Written by Conall Devaney
On Wednesday 22 October the European Parliament formally endorsed the new Commission proposed by Jean-Claude Juncker, President-elect of the Commission, for the period 2014-19. There had been growing doubt some 10 days before that as to whether or not the new Commission would be able to begin work on 1 November at all. After the withdrawal of Alenka Bratušek, who failed to convince MEPs of her suitability for the vice-presidency portfolio responsible for Energy Union, there was increasing speculation that the vote, and thus the start date would have to be pushed back. However, despite some discontent amongst members of smaller groups, notably the Greens, the reshuffled Commission, which now includes the newcomer Violeta Bulc in the transport portfolio and Slovakia’s Maroš Šefčovič in the vice-presidency role, passed a vote in the Parliament by the margin of 423 to 209, with 67 MEPs abstaining.
Amidst the interest in the new Commission President – the first to have an electoral mandate following Jean-Claude Juncker’s successful campaign as lead candidate or Spitzenkandidat of the EPP – a key structural change involving the role of the vice-presidents and their position vis-á-vis the other Commissioners has attracted less attention and yet it could have a profound effect on the way the Commission works in the coming legislative period, with ramifications for the Parliament and its role in scrutinising the Commission.
Speaking before the European Parliament in July, President-elect Jean-Claude Juncker told MEPs that he wanted ‘a European Union that is bigger and more ambitious on big things, and smaller and more modest on small things’. The structure of his new Commission, with six powerful vice-presidents plus the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs, is intended to make this possible.
Until now, the Commission has practised a horizontal decision-making structure with individual Commissioners developing legislation within their own directorates-general and then proposing them to the college. Commissioners then deliberate seeking consensus, or on occasion taking a vote, with a simple majority sufficing for a legislative proposal to be passed on to Parliament and the Council.
In the Juncker Commission this will change. The new Commission will be organised around so called ‘clusters’. The vice-presidents, including the High Representative, will have oversight of a number of Commissioners in their respective policy areas, known as project teams. These project teams reflect the Commission’s main objectives in the coming five years: jobs and growth; reform of the economic and monetary union; the creation of a digital single market; completion of an energy union; and a more effective EU external relations policy.
The new vice-presidents will be expected to co-ordinate their own project team and ensure that there is better cohesion in terms of the legislative proposals being produced. Vice-presidents will also have the power to block proposals from individual Commissioners as they see fit, preventing them from being debated in the College. The aim is to ensure that only those legislative proposals that are in line with the political guidelines will make it to the College, thus increasing efficiency.
Even within the circle of vice-presidents there is a hierarchal structure, with First Vice-President Frans Timmermans and Vice-President Kristalina Georgieva responsible for scrutinising all proposals to ensure that they fit current budgetary constraints and do not create unnecessary regulatory burdens.
However, the structure developed by Juncker has been the source of some confusion. At the parliamentary hearing of Vice-President Timmermans, Esther de Lange of the EPP questioned the new structure, wanting to know if the First Vice-President would actually go as far as to stop individual commissioners from bringing forward legislative proposals. Timmermans reiterated that the Commission would continue to exercise collegiate governance and that he had no intention of acting as a ‘sheriff’, instructing individual commissioners in what they could or couldn’t do. The Vice-President considered his job much more as ensuring that Commissioners did not work completely independently from one another, and acting as a ‘link’ between President Juncker and the other Vice-Presidents.
A suspicion nevertheless remains as to whether the new structure will lead to a two-tier Commission, with some Commissioners more important than others. This point has been accentuated through Juncker’s allocation of portfolios to key personnel.
Eyebrows were raised for example when it became clear that the former French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici would be given the economic and financial affairs portfolio, this despite the fact that France has consistently failed to adhere to the budgetary rules set out in the fiscal pact. However, the new structure means that it is yet to be seen whether the Frenchman has the final say on these matters, or if his mandate is overshadowed by Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis, responsible for euro matters more generally, and/or Jyrki Katainen, who will have oversight of jobs, investment and growth.
Whether the Briton Jonathan Hill will have full responsibility for all aspects of financial regulation and banking union is also open to question, given that he too must work under the same two Vice-Presidents. While this has allayed the fears of some MEPs who had voiced concern at the British candidate’s perceived links to the City of London, it raises questions as to how much freedom and responsibility an individual Commissioner will actually have in the Juncker Commission.
Countering claims that the new structure leads to a two-tier Commission with some commissioners more important than others, President Juncker is adamant that in his Commission, ‘there are no first or second-class Commissioners – there are team leaders and team players’.