Are the economics of the new Commission too Liberal?

Article published on Sept. 27, 2004
community published
Article published on Sept. 27, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

It’s not even up and running and yet the Barroso Commission is already under fire for being ‘too liberal’. But some say the Left is under-represented in the new, Portuguese-lead Commission.

Certains aimeraient que Barroso revoit sa copie Down with the Liberals! Ex-Portuguese Prime Minister and new head of the European Commission, José Manuel Durão Barroso is known in his country for his very liberal economic policy. He also took a markedly pro-American position over Iraq, which has lead some, the French in particular, to wonder about the ideological stance of the Commission over which he will preside.

His choice of candidates for key roles seems to add weight to their argument. The new Commissioners for Internal Market and Competition are both symbols of strong economic liberalism in their respective countries: Dutchwoman Neelie Kroes (Competition) has already hit the headlines because of her links to the business world, which, being incompatible with her new position, has led her to delegate responsibility for dossiers regarding one ex-employer to others. Charlie McCreevy (Internal Market), the Liberal Irish ex-Minister of Finance, oversaw the recent Irish ‘economic miracle’.

A Right Turn for Europe?

But will the Barroso Commission really be any more liberal than previous bodies, especially the Prodi Commission, which came into being at a time when the Left were at the heart of the Europe of 15? Could it raise questions about the European social model?

The Prodi Commission was made up of 12 Commissioners from the Left and seven from the Right. However, the all-important Internal Market and Competition posts were taken by a Dutch liberal, Frits Bolkestein, who belongs to the same party as Nellie Kroes (VVD), and a Centrist economist, Mario Monti. In the second half of the Prodi Commission’s term, representatives of the Centre-Right replaced two Leftist Commissioners, after elections in their home countries.

If the Barroso Commission leans towards the Right, it is only reflecting a Europe-wide trend. Out of 25, there are only seven Commissioners from the Left. Out of the remaining 18, eight are Liberal, five are Christian Democrats and four are Conservative. The three branches of the Right may have found common ground on economic policy, but on social matters the Conservatives and Christian Democrats are still a long way from agreeing with the Liberals. Thus the Commission is probably a lot more balanced than it seems.

Key Roles

Is the Left really so badly off when it comes to the distribution of important jobs? Two vice-presidencies out of five are held by Leftists, with Günter Verheugen, from Germany, for Business and Industry and Margot Wallström, from Sweden, for Communication. Not only will they have to replace Barroso when needed, but they will also have to represent the Commission at the Council for General Affairs, the most important group of the Council of Ministers. A third vice-presidency will open up if the Constitution is ratified, for the Spaniard Javier Solana, future Minister for Foreign Affairs of the European Union.

The five other portfolios to be decided include positions for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunity, Energy, Budget, Regional Policy, Economic and Monetary Affairs (a post which Spaniard Joaquin Almunia could miss out on, if Solana, another Spaniard joins the Commission) and finally Trade, which could go to Peter Mandelson. All these posts are vital for the economic and social development of the European Union.

Moreover, Verheugen, Wallström and Špidla (for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunity) will each have to head a task force to coordinate the Commission’s actions in key areas: Competition, which will allow Verheugen to keep an eye on the direction which Commission economic policy takes; Communication for Wallström as the ‘face’ of the Commission, and Equal Opportunity for Špidla. Guaranteed influence for the Left at the heart of the Commission.

Pro-Americanism: The Eighth Deadly Sin

The Barroso Commission’s main objective will be to restart the Lisbon economic process, which aims to make the EU “an economy based on the most competitive and dynamic knowledge in the world, capable of supporting major growth, thanks to more jobs, better jobs and more social cohesion”, with full employment by 2010, an objective which was set in 2000 by a Leftist majority. One of the main aims of the Lisbon process is the development of individual social capital – something that lends itself well to a certain Liberal interpretation – which is one of the main objectives of the ‘third way’. Full employment, however, is a classic demand of the Left.

The problem, in a nutshell, is that for some the word ‘liberal’ has become synonymous with Americanism. It is here, in its relationship with the USA, that the new Commission contrasts most starkly with its previous counterparts. McCreevy, Kroes and Mandelson are already suspected of wanting to sell out to US interests, whether political or commercial, in many of the most important European industries. Final decisions may not rest with them, but the intention is undoubtedly there.

So is the Barroso Commission ultra-Liberal? As an institution, the Commission has always had a fairly Liberal image, for its strength in areas like the common market and competition, rather than on social issues, an important area for member states. The new body will have to take a moderate stance to maintain its fragile equilibrium. The Constitution on the other hand, will have to strengthen the ‘social’ Commissioners’ authority, by widening the legal basis for the Union’s social actions - one more reason to vote ‘yes’ in a referendum.

If Germany and the Czech Republic move to the Right in the next elections, the composition and direction of the Commission could change. And if Špidla and Verheugen have to be replaced, there will be good reason to fear a very clear loss of political balance, with dire consequences for the European social model.