Wednesday

20th Jan 2021

EU commission musical chairs begins in Brussels

  • The Berlaymont building is home to the 27 commissioners in Brussels (Photo: EUobserver)

The European Commission's current term still has over a year to go but already a number of commissioners are looking to new political careers, threatening to undermine the tight ship run by President Jose Manuel Barroso.

Last week, it was officially confirmed that Markos Kyprianou, EU health commissioner, had resigned from his job to become foreign minister of Cyprus following the election of a new Cypriot president.

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Italian commissioner Franco Frattini, one of the most high-profile of the 27-member team and in charge of the important justice and home affairs portfolio, may follow suit.

He wants to take four weeks off to campaign in Italy's snap general election on 13-14 April and is said to be eyeing a ministerial job should political ally Silvio Berlusconi get back into the prime minister's seat.

More lately, there have also been suggestions that the man in charge of the heavy-weight economic and monetary affairs post, Spain's Joaquin Almunia, may also jump ship if Spanish Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero wins a general election this weekend.

Rumours had also circulated about whether fisheries commissioner Joe Borg, a Maltese national, will return to the small Mediterranean island to contest the general election there on 8 March, although the Times of Malta recently reported that Mr Borg is unlikely to take this step.

Commissioners sloping off before their five-year term ends is not new. It is a phenomenon that tends to mark the twilight years of each commission period.

Former commission President Romano Prodi, who himself openly campaigned on the national political stage as his term came to a close, had to contend with the departure of several of his colleagues for different jobs.

Monetary affairs commissioner Pedro Solbes became finance minister in Madrid, regional commissioner Michel Barnier took on the job of French foreign minister, while Finland's Erkki Liikanen, in charge of industry, became head of a bank in Helsinki. Greek employment commissioner Anna Diamantopoulou also resigned her post early.

The current unrest in the commission is set to be followed by more changes at the beginning of 2009, when the new EU treaty is supposed to come into force.

If, as expected, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, from Spain, takes on the more powerful role foreseen in the treaty, he will become vice-president of the commission as well as retaining his foreign policy role.

This will have the knock on effect of leaving Austrian commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner without much to do - she is currently in charge of external relations - and prompting the departure of Spain's Mr Almunia, as the treaty only foresees one commissioner per member state.

Political animals

So far the commission has taken the start of the game of political musical chairs in the Brussels executive with equanimity, repeating that the commissioners are political animals and it is a sign of their quality as politicians that they are in the running for high-profile posts back home.

But it does give Mr Barroso a political headache. The former Portuguese prime minister has to hold the team together until his term ends in autumn 2009, while maintaining the political unity needed to present a strong outward face.

In addition, the commission changes means that the European Parliament also takes on a role in the power play, as each new commissioner has to be heard and approved by MEPs.

For his part, Mr Barroso will have to maintain a full and leading role until the very end if he has a chance of having another term in office, something he has often hinted he is interested in.

Nonetheless, he is likely to continue to see at least some familiar faces until his last day in office.

Irish commissioner Charlie McCreevy, in charge of the internal market, recently told Irish journalists he was not going anywhere before his post was formally finished.

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