Comment: EU leaders, lawmakers brace for fight to control EU executive

Author: Juliane von Reppert-Bismarck
19 May 14 | 13:18 GMT

Candidates for the presidency of the EU’s executive commission face the prospect of a veto by European leaders in the coming weeks. The standoff augurs some bad-tempered horse-trading between Europe’s capitals and its legislature over who should run the body responsible for planning and enforcing laws in key EU policy areas. And even once a lineup at the European Commission has been agreed upon, it will be harder than usual to predict how the 2014-2019 commission-leadership team will function.

There are many things one could call Europe’s first presidential debate, but “popular” is not among them. Of all European broadcasters, only one Portuguese station showed the debate late last month in full. There are more than half a billion citizens in the EU. Euronews, Europe’s institutional broadcaster, estimates that no more than 120,000 watched.

There have been more televised discussions since then between the leading candidates to run the EU executive, the European Commission. But it’s clear the broadcasts haven’t managed to tap into some collective enthusiasm for thinking of European citizens as part of some coherent, single EU electorate.
Such scant regard for the presidential candidates put forward by the EU legislature foreshadows a possible veto by European leaders of each of them in the coming weeks. It also augurs bad-tempered horse-trading in the coming months between Europe’s capitals and its legislature over who should run the executive — especially given the diverging interpretations of the Treaty rules that set out the selection procedure. And even once a lineup has been agreed upon, it will be harder than usual to predict how the 2014-2019 commission will function.
It’s not surprising a fight lies ahead. The powers wielded by the commission are such that its president controls an important part of Europe’s decision-making process.
Whoever succeeds the outgoing president, José Manuel Barroso, will have the power to refashion portfolios and priorities in the commission — and is widely expected to do so early on. He or she will also appoint to their specific posts the 27 candidates, proposed by EU states, who will make up the “college” of commissioners. The European Parliament will quiz each of the candidates, but eventually lawmakers have to approve or reject the commissioner team as a whole.
The commissioners themselves have the sole right in the EU to propose EU-wide legislation on anything from farming and banking to environmental standards, immigration and Europe’s commercial links abroad. The president’s support for laws and regulations is critical in securing support in EU capitals and the parliament. 
The presidential appointment process has always involved political wrangling. But this time the European Parliament is insisting it should have the right to both name the presidential candidates and then to select among them according to the outcome of this month’s parliamentary elections (see here). It has lined up several candidates. Among them are a conservative (former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker), a socialist (current European Parliament president Martin Schulz), and a liberal (former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt). Negotiations within a grand coalition of conservative and socialist lawmakers will probably form majority backing for either Juncker or Schulz.
But European capitals have signaled they may vote against both of these candidates and instead come up with a different name. They point to wording in the constitutional Lisbon Treaty that puts them, as EU governments, in charge of nominating and casting a first vote on a presidential candidate, after “taking into account” the EP elections and “having held the appropriate consultations.”
Rumored candidates include Jyrki Katainen, who recently resigned as Finland’s conservative prime minister, or Denmark’s socialist prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt.
It is uncertain whether such a move will satisfy parliament, or whether the legislature will block it, delaying a new commission. Under EU law the legislature may turn down the member states’ candidate by a simple majority vote, giving capitals a month to propose a new candidate. Even if they approve a president named by capitals, the legislature’s conservative and socialist caucuses are likely to demand significant concessions including commission commitments to policy priorities.
Yet none of the positioning is likely to sketch out the five-year term of the new commission with any certainty. Attempts to steer previous commissions in particular directions have often had unintended consequences, which is likely to happen again.
One obvious example is the planned restructuring of the commission. It is widely known that commission’s top civil servant has drafted a plan and will present it to the new president for approval. Early guesses suggest that the telecom and internal-market directorates may be among those to be split up to pacify turf wars and boost focus on economic growth and financial regulation respectively (see here).
Yet whether this will weaken or strengthen policymaking in these areas is unclear. A decision in 2009 by current president Barroso to create a climate-change portfolio to supplement the executive’s environment directorate was intended as a boost to climate policy. Instead, the split weakened both sides, while the deepening financial crisis took over as a policy priority.
Similarly, individuals appointed to head particular portfolios are not certain to toe their party line or work in the interest of their capitals. Stavros Dimas, a Greek conservative, evolved into a strong adversary of carbon-emitting industries in his erstwhile post as environment commissioner. Similarly, Germany’s scoop in placing a loyal Berlin man in charge of EU energy policy took an unexpected turn when Günther Oettinger turned into one of the harshest critics of Angela Merkel’s anti-nuclear policies.
The commission president’s positions are likely to be similarly changeable, depending on political pressures at play. Barroso, a self-confessed economic liberal who opposed protectionism and advocated light-touch regulation repeatedly during his 10-year, two-term tenure, staged some high-profile climb-downs when bigger powers weighed in. Pressure from Berlin and Beijing prompted him to shut down plans by trade chief Karel De Gucht to challenge Chinese subsidy schemes in the telecom and solar-energy sectors (see here), and pressure from France had him block liberal colleagues from reforming Europe’s copyright laws.
European voters have not been roused by TV debates on who takes the helm. Perhaps this is understandable. Member states stand ready to impose their own candidate if they choose, and then to push the new president and his or her colleagues about as they see fit. If nothing else, the pseudo-democratic process will help concentrate the minds of EU capitals to have the will of lawmakers — and the people who voted for them — to feature more strongly in the selection process than before.

- Additional reporting by Magnus Franklin and John Rega