Source: European Commission website
In the initial debate about Jean-Claude Juncker’s set-up of the new European Commission, most of the emphasis has been on the classic question of “who got what”. What should receive much more attention is Juncker’s attempt to square the circle between the commission’s dysfunctional oversize and the insistence of member states on upholding the rule that each member state sends a commissioner to Brussels.
In May 2013, in light of the upcoming accession of Croatia to the European Union, the member states unanimously decided not to apply the provision of Article 17 (5) of the Lisbon Treaty, which stipulates that “the Commission shall consist of a number of members […] corresponding to two-thirds of the number of Member States.” It seemed that the pattern of the previous two Barroso commissions would continue: EU policy areas would have to be divided up almost arbitrarily to create portfolios for 26 commissioners along with the president and the High Representative.
Six vice-presidents and the High Representative will be responsible for cross-cutting major policy fields.
Against this background, Juncker has taken a smart approach, which will likely become the rule if and when his proposed structure proves effective over the next five years. Six vice-presidents and the High Representative will be responsible for cross-cutting major policy fields. They will each lead a cluster of commissioners, who will each hold portfolios relevant to the respective field.
Thus, the “project team” on a “Digital Single Market“ will be led by Vice-President Andrus Ansip, former prime minister of Estonia. It will include seven core commissioners, with five more portfolios also involved. Ansip’s mandate is laid down in a mission letter by President Juncker which sets out specific tasks and goals. The other commissioners in that cluster will contribute to these tasks, including the Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, Taxation and Customs, former French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici.
Likewise, the vice-president heading the cluster on “The Euro and Social Dialogue” will bring together seven commissioners to work on a common mission. So, as financial services commissioner, Britain’s Jonathan Hill will work under the leadership of Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis, former prime minister of Latvia.
This design is the first scheme that seeks to build more horizontal structure into the traditionally very vertical organisation of the EU’s executive body.
This design is the first scheme that seeks to build more horizontal structure into the traditionally very vertical organisation of the EU’s executive body. To date, the only effective horizontal layer is the College of Commissioners itself, in which all initiatives are debated and decided.
The treaties specifically called for another horizontal layer, but it has not been delivered on over the past five years: Article 18 (4) assigns the High Representative the role of co-ordinating the external actions of the commission. Catherine Ashton has not been able to turn this responsibility into an effective cluster. In Juncker’s new design, the designated High Representative, Italy’s Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini, would no longer have an exceptional role. Instead, her responsibility for the external cluster would be part of the overall organisation principle of the Juncker Commission, matched by similar roles for the vice-presidents.
The cluster structure also suggests the emergence of a core leadership team for the European Commission. Jean-Claude Juncker will need authority and will have to practice restraint to establish and maintain the core as a leadership instrument. If he succeeds, the debate about the size of the commission could be put to rest, even if the number of 20 commissioners on the vertical pillars does still seem too high. And if his structure proves to be effective, grumblings over particular nominations such as Moscovici’s or assignments such as Hill’s will subside.
Aside from the High Representative, all the vice-presidents come from smaller member states, which will be an interesting test of the power balance among the EU institutions. With his proposal, Juncker has set the bar high. He seems determined not just to be the first “Spitzenkandidat” to head the commission, but also to be the first to dare to undertake a major overhaul of its governance.
This article is part of a series of views on the portfolios and the people of the new European Commision, for the full collection, go here.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.