Timmermans will act as the ultimate decision-maker on any new laws as his brief is to rid the EU of unnecessary regulation.

The gender balance

Another issue that risked delaying the Juncker commission was gender balance. As of early August, only four countries had put forward female candidates for the EU commission. This was despite a warning from MEPs that they would veto any commission with fewer women that the outgoing Barroso team, which had nine.

In the end, the count rose to nine when Belgium and Romania, the last countries to make their official announcements, opted for female candidates - Marianne Thyssen and Corina Cretu, both MEPs. But only after Juncker had to force capitals' hands, indicated that woman nominees had a higher chance of getting strong portfolios.

Once the names list was clear, Juncker took his time to carve up the portfolios and vice-presidential posts, with the Brussels bubble set abuzz by the numerous organigrammes (with varying degrees of plausibility) that were leaked.

Hearings

When the final layout was decided, the candidates went through long (and mostly turgid) hearings in the European Parliament.

From the outset, at least four names were in for a tough ride in the hearings: Spain's Miguel Arias Canete, due to his oil-industry interests that would have clashed with his "energy and climate change" portfolio, Hungary's Tibor Navracsics, who would be in charge of "culture, education and citizenship" after having been a justice minister who co-authored restrictions on media.

France's former finance minister Pierre Moscovici, nominated for the main economics portfolio, was in for a rough hearing from fiscal hawks who doubted his commitment to the EU deficit and debt rules he failed to observe during his time as minister. Britain's Jonathan Hill, to oversee financial services reform, was also going to get tough questions given Britain's reluctance to adhere to Brussels regulations that touch the City of London.

Hill became the only one to have to go through a second hearing while Canete's financial interests were given some extra scrutiny.

In the end they all passed the EP's gauntlet, bar one.

The Batusek saga

From the outset it was clear that MEPs were going to claim at least one scalp in the process – a matter of power politics as much as much as the competence of any would-be commissioner.

That honour fell to Slovene ex-PM Alenka Bratusek. She was poor prepared (though not exceptionally so), came from a small political family (the liberals) and was not supported back home.

It didn't help that she appointed herself - as a caretaker PM - on the list of three names sent to Juncker in July. An anti-corruption commission in Ljubljana said she had breached normal procedure. But she ignored its letter, failing to pick it from the post office.

MEPs rejected her and asked Juncker to ask Ljubljana for a different name. Juncker stood by Bratusek for another day, not wanting to explicitly ditch her himself. In the end she withdrew.

The Slovenian government then sent Violeta Bulc, a political novice and businesswoman who had trained as a shaman and fire-walker, applying New Age theories to her business environment. Bulc sailed through the hearing, as MEPs were no longer keen on blood and as her portfolio had been downgraded from vice-president for "energy union" to a simple commissioner for transport.

With the Slovenian mini-drama behind it, the European Parliament voted on the entire Juncker commission on 24 October and allowed it to take office as planned, on 1 November.

This story was originally published in EUobserver's 2014 Europe in Review Magazine.

Click here to read previous editions of Europe in Review magazines.

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