The Junker Commission: politics, European style

By Myrto Tsakatika 7/1/14

Myrto Tsakatika is Senior Lecturer in European Politics at Glasgow University, seconded to Policy Scotland for 2014-2015. She co-convenes the South European Research Network (SERN).

Speaking after the new European Commission’s approval by the European Parliament, the President, Jean Claude Junker described his Commission as a ‘last chance’ Commission with a mission: to bring the European Union closer to its citizens. The urgency indeed cannot be overstated. Recent research clearly demonstrated that public Euroscepticism, already soaring before the economic crisis, skyrocketed between 2007 and 2012.

But how exactly is this Herculean task to be achieved? Apart from himself pursuing an enhanced media presence, Junker has encouraged his Commissioners to seek the limelight, talk politics and not shy away from national debates. Some of his Vice-Presidents and Commissioners are in a very good position to do so as they are political heavyweights, some former PMs from smaller states. To be closer to the citizens Europe must talk with a political, not a neutral or technocratic tongue, as many-a-politician and many-an-academic, myself included, have argued over the course of the post Maastricht era of diminished Euro-appetite. True enough, the Spitzenkandidaten process introduced for the first time in conjunction with the 2014 European elections has allowed Junker to lay claim to a considerably larger reserve of democratic legitimacy than any of the previous Commission Presidents. Junker can better afford to encourage his Commission to be explicitly political.

Yet, the Commission’s enhanced democratic credentials aside, the legitimacy of Europe remains at least as much, if not more, a matter of delivering results. Junker, an old hand in European politics knows this better than most. Which is why he has clearly prioritised Growth and Jobs and pledged a €300bn Investment Package to kickstart the European economy and tackle unemployment.

What exactly does talking politics mean when it comes to the Commission’s economic strategy to lift Europe from the murky waters of the great recession? The answer is not straightforward, particularly when the ruling coalition in the 2014-2019 Term in Europe is a grand coalition between the centre-right and the social democrats and not a centre-right affair with a little help from our über-Liberal friends, as was the case with the outgoing second Barroso Commission. But the answer matters. The new powers of the Commission in the economic field after the introduction of the European Semester, the Six-pack and Two-pack regulations in 2011 are formidable: everything from monitoring and policing macroeconomic imbalances to overseeing national budgets comes under its remit. Under the reign of Olli Rehn, ECFIN was assigned an all powerful role as the hub of the Commission’s economic policy-making. It developed a reputation as the think tank strategist and enforcer of fiscal consolidation and structural reform.

Some would argue that the new Grand Coalition signals a nudge away from austerity politics. Appointing Pierre Moscovici, a French socialist as a successor to the fiscal hawk Olli Rehn in DGECFIN and adopting the much expected investment package as a leading policy promise seems to point in that direction. However, what must be questioned is the all powerful role that ECFIN played under the Barroso era. One must look to internal changes to the Commission’s structure to get the full picture about the way economic policy-making is to be run.

Junker has redesigned the Commission by appointing 7 powerful VPs, most of which come from small states while giving important Commission portfolios to large states, such as France (ECFIN), Sweden (Trade) Germany (Digital economy) and the UK (financial services). At the same time he has assigned project teams to each of his Vice Presidents who are in charge of providing cohesion and policy direction to groups of Commissioners. While this indeed represents a delicate balancing act between the interests of small and large member states, it requires hard political compromises to be struck, not least in the economic policy field.

The two centre-right Vice Presidents that will flank Moscovici are the Finn Jyrki Katainen (Growth and Jobs) and the Latvian Valdis Dombrovskis (Euro and social dialogue). Under the guidance of two powerful Vice-Presidents, how much will Moscovici’s ECFIN be able to do? On the 4th of November 2014 Katainen and Moscovici, jointly presented this year’s economic forecasts for the EU. They appeared together and sang from the same hymn sheet when it came to predictions: a slow recovery is in the cards for the Eurozone. Yet, they hinted at different remedies, with Katainen pressing on the urgency of structural reforms and Moscovici focusing on flexibility and the need to stimulate growth. When it comes to exercising the Commission’s new powers already it is clear that it was Katainen, rather than Moscovici, that sent out budget Howlers to errant Member States.

So yes indeed, this is set to be a more political Commission. But its politics will continue to be politics European style: involving consensus, compromise and not uncommonly, institutional fixes to political problems.