When Jean-Claude Juncker became European Commission president he pledged to do his best to restore citizens’ trust in the European project. Juncker thinks that improving the Commission’s standing in the EU is pivotal to delivering on this promise. In his first hundred days in office he has taken three important steps to strengthen the Commission’s hand but he still has to prove that he can avoid repeating the mistakes of his predecessor, José Manuel Barroso.
Juncker did not have an easy start in Brussels. He took over the Commission’s reins when public trust in the EU was plummeting and support for eurosceptic parties was on the rise. The Commission’s institutional power was also in decline. During the financial and euro crises, despite the Commission’s monopoly on proposing EU laws, the European Council became the primary forum for EU decision-making in the area of economic governance. The Commission was left to rubber-stamp the decisions of EU leaders and turn them into EU legislation.
While failing to provide leadership in responding to the economic crisis, the Commission attempted to expand its responsibilities in other policy areas (often described by British officials as ‘competence creep’). This has irritated quite a few member-states. Poland, though strongly pro-European, has for example felt uneasy with the idea of the Commission using strict environmental rules to limit shale gas exploitation.
Juncker wants to transform the Commission’s unfavourable image through three steps: setting the EU agenda rather than letting others do it for him; doing a few key things well, rather than doing a lot of things badly; and reconnecting the Commission to the citizens of Europe.
Juncker’s first step was to reassert the Commission’s power to set the EU agenda. He knew it would be a tall order: he became Commission president through the new Spitzenkandidaten process, whereby the candidate nominated by the largest party group in the European Parliament becomes Commission president. This process helped the Parliament strengthen its political control over the Commission and its president. But Juncker, though perceived by many as a staunch supporter of European integration, wants the Commission to be more equidistant between the European Parliament and EU capitals. He hopes that First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, who as Dutch foreign minister called for a better balance of power between member-states, the Commission and the European Parliament, will help him to achieve this objective.
Timmermans has so far tried to practise what he preaches. He presented the major objectives of the Commission’s action plan for 2015 both to MEPs and to the Council of Ministers before it was published, but he did not allow either side to fiddle with the content. In a letter to the president of the Parliament and to the Italian presidency, he also declared a willingness to co-operate more systematically with both EU ministers and MEPs over subsequent Commission action plans. He suggested that all three institutions jointly identify strategic EU priorities for each new legislative cycle (so called multiannual programming). The Commission would provide more information on its intended actions but in return, Timmermans would like both the Council and the European Parliament to fast-track key Commission legislative initiatives. This approach is a welcome departure from the second Barroso Commission. In 2010 it concluded an agreement with the Parliament which significantly enhanced MEPs’ influence on the Commission’s daily business, including its work programme. This came at the expense of the role of member-states, which were not a party to it.
Getting both MEPs and ministers around the same table to discuss the Commission’s future plans will not be easy. Member-states would like to enter into tripartite co-operation but the European Parliament will not like sharing hard-won powers. Timmermans should try to convince MEPs that greater Council engagement also helps them: when EU governments considered legislative proposals in the Council, it would be hard for them to backtrack on commitments previously made to the Commission and MEPs.
Greater collaboration on the Commission’s multiannual work programme could also speed up the adoption of EU laws. Although the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers have tried to shorten the process, it still takes them on average 19 months to reach consensus on a piece of EU legislation. They should prioritise speedier agreement on legislation which would help the EU economy recover.
Timmermans should, however, ensure that fast-tracking key proposals does not compromise the quality or transparency of EU law-making. Today, the Commission conducts impact assessments to evaluate how planned legislation will affect citizens, the economy and the environment before deciding whether to make a proposal. In negotiations on the initial draft, member-states and MEPs often introduce substantial changes. Under time pressure, the Council and Parliament may not always consider how changes may affect the regulatory burden on citizens and industry. Additional impact assessments of these amendments, an idea supported by Timmermans, could help to deliver Juncker’s promise to cut red tape in the EU.
Juncker’s second step was to challenge the Commission’s reputation for producing unnecessary laws. In December 2014 he presented a lean but concrete action plan for the year to come. To the relief of many European capitals, it consisted of only 23 proposals, including Juncker’s flagship projects like the European Fund for Strategic Investments, which aims to deliver up to €315 billion in public and private investment in Europe. By contrast, the Barroso Commission tabled around 130 proposals per annum in its last five years.
