Arm Wrestling with the Member States

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

The new Commission takes up its duties on the 1st of November. Will it be strong enough to face up to the pressures of the 25 member states?

L’après Prodi rend Chirac soucieux José Manuel Durao Barroso scarcely aroused any enthusiasm amongst the Heads of State who nominated him, nor among the Euro MPs, of whom only 431 out of 732 approved his appointment. Nevertheless, the new President of the European Commission has chosen to impose, from the very start, a different style of governance from that of his predecessor, Romano Prodi. Far from wishing to construct a ‘European Government’, Barroso has chosen to assume the image of the ‘honest broker’ between the various national interests. Will this leave the field open for an assertion of intergovernmentalism at the heart of a 25 state Europe?

New Commission, New Style of Government?

The first task for the new President will be to put in place his team of commissioners, a task that requires much tact in the face of pressures exerted by wily member states all trying to place their pawns on the European chessboard. Barroso’s job is made all the more difficult by the numerous political divisions that split the EU: between opponents and supporters of the Iraq war, between countries with a social-democratic tradition and those with ‘laisser-faire’ economics, not to mention the added problem of the differences between the pioneer states of the EU and the newcomers.

At first sight, Barroso seems to have a desire to show the member states that they will not always have the last word. Thus, Paris and Berlin were refused the creation of a ‘super-commissioner’ post for economic affairs, while small countries have been given key posts. The Franco-German pairing has received scant recompense for their concession – Barroso’s nomination – having seen little in return.

In wanting to project an image of an honest mediator, Barroso is opening the way to a reinforcement of intergovernmentalism. The Portuguese ex-Prime Minister has, moreover, understood that in a 25 state Europe, intergovernmentalism is itself rapidly evolving, with new states capable of establishing themselves as motors of European integration.

Do less, better

The Commission is now being forced to adapt to a 25 state Union, but the nostalgic still hark back to the role played by the dynamic Jacques Delors in the ‘80s and ‘90s, who managed to put into motion the grand project of the single market, while convincing the big countries to follow him. Ever since the Maastricht treaty of 1992, and the crisis of 1999 that saw the resignation of the Santer Commission amid suspicions of nepotism, the Commission has suffered from a lack of credibility that has weakened it with respect to the member states. Thus, Romano Prodi was forced to yield to France and Germany who refused to reduce their deficits for the third consecutive year in 2004 (before the European Court ruled him right). What is more, during the negotiations that surrounded the nomination of the new President, it became clear that it was these very states who were holding all the aces in their hands. Chirac himself used his veto against Pascal Lamy, Chris Patten, and Franz Fischler – well-qualified candidates with a thorough knowledge of the European Commission.

According to William Wallace, Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics, a good President of the European Commission must have two assets: be at once a good political entrepreneur and a good manager. In order for the Commission to be effective it must concentrate on certain issues, rather than want to fight on all fronts. Wallace stresses the necessity of continuing the process of reform undertook by Prodi.

Persuasive Polyglot

The work of the new president in a 25 state Europe is to take more notice of each country’s interests while developing common policies, and this is reflected in the composition of the new team. The intergovernmentalism of the ‘90s, dominated by France, Germany and Great Britain is under pressure to change; these three countries must take account of the newcomers in order to avoid deadlock and the development of a two-speed Europe.

Barroso has understood this. A polyglot and a good communicator, he knows how to please. But is a president’s style enough to thwart the member states who, after all, participate in a supra-national union voluntarily and still have the final say at the Council of Ministers? If the Council seems more and more to be an institution of consensus, the original member states and the newcomers, equally, are far from desiring a European Government that could hamper their decision-making powers.

The struggle has already started around the future European budget, with Germany clearly opposed to contributing any more money, Great Britain ready to fight hard to keep its ‘discount’ won in 1984, and Spain firmly persuaded that its regions should continue to receive structural funds. In short, sensitive political ground upon which Barroso’s diplomatic qualities might quickly be appreciated.