Wednesday

20th Mar 2019

Opinion

Power is slipping from the commission to the council

In one of these pieces, a year or so ago, I wrote that it seemed to me we were watching an accelerating shift of power away from the European Commission and towards the European Council and that this unscripted change would prove as significant for the future development of Europe as anything in any constitutional treaty.

The function of the Commission, headed by an appointed college of commissioners, is to propose initiatives designed to forward the construction of Europe, the development of the single market, competition policy, the environment, climate change and so on. They are the guardians and promoters of the European interest, as opposed to the national interests of the member states represented in the European Council and the Council of Ministers. These bodies, along with the European Parliament, turn the commission's proposals into law.

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  • "With the experience of recent history behind them, hegemony by large states was something that Europe's founding fathers were determined to avoid" (Photo: Peter Sain ley Berry)

Such was the prestige of the commission, in the days when the Union was smaller than it is today, that this model held good most of the time. The commission represented the European interest, while member states, also keen to promote the European interest, ensured that it became the motor of European development.

My point, for which I remember being taken to task by one commission official, was that as the Union had grown and particularly since the great enlargement of 2004, the council was no longer content to leave the business of of European initiatives entirely to the commission. It wanted to develop initiatives of its own. The rapid rise in the importance attached to European energy policy was one example.

One effect of this has been to make the commission itself a more presidential body, with Mr Barroso himself intervening in several important dossiers, as well as becoming a more public face than some of his predecessors.

Nevertheless, it was Mr Blair, two years ago, Angela Merkel, last year, and today Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, who are capturing the headlines with European initiatives that cut across the smoothly graded path mapped out by the commission. Indeed these days, it seems some new European initiative appears from the Elysée Palace almost every week. All of which serves to take the wind out of the commission's sails.

Most recent is the mini-summit, called by Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, to discuss how Europe's economies might react to the global credit crunch and guard against similar developments in the future. One might have assumed that the commission would have been indispensable to any progress on these pan-European issues, but it appears that Mr Barroso only received his invitation as an afterthought and when, after protests, it was decided to include the Italians as well.

Here is (or will be on 29 January) a group of member states proposing to develop a key element of European policy, almost without reference to the commission. Such is the way power is moving. They are, moreover, large states and the widespread fear on the part of small countries is that by seeking to eclipse the commission they will be acting not in the interests of Europe as a whole, but in the interests of their own well-developed economies.

With the experience of recent history behind them, hegemony by large states was something that Europe's founding fathers were determined to avoid. Which is why far-sighted decisions were taken to place the responsibility for European development within an institution that represented solely the European interest and did not have a national axe to grind.

The commission's influence may become even further eroded when the European Council appoints its first president in 2009. This could easily mark another stage in Europe's retreat towards a chaotic inter-governmental future. Last week, I argued that the president ought to be democratically appointed, with sample polls in each member state and a decision in the European Parliament.

That would help to ensure that whoever finally got the job would speak up not only for Europe across the world, but would also represent all member states, large and small, developed and underdeveloped. As matters stand, the presidency is likely to be behoven to large member state interests.

What this means in practice is that the commission is increasingly likely to find that securing tough policies that advance the European interest (as opposed to simply being the lowest common denominator) will become like dragging feathers through treacle.

We are already seeing evidence of this in the recent withdrawal of the commission's health policy proposals in the face of national protests. If that was a shot across the commission's bows, other warnings are being fired in its direction as it prepares to unveil proposals for meeting climate change targets: reducing carbon emissions by 20 per cent by 2020 and hitting a 20 per cent target for renewables in the energy mix at the same time.

Leaving aside whether it might have been more sensible to have based the targets on the results of an implementation plan rather than the other way about, it is clear the commission will have a hard job in squaring the circle. No country wishes to put its industries at risk or see them up sticks and remove to Asia as a result of trying to implement the commission's proposals.

We are in for a real battle of wills, with the commission staking its credibility on adhering to its targets and member states coming up with their own agreements and devices for thwarting the plans.

The loser in this battle for power between the European institutions is likely to be Europe itself. Big states may get their way, but this is not necessarily going to be in their long-term interest, however much it may seem so at the time. The big states should remember the old Talleyrand dictum, ‘I have always tried to act in the interests of Europe, believing that what is good for Europe will ultimately be good for France.' For France, substitute any large member state.

What was true 200 years ago remains true today.

The author is editor of EuropaWorld

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