Juncker decided to copy the practice in member-states, whereby a newly elected government can drop the unfinished business of its predecessor. This was a first test of the effectiveness of the new college structure. Timmermans, who co-ordinated preparation of the work programme, urged other vice-presidents to ditch any of Barroso’s proposals which did not coincide with Juncker’s priorities. The new college reviewed around 450 pending proposals and set out a list of 80 to be scrapped, or withdrawn and then resubmitted in a modified form.
Juncker’s approach deserves some credit. The Commission is right to drop proposals which do not contribute to boosting growth, jobs and investment. The European Commission decided, for example, to withdraw a proposal on the tax treatment of motor vehicles belonging to EU migrants who change their residence permanently, tabled in 1998 and stuck ever since. The Commission should instead focus on more pressing dossiers like the digital single market package, designed to ease access to cross-border digital services.
But Timmermans included among the 80 proposals to be withdrawn some on which member-states and MEPs have only recently started working. For example, he decided to ditch the so-called ‘circular economy package’, which aims to encourage recycling and efficient use of resources. He promised to come up with new, “more ambitious” proposals. Timmermans may thereby have pleased business representatives, who complained that the package hindered competitiveness, but he has annoyed MEPs and environment ministers. They are worried that the Commission’s better regulation agenda boils down to deregulation, and that environment and climate protection aims will become victims of Timmermans’ crusade to cut red tape.
But member-states and the European Parliament also fear that Timmermans may have just set a dangerous precedent: if an incoming Commission asserted the right to drop any unfinished legislation inherited from its predecessor, regardless of what stage it had reached, it would effectively gain a right to veto legislative negotiations. Timmermans should table new proposals on recycling and resource efficiency as soon as possible. If he can reconcile the divergent interests of business and environmentalists, he will give more substance to his ‘better regulation’ portfolio.
Juncker’s third and perhaps most important step was to challenge EU citizens’ preconceptions about the Commission. His other steps will mean little if the institution he runs does not restore its standing in the eyes of the public. EU citizens are more openly contesting the new powers given to the Commission by member-states, including the right to review the draft budgets of eurozone countries. Anti-establishment movements are gaining popularity by promising to block the ‘diktats of Brussels’. The recent electoral victory of the left-wing Syriza party in Greece could fuel similar movements across Europe.
Juncker hopes that making the Commission less technocratic and more political in the way it acts will help him improve the Commission’s image. He wants his commissioners to stand up to EU leaders, who under pressure from Eurosceptic voices at home, criticise EU decisions to which they had previously agreed. One of the first manifestations of this approach was Timmermans’ announcement of a new partnership with national parliaments. National parliamentarians have often complained that their concerns about unnecessary laws fall on deaf ears in Brussels. When in 2013, 14 parliamentary chambers raised a ‘yellow card’ to object to the proposed creation of a European Public Prosecutor’s Office, the Barroso Commission did not discuss parliamentarians’ concerns about the proposal and pushed ahead with legislation. Timmermans has urged his fellow commissioners to engage more actively in debate with national MPs. This would mean listening to parliaments’ doubts about Commission proposals and taking on board constructive ideas on how to improve EU action. Commissioners should also visit the parliaments of eurozone countries to discuss the Commission’s opinions on draft national budgets. After all, it is up to parliamentarians whether they take the Commission’s suggestions on board when they adopt the budgets.
Juncker also hopes that more direct interaction between his college and the press will narrow the gap between Brussels and EU citizens. He has therefore put communication policy under his direct supervision and reduced the number of spokespersons, who will now have responsibility for briefing on the Commission’s policies rather than speaking on behalf of individual commissioners. In Barroso’s time, it looked as if spokespersons represented individual commissioners rather than the institution as a whole, and when commissioners disagreed, the result was confusion. Juncker wants his Commission to speak in public with one voice. He also believes that since the commissioners are “the best advocates of Commission policies”, they should talk more often to the media themselves.
Building a more ‘political’ Commission may at times be difficult to reconcile with the Commission’s responsibility to represent the general interest of the European Union. Given growing tensions between creditor and debtor countries on how the eurozone should be governed, the Juncker college should make every effort to strike the right balance between the interests of different member-states. The determination of Greece’s Syriza-led government to walk away from previous agreements, and the equal insistence of Germany and its northern allies that Greece should stick to its obligations, will make it hard for the Commission to find common ground. If Juncker can help to reconcile feuding EU members-states without leaning towards any of them, he will have taken an important step towards restoring the Commission’s credibility in the eyes of all EU citizens.
Agata Gostyńska is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.