A weaker Commission?

A weaker Commission?

Whose fault it is that the European commissioners in Barroso II are performing below both hope and expectation?



Could it be that our expectations of the European Commission have shrunk to almost nothing? What does the rarefied readership of European Voice expect of a college of European commissioners, and are they so accustomed to disappointment that the Commission can get away with failure?

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These questions were sparked by the launch last week of Jean-Claude Piris’s book “The future of Europe: towards a two-speed EU”, which occasioned a discussion of unusual candour (by Brussels standards), whose wisdom I am still sifting through.

Edelman The Centre had put together a panel of four people whose combined expertise and experience in EU affairs would outweigh most combinations of the European Council: Piris himself, who spent more than two decades as the head of the legal service of the Council of Ministers; Poul Skytte Christoffersen, now Denmark’s ambassador to Belgium, previously Denmark’s permanent representative to the EU, and head of the private office of a European commissioner; Jean Quatremer, longstanding Brussels correspondent for Libération, whose blog Coulisses de Bruxelles enjoys a faithful following among EU obsessives; and Charles Grant, once a Brussels correspondent of The Economist, biographer of former Commission president Jacques Delors, and now the head of the Centre for European Reform, a think-tank in London. Each played their part in crystallising some opinions that many people hold, but do not always express publicly.

The starting-point was Piris’s argument that an avant-garde of member states of the European Union can and should pursue further and closer co-operation without waiting to advance as a united 27 (see my review of the book in last week’s edition of this newspaper: “Avanti (some of) Europe!” 12-18 January).

The other members of the panel provided different types of corrective, less about the diagnosis of the EU’s ills than about Piris’s suggested solutions.

Quatremer warned that while Piris’s objective was a deeper, more effective EU, that was not the vision of the current president of France, whose aim was revamped Gaullism. Quatremer also sounded a warning about the EU’s ability to conjure technocratic solutions (dreamt up by the likes of Piris) to make up for the inadequacies of its politicians.

For his part, Grant, while prepared to concede that the UK might leave the EU within a decade if things went badly for Prime Minister David Cameron, warned that an avant-garde that co-operated on defence would not be serious if it did not include the UK.

Christoffersen’s response to Piris was characteristically nuanced. He observed from Danish experience (though he said he was speaking as an individual and not in any official capacity) that opt-outs from EU policy were extremely difficult to get rid of once they had been obtained.

On whether or not the eurozone would become the “inner core” for further co-operation, below the level of all 27 states, he questioned how far that co-operation might go and whether it would extend to labour-market policy and social policy, which traditionally have been left to member states.

Christoffersen did not deny Piris’s argument that the Commission is too weak. Piris believes that the Commission is too large, that it was a mistake to guarantee each member state a commissioner on the college, and that the president is overly influenced by the demands of the largest member states. “It is true that we have a weaker Commission than is good for Europe,” Christoffersen said, but he did not accept that this was necessarily a permanent state of affairs. The current Commission was, he said, too presidential (ie, dominated by President José Manuel Barroso). In the second Barroso college, there were not – as there had been in earlier administrations – commissioners prepared to act as a counterweight to the president. (In “The house that Jacques built”, Grant describes the debate and the tensions in the Commission during the Delors era.) Genuine debate at college meetings was unwelcome, Christoffersen said. But this unsatisfactory form of policy- and decision-making, he said, was not inevitable: it could change again. It did not follow that Piris’s suggestions for changing the institutional architecture were necessary.

It might seem harsh to say so after two years of a sovereign-debt crisis and in a week when the Commission issued a legal challenge to Hungary, but looking down the ranks of the college after two years of Barroso II, it is hard not to share the disappointment of the old hands. It is striking how few of the current college can be counted as political or intellectual heavyweights. Almost every one of them is performing below hope or expectation. Of the commissioners from the largest member states, Günther Oettinger, Catherine Ashton, Michel Barnier and Antonio Tajani do not compare favourably with (for instance) Günter Verheugen (first term), Chris Patten, Pascal Lamy or Mario Monti. From the small member states, no one is shaping policy in the way that, say, Franz Fischler once did. Karel De Gucht, Cecilia Malmström and Dacian Ciolos¸ are not living up to their significant dossiers. Taken as a whole, the Barroso II administration is delivering less than it promised. Is that the fault of the individuals, the president, or the unfavourable circumstances? Or is it our fault, conditioned as we are by perpetual disappointment, for expecting so little?

Tim King