Incoming Commission brings different power-relations

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 old Commission is on the way out and the new one is soon to be ushered in. But what changes will this bring in the balance of power?

Certains pays auraient le sentiment de passer au second plan The new Commission is not due to take up its duties until 1st November, but questions are already being asked about if it will bring about the decline of ‘the great five': Spain, Italy, the United Kingdom and, in particular, France and Germany.

Previously the most important portfolios in the Commission, such as Competition, Trade, Economic and Monetary Affairs and the Internal Market, have been given to countries according to their size, contribution to the EU budget and influence on the political stage. With the current distribution of the 25 portfolios, and the creation of five new ones by dividing several old ones, Mr Barroso shifts towards giving more influence and visibility to smaller EU states, which in turn changes the balance of power and integrates more deeply the new members of EU.

Out with the old, in with the new

The Economist notes that the important posts have been given to ‘reform-minded’ countries like Ireland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, Barroso wanting to send a message to the old countries to catch up with the tempo of the newcomers. The irony lies in the fact that France and Germany fall under all the censured categories – old, stagnating, pretentious and anti-American. Himself a reformer and pro-American, Mr Barroso has evidently chosen a path alongside the 'less arrogant' countries, making it easier for him to work with rather than struggling with the old heavy-weights.

Let’s look at the results. The two most important portfolios of Competition and Internal Market went to the Netherlands’ Neelie Kroes and Ireland’s Charlie McCreevy, while France’s Jacques Barrot received the relatively small portfolio of Transport and the post of vice president. Peter Mandelson from the UK received the Trade portfolio, the new member state Latvia’s Ingrida Udre got Taxation and Hungary’s László Kovács will be in charge of Energy. Germany's Günter Verheugen retains the position of vice president of the Commission and gained the Industry portfolio, but a ‘super-commissioner' to oversee economic affairs, which both Germany and France had asked for, was not created.

To ease the disappointment of some and to help others adjust, Barroso has created informal groups of commissioners to oversee the main priorities of the Commission. Mr Barroso himself chairs the group of commissioners on the Lisbon Strategy and External Relations, while Communications is chaired by Margot Wallström, Equal Opportunities by Mr Špidla and the Competitiveness Council by Mr Verheugen, therefore bringing several countries and competences together under one aim and creating a chance to deal with all difficulties before they go into the open.

Loyalties beyond economics

Mr Barroso himself said that ‘all commissioners will have equal powers [and] there will be no first and second class commissioners’, which he will only be able to achieve by diminishing the influence of some. He betrayed France’s interests, even though France supported his candidature despite his American sympathies. Similarly, he did not go all the way with Germany getting a ‘super-commissioner’, as demanded both by Paris and Berlin, even though Schroeder also supported him. But Barroso is not new to politics and he uses a ‘give and take’ policy.

He gave the posts of vice-president to France, Germany and Italy and added the Estonian Siim Kallas and neutral Swedish Margaret Walstrom, to have a full set of different actors, assuring that France, Germany, Italy and others did not push him for a greater role in the enlarged EU and that ‘they completely agree that we need a strong, independent and credible commission.’

I believe that Mr Barroso is aware that the contentment of individual governments is a prerequisite for successful work and confidence in commissioners based not on their country but their competences, is important. For now the Polish government, a big and not so flexible partner, is pleased with Regional Policy for Ms Danuta Hübner, hoping that ‘she will be able to deliver a regional aid package that will treat the new member states ‘fairly’”. Latvia is also satisfied with the Taxation portfolio seeing it as a chance of raising their voice against harmonisation of EU corporate taxes.

Increased Communication within Europe

The Barroso team will return power, visibility and authority to the Commission. The new President sees commissioners as ‘team players committed to the European general interest’, meaning that country affiliation and national political interest should step back in front of common European goals. In order to make their messages heard Barroso appointed Ms Walström to the new Institutional Relations and Communication portfolio. ‘I attach particular importance to communication in Europe’ said Mr Barroso placing Walström at his right hand in dealing with Europe’s channelling to the member states. The problem, however, stays the same – what kind of Europe will he be fostering with the new liberally oriented Commission?

Federalists criticized Barroso for building on inter-governmentalism, even if the institution he is about to head represents the most important community body. The Financial Express wrote in August this year that Barroso and the Constitution are doing harm to the whole European idea by increasing, instead of cutting down on, the number of commissioners making it into ‘a body of national representatives’. The talks about which countries get which portfolios is a clear example of this problem. If Barroso wants to end the tradition of according big posts to big countries, he has to make the Commission an area of dialogue rather than a hegemony of the great. Meanwhile, Barroso’s team can still be on watch for what the Prodi team is doing and learn from the mistakes of others before starting to make his own.