Jean-Claude Juncker merits at least two cheers for having made an attempt to reform the European Commission.
His proposal to create a cadre of vice-presidents, with other commissioners grouped under them according to their policy responsibilities, is the most serious attempt at restructuring the Commission since the European Union expanded from 15 states to 25 in 2004. A college of 20 commissioners was unwieldy. A college of 28 commissioners is unworkable. Juncker should be applauded for a serious bid to make the best of a bad hand.
He should be applauded also for trying to establish a culture of collegiality. By delegating some powers from the president to the vice-presidents, Juncker sends a welcome signal that he wants to slow the tendency of recent years to centralise power with the president. The elevation of Frans Timmermans as his number two is not just smart party politics: it could also prove a good use of Timmermans’s talents.
However, Juncker has probably over-estimated the talents of Alenka Bratušek. Her brief period as prime minister of Slovenia does not compare with the records of, for example, Valdis Dombrovskis or Andrus Ansip. To assign overall responsibility for the energy union to her is to gamble with a serious portfolio that matters to Europe’s future security.
More than that, it is to gamble with the very concept of a two-tier Commission in which vice-presidents have a significant management role. The success of that project – which is laudable in its aim – is by no means assured. It will no doubt be tested, particularly as commissioners from large member states (France, Germany, the UK) bump up against vice-presidents from smaller member states (Latvia, Estonia, Finland). If Bratušek cannot hold the line, then she makes life difficult for all the other vice-presidents.
Juncker is also gambling heavily on the wisdom of employing poachers as gamekeepers, by giving sensitive dossiers to commissioners from countries with “skin in the game”, as the Americans would put it. Through the dark days of the eurozone crisis, Juncker will have learnt a lot about Greek politics. Quite how that would persuade him to give the commissioner for Greece responsibility for migration is a mystery. Giving Romania’s Corina Cret¸u the care of regional policy also looks ill-advised. True, Poland once supplied the commissioner for regional policy, but Romanian administration does not measure up to Poland’s administration even in 2004-09, and Cret¸u does not bear comparison with Danuta Hübner.
These are not the only instances where the new president has effectively thrown down a challenge to his designated commissioners to live up to their European obligations rather than sink down to the self-interested levels of their home countries. To give the commissioner from Malta responsibility for the environment will not inspire environmentalists with much confidence about the green credentials of the Juncker Commission.
On the policy front, Juncker’s distribution of portfolios sends out messages about what he perceives to be the priorities of his administration. The emphasis on economic performance and job creation is surely right. And dropping commissioner responsibilities for sport or multilingualism is hard to dispute. But some people will read his line-up as a sign that Juncker does not care about what happens with the likes of environment, agriculture and development.
That said, in EU circles, the temptation is strong to try to please everybody by making a priority of everything. Juncker has at least made a decent fist of setting some meaningful priorities – and in creating real vice-presidencies, he may have improved the chances of the Commission delivering on them.