EU’s Juncker Gambles on Commission Shake-Up

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Jean-Claude Juncker unveils the list of European Commissioners on Wednesday. Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Incoming European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker displayed some of his skills in political showmanship Wednesday in announcing the team he wants to lead the European Union’s executive body for the next five years.

They will take office on Nov. 1—assuming they are confirmed by the European Parliament—at a critical time. With trust in the EU undermined by a prolonged economic slump and widespread perceptions that it interferes excessively in national affairs, the new commission will also have to navigate around the possibility that the U.K. will leave.

It was with the U.K.’s nominee, Jonathan Hill, that Mr. Juncker showed his capacity for surprise. His nomination as the bloc’s new financial services commissioner was seen as a boon to U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, who opposed Mr. Juncker’s appointment.

The pick of Mr. Hill, a former lobbyist and Conservative politician, raised hackles in Brussels, where the U.K. is suspected of seeking an easy ride for its powerful financial-services industry. The center-left socialist bloc in the European Parliament warned it would be “very tough with Lord Hill.”

He is not alone in looking contentious. Paris got its wish that former French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici would be the new economics commissioner, with power over implementing fiscal rules that France has repeatedly flouted.

Mr. Juncker picked Dimitris Avramopoulos to preside over the EU’s migration policy at a time when Greece has been the main entry point for illegal migrants into the bloc. Several other politicians could face a rough ride in confirmation hearings.

At the heart of Mr. Juncker’s choices lie two strategic gambles on which the near-term fortunes of his commission may rest.

First, he went for what one EU lawmaker called a “fox-in-the-henhouse” strategy, handing powerful posts to commissioners from countries with major concerns about past EU policy in those areas—like Mr. Hill. Second, he sought to streamline and focus the commission’s work through his restructuring of the executive.

Mr. Juncker defended his pick of controversial candidates as a way of broadening political support for the bloc’s initiatives. Mr. Hill, he said, could respond to British doubts “in the language of Shakespeare. ” Mr. Moscovici could persuade French voters that the EU’s approach has as much flexibility as austerity. Officials in the current commission team admit the EU has been badly short of politicians who can – or are willing to – make the EU’s case in key national capitals.

However, it is on his second decision where Mr. Juncker may be taking his biggest gamble. He announced the creation of six potentially powerful vice-presidential posts able to roam over broad policy areas—and the abolition of a number of less important positions.

Appointing the new vice-presidents—all formerly major players in national governments—is meant to give the commission a gatekeeper structure and stem the flow of excessive policy initiatives from the EU bureaucracy.

Mr. Juncker made it clear he would generally not back proposals if they don’t have the support of the relevant vice-president.

The second aim is to create leaders for the bloc’s most important projects, such as eurozone integration and creating a true EU energy union. The idea is that the vice-presidents will work with shifting coalitions of commissioners to pursue broad agendas mobilizing resources across the bureaucracy.

The Juncker team says the commission is currently too divided into individual silos, with each commissioner seeking to protect his or her own turf.

The new structure is also intended to iron out policy differences earlier in the process and ensure that disagreements are resolved not by senior bureaucrats but by commissioners who are answerable to EU lawmakers and member states.

“The objective as it’s presented is right: You need to break down the silos” to improve decision-making, says Mujtaba Rahman, director for Europe of the Eurasia Group consultancy. “But there is a real potential for political turf wars and political battles.”

Nowhere is that danger greater than on economic policy and Brussels’s major role in policing national government policies and reforms. Under the current commission, that role falls to a single powerful economics commissioner.

In the new commission, it will be split between Mr. Moscovici, former Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen, as vice-president for growth, jobs and competitiveness, and Valdis Dombrovskis, vice-president for the euro and social dialogue.

One experienced Brussels insider sees a clash likely between Mr. Moscovici and Mr. Dombrovskis, who as Latvian prime minister during the financial crisis presided over one of the world’s toughest economic adjustment programs.

“This guy will show no complacency when it comes to requests to delay fiscal deadlines,” the official said.

There are other worries too. Some believe the system may result in greater centralization of power with Mr. Juncker and his team. Enabling broader political battles to rage among a range of commissioners will make Mr. Juncker’s role as a final arbiter all the more powerful.

Mr. Juncker’s team acknowledge risks but the incoming president stressed that if he needs to move people and readjust the structure because it’s not working, he will do so. Trouble is that the EU is under immediate pressure to rebuild trust and boost growth. He may not have a second chance.

 

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