28th Oct 2016


The EU's interminable changing of the guard

  • Out with the old - Ashton and Van Rompuy (Photo:

Brussels is about to be shaken up. And it feels good. On 1 November – if all goes to plan – a new team of EU commissioners will take up office. New faces will front foreign policy and co-ordinate EU member states at PM level.

Every changing of the guard has an anticipatory, back-to-school, feel about it, but this seems different - largely because the current crop can only be improved upon.

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Jose Manuel Barroso has been commission president since 2004. The ultimate pragmatist with few ideals, he already faced several calls for a replacement in 2009 – the last change-over. But he slipped back into the post, the result of collective apathy.

The financial crisis has defined his tenure, leaving him with a reputation for back-foot policy-making and for choosing the wrong political fights.

Herman Van Rompuy in charge of the European Council has made self-effacement a national, or rather European, sport. His self-deprecatory jokes about being a grey mouse are somewhat endearing but quite exasperating. Some aspirations for stage presence would not go amiss.

Meanwhile, in the EU foreign policy role is Catherine Ashton who spent most of her mandate trying to overcome the basic handicap of being unqualified for the post. It led to a controlling managerial style and an almost paranoid aversion to press.

The EU itself has evolved – from a mere 10 years go – from having a grounded sense of worth into a self-doubting entity which is buffeted by rather than shaping world events.

Who knows how the new EU leaders will shape up to be, but they are unlikely to be worse.

Incoming EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker was attacked after his nomination for being a rather accurate reflection – a jaded man – of the the EU itself.

But he has since managed to create an air of excitement as he has indicated he will shake up the way the EU commission works, creating hierarchies, enforcer roles for roving vice-presidents, and putting women in key portfolios.

The sense of momentum is created by the number of heavy-hitters in his commission, which is set to include four former PMs, two foreign and finance ministers and more than a handful of other ministers.

Juncker's major job will be trying to make everyone feel they have a 'weighty' portfolio. The major egos from member states will have to adjust to being no longer in national politics, but not exactly in the European public space either (since such a sphere does not yet exist).

Still, their recent politial roles in the national scene may mean that they remember those EU citizens who will feel the effect of EU policies.

Donald Tusk, EU Council president, and Federica Mogherini, EU foreign minister, came to their posts via the same process as Van Rompuy and Ashton - a mishmash of geographical, political affiliation, gender and (for novel effect) error - Merkel was, according to reports, banking on the Danish PM getting the council post.

But they are different to their predecessors.

Van Rompuy was very much a product of Belgium's consensus style of politics. Tusk, Poland's PM since 2007, has a different style. He is the only PM to get re-elected since democracy was restored to his country in 1989.

Mogherini, propelled into the limelight by ambitious Italian leader Matteo Renzi, has little public diplomacy experience.

But her half year as Italy's FM and her academic knowledge of foreign policy dossiers has given her a starting confidence that Ashton never had.

So it's the excitement of a blank slate. Of new political dynamics. Of a sense of optimism that change brings.

And it's about time. The EU has been in a state of transition since early spring. The world, it seems, has changed substantially since then.

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