Thursday 5 February 2009

Some Commissioners to run in this year's EP elections

EurActiv has reported that 5 of the Commission have told Barroso that they intend to run for election to the European Parliament this June. These Commissioners include:

"Viviane Reding (information society), Louis Michel (humanitarian aid), Janez Potočnik (research), Danuta Hübner (regional policy) and Ján Figel' (education)."

Since they would need to leave the Commission before the elections, Barroso will need to reshuffle the Commission and balance the competing interests of ideology and nationality. It will be interesting to see how he deals with it, as with 5 Commissioners leaving at once, this will be the biggest reshuffle he has had to manage yet. And as Barroso is almost certain to be reappointed for another term (which will be extended to accommodate the second Irish referendum), this reshuffled Commission could be the basis of the new one.

Another interesting question is: what does this reveal about the political dynamics of the Commission and EP?

The Commissioners may been jumping ship early, as seems to be the habit with Commissions in their dying days, but that all 5 (though others may leave later for other reasons) will leave to campaign to be elected to their (hopeful) next job, and that they want an EP seat may indicate that some of the assumptions of EU institutional balance and European political culture may be aging and loosing some of there relevance:

1. The Commission is more powerful than the EP, and a Commission post is a more attractive than an EP seat.

2. National politics are more attractive to politicians (except in isolated cases of idealists), and Commission posts are for decommissioned national politicians or a spring broad for the national ambitions (in some cases both). In any case Commissioners are usually unelectable as well and unelected and would not put themselves up for the vote.

It has been my own view that the power of the Commission has been declining as that of the EP has been rising. While some of this is to do with the weakness of the Commission's leadership, the extension of the co-decision procedure (making the EP an equal co-legislator with the Council) has weakened the Commission as the EP and Council's consensus matters more to the success and shaping of legislation than sole power of initiation which is vested in the Commission. The Commission's right of initiation is in any case weakened by its fragmented nature (differing ideologies, national viewpoints and agenda mean that its wrong to portray the Commission as a monolithic organisation - though the Commission's civil service and Treaty tasks along with the growing "presidential" power of the Commission President goes some way to countering this) and its lack of resources. In extreme cases the EP and the Council can at the end of the co-decision process make bargains excluding the Commission ("conciliation").

However, I don't know enough about the history of Commissioners running for EP elections, so this may be a tenuous link to make.

Edit: Julien Frisch has pointed out that EurActiv has updated its report. It seems now that two of the Commissioners have ruled themselves out of the EP elections: Potočnik and Figel. Figel seems to be very categorical in ruling himself out. This probably weakens my argument somewhat. I wonder if the other 3 are going to rule themselves out too?


  1. I believe that most of the Commissioners have been members of parliament and/or government ministers in their country. (Don't be fooled by the propaganda about 'unelected bureaucrats'. They are former elected politicians, even if they have been nominated by their government and appointed by the Council.)

    Various reasons may speak for jumping ship a little bit ahead of the European elections.

    Timing: The European elections almost coincide with the end of the Commission, whereas national elections may be years away.

    Alternatives: Or rather the lack of them. No plush job is waiting, the national government may have changed or there are other reasons why a new stint as Commissioner is highly improbable.

    Insurance: Even Commissioners with some hope of nomination for a new term cannot even know if their country is going to have a Commissioner.

    Normal procedure: Is this not almost identical to the situation where a government minister returns to his seat in parliament (only), but in the EU the roles are mutually exclusive, so you have to be elected in between?

  2. You're right that such reasons tend to explain the exodus of Commissioners as the Commission nears the end of its term. (Plus the new one of "insurance").

    But I'm sure that even if they can't rely on reappointment or a position in national politics they could get well paid jobs in the private sector. After all, quite a few businesses would be glad to have someone who knows the way around a key EU institution, just as many national politicans end up on this board or that of private companies.

    So I find it quite encouraging that they are running for directly electable European posts instead of returning to national politics or seeking private employment. It shows, if to a limited extent, that the EP is worth something and worthwhile work can be done there. Especially since the EP is still seen by some as a talking shop that rubber stamps Commission decisions. Though perhaps that's the optimist in me when it comes to the EP.

    ((The "unelected bureaucrats" rhetoric is flawed and the Commission does have more legitimacy than is often assumed (vetting by the EP, etc), but just because Commissioners tend to be former politicians doesn't do much to counter the heart of the democratic legitimacy problem. If the situation was really like what you suggest (under "normal procedure), then it would be a much better system.

    But it isn't almost identical to the situation you describe - I have never heard of a sitting MEP being appointed to a Commission post. Commissioners are drawn from outside the EU system (when narrowly defined as the EU institutions). It's like appointing retired/retiring local government politicians to national executive office instead of drawing the executive from parliament.))

  3. An unbroken chain between citizen voters, the European Parliament and a political Government has repeatedly been rejected by the national political leaders.

    The European (Political) Community and the Spinelli draft Constitution are interesting histories of how Europe could have evolved much earlier and more profoundly to take up the challenges we face in the world.

  4. I personally think that the European Defence Community and the European Political Community were very premature, and democratising the ECSC/EEC when they dealt with very technical issues wouldn't have been very worthwhile.

    However the EU has become far more politicised and it has past the point were we need more radical democratic reform. National governments have repeatedly rejected the idea of an unbroken link between the electorate and an European executive, but, let's face it, the EP hasn't made it too hard for them to get away with this - even now PES hasn't put forward a Commission President candidate.

    The EP does at times try to assert itself, and Spinalli is a good example of this, but the EP seems woefully unaware that its political power comes from the people - instead of simply pushing for powers within the system where the public are likely to remain unaware of the EP's successes and failures, the EP should be more active in enlisting the public in its power struggles.

    I know that the EP's parties/groups are hindered in their ability to do this due to their fragmented nature, but there is strong public feeling on the issue of EU democracy to be tapped into. Eurosceptics have long married sovereignty and democracy in a way which ignores the many tensions that are inherent between the two sides in an European context. Pro-democratic reformers need to call their bluff, and campaign for true reform. Some Eurosceptics will say that democracy at a European level is impossible, but it will be harder for them to advance their arguments when the political culture (largely inspired by themselves) is focused on the legitimacy of the EU in such a way that, logically, leads on to demands of democratization.

    In the 1980s the Single European Act helped kickstart the EEC and its economic role. Now that the EU is so political, there is a need for a radical democratic reform of the EU to encourage debate and political development.

    I've rambled on at length here, and I may not have made myself entirely clear.

    What I might do in the future is post on the Democracy-Sovereignty tension at the EU level and about what reforms I think need to be made. That would probably make my position clearer. Though it will probably be a while before I post them.