The joys of forming a European government

Published in Business Spectator (Melbourne), 2 October 2014

New Zealand went to the polls less than a couple of weeks ago, and, if my sources are right, re-elected Prime Minister John Key will present his new cabinet list sometime this weekend. If only everything else in the world of politics moved that fast!

As you may remember, Europe also went to the polls this year to elect a new European Parliament. That was in late May. It then took until the end of June for former Luxembourg premier Jean-Claude Juncker to be nominated to lead the new European Commission. Never mind that his European People’s Party, whose leading candidate he was, had become the strongest party in the election. It should not have been too difficult to see that he had a mandate. Juncker was then elected by the European Parliament in mid-July.

However, if you thought that this was enough to finally decide the shape of the new European Commission, the EU’s de facto government, think again. Following Juncker’s confirmation for President of the Commission, an office he is scheduled to take in November, he now has to put together his team with which he wants to lead the EU for the next five years. But that it turns out is more difficult than it sounds.

The problems with forming the European Commission are manifold, but there is only one written rule: Every EU member state will be represented by one commissioner, nominated by national governments. The difficulties begin once you realise that there are numerous unwritten rules to be considered when putting together the new Commission.

There needs to be a balance of left-wingers, right-wingers and centrists. There should be a proper representation of men and women around the commission’s table. Small, medium-sized and large countries need to feel comfortable with the distribution of responsibilities. Ah, yes, and ideally you would also want to appoint candidates to their respective jobs who have a vague idea of the areas in which they are supposed to work.

If that sounds challenging enough, you should also take into account that a job at the Commission may be well paid as far as political jobs are concerned, but it is not the most glamorous job in politics. Compared to a seat at the cabinet table in a large European country, the job of a European commissioner is not nearly as attractive. Hardly anyone enters political life with the ambition of landing a top job in Brussels. For many, it is a position that only becomes attractive once they run out of options to progress their career in domestic politics.

Finding good, ambitious and well-qualified people for the European Commission who also fit the its regional, gender and political profile, is therefore quite a tough job for any new EU Commission president. To make matters worse, once the new president has identified his dream team, he then needs to get it approved by the European Parliament.

The European Parliament has the right to question the proposed new commissioners one by one. The time each parliamentary group has to interrogate candidates is strictly regulated, as is the time they have to answer questions. It is a game of political chess in which Parliament can try to embarrass candidates over any potential conflicts of interest, controversial positions taken in the past or indeed anything else. At the end of this process, Parliament then gets to vote — not on each individual commissioner but on the Commission as a whole.

This exercise complicates the process substantially. The carefully crafted balance could be tipped if Parliament decides to block the entire Commission because of opposition to just a few or even a single commissioner. To avoid that, the designated President would have to act swiftly and remove the offending candidates once it becomes obvious that their nomination could jeopardise approval for the new Commission.

Juncker is currently at that stage where he seriously has to consider if all his proposed appointments are really such great ideas.

For a start, Juncker has decided to introduce no fewer than seven deputy presidents, each of whom will lead a group of ‘ordinary’ commissioners. This hierarchy within the commission is bound to create frictions between commissioners who were once meant to be equal. To add to the hierarchy issues, only the Dutch vice president Frans Timmermans should really be considered Juncker’s deputy since Juncker has made it clear that he regards the social democrat as his right-hand man. It remains to be seen whether this new model for the Commission can work.

The personalities of some of the candidates are another problem. Spanish candidate Miguel Arias Cañete is controversial because of allegedly sexist remarks. Talking about a rival, female politician on Spanish TV, he said “a debate between a man and a woman is very complicated because if you use your intellectual superiority, it appears you are a male chauvinist cornering a defenceless woman”. Cañete apologised a few days later, but it remains to be seen whether that has saved his political career.

The new Maltese commissioner is under pressure because he is supposed to be in charge of environmental protection. However, Malta has a bad track record for not stopping illegal hunting of migratory birds, something that environmental groups say should prevent a Maltese from being made responsible for the environment.

Then there is the British candidate Jonathan Hill. He is not only a staunch eurosceptic but also someone who has in the past argued for deregulation of the British financial sector. Which area should he now be responsible for? You guessed it, financial market regulation. Not all other EU members will be happy with this choice. The question is, will they oppose Hill and risk giving British eurosceptics more ammunition in their quest to drive their country out of the EU?

The most controversial candidate, however, is probably Hungarian Tibor Navracsics. When he was minister of justice in Hungary, he was involved in curbing press freedom under the authoritarian government of Viktor Orbán. Now he is supposed to become the new EU Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Citizenship. Arguably, that is not the best look for the new Commission.

If, as is likely, the European Parliament delays the appointment of the new Commission because of opposition to individual commissioners, it may well take until early next year until Europe gets its new political leadership.

By then, voters may have forgotten that their votes were meant to have an influence in last May’s election. But then again, this is Europe and not New Zealand.