Tuesday

19th Feb 2019

Outlines emerging of new EU commission

  • There will be several familiar faces in the new commission (Photo: European Commission)

The next European Commission is set to be filled with conservative and liberal commissioners, feature several familiar faces, and plenty of new job titles. However, when it will be set up remains the great unknown.

With just over two weeks to go before the current commission officially ends its term, and with weighty portfolios at a premium, member states have begun jostling to get a substantial seat at the commission table for the next five years.

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Several commissioner hopefuls have expressed an interest in an economic portfolio. A few member states, including Finland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Estonia, Latvia, Slovenia, Spain and Slovakia, have either officially re-nominated the same commissioner or are thought likely to do so.

But for the vast majority of the 27 member states, there is a question mark over who they will send to Brussels. Most notable among the not-yet-named list are Germany, France and the UK. Those who are nominated late may find that the plum positions are already taken.

In Germany, speculation has centred around interior minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, secretary of state Peter Hintze or centre-right MEP Elmar Brok. Romania has nominated former agricultural minister Dacian Ciolos and is looking for the farm portfolio, while Poland is considering nominating centre-right MEP Janusz Lewandowski and is eyeing the budget dossier.

Ireland is deliberating between former president of the European Parliament Pat Cox and former justice minister Máire Geoghegan-Quinn - and while Dublin has resigned itself to winning a less substantial portfolio than the internal market job it currently holds, it will also be looking to be rewarded for the recent Yes vote to the EU treaty.

Malta's Joe Borg would like to stay on in Brussels while Denmark's climate minister, Connie Hedegaard, may be heading to the EU capital. France is reportedly deliberating between Michel Barnier, former commissioner and current MEP, and Christine Lagarde, the highly respected economy minister.

The most powerful posts include internal market, competition, industry and trade. Those at the other end of the scale include transport, communication, education and multilingualism, with the latter viewed almost as an insult.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, himself one of the returning faces, has the power to choose who gets what post, a position that gives him quite some clout. But the selection process can also mean payback time for past favours.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Rodriguez Zapatero is said to want a strong commission post for the returning Joaquin Almunia, currently in charge of economic and monetary affairs. His leverage is that Spanish Socialists in the parliament are thought to have voted in favour of Mr Barroso, a centre-right politician, for a second term as commission chief.

New titles

For his part, Mr Barroso has invented a slew of new job titles for his next team. These include commissioners for climate change, interior security, fundamental rights and innovation. He is also set to have a chief scientific advisor.

The next college is likely to have even fewer social democrat commissioners, clocking in at five - from Spain, the UK, Hungary, Greece and probably Slovakia. This is down from seven at the beginning of the first Barroso commission in 2004. It could also have its first non-European origin commissioner in the form of Shriti Vadera, a former UK business minister of Indian origin.

Watchers of the European Commission will be keen to see if the next commission carries over some of the trends of the current set-up, including its much more presidential style.

Piotr Kaczynski, a researcher at the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies, notes that this commission is "much more concentrated around the figure of the president and much less collegiate." He adds that while it is capable of taking technical decisions, it lacks the capacity to take political decisions.

According to Mr Kaczynski, the weekly meetings of 27 commissioners are much shorter than in the past. "So even if the college is bigger, they talk less," he says, with Mr Barroso and a few "engaged commissioners" tending to take the decisions of the moment.

The commission under Mr Barroso is also widely viewed as no longer being the agenda-setter in the EU, with much of the political impetus coming instead from member states.

Caretaker commission

But even if Mr Barroso is keen to get his new team up and running, the question is when this will happen.

The commission term formally ends on 31 October. As of yet, it is not clear what legal basis will be used for forming a new commission, with the EU hoping to pass on to a new set of institutional rules, but being delayed by ratification problems in the Czech Republic.

EU leaders are meant to discuss the commission posts and the new jobs created by the Lisbon Treaty at their end-of-October gathering but whether they can do this will depend on a positive signal by the Czech president that he intends to the sign the treaty.

The Swedish EU presidency remains keen to have the institutional questions resolved as quickly as possible and the issue is still on the October summit's agenda.

Meanwhile, MEPs on Thursday (15 October) were told to be on the alert for holding commissioner hearings in December. They are reportedly ready to try and fast-track the process by holding two hearings day.

This would likely mean the new Barroso commission being voted on by European Parliament in mid-January.

But if EU leaders are forced to wait until December to sort out the new line up in the commission as has been mooted, it could see the new team put in place as late as March next year.

This would mean four months of a caretaker commission. Even a month or two of a lameduck commission is seen as politically dangerous as the EU heads into international climate change talks and member states look to buck key internal market rules amid the ongoing economic crisis.

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