Sunday, 16 August 2009

Reforming the Commission

With the second Lisbon referendum coming up in Ireland, Jason Mahoney has a new "Improved Spoofers Guide to the Lisbon Treaty". One paragraph in particular jumped out at me:

"The big gain is that we stopped the EU reducing the number of EU Commissioners and ensured that every country gets one. This means, by the way, that the Irish people have become the first people in the entire European Union to argue that there are not enough politicians and that we need more."

Of course, in Ireland we like our representation: for a country of 4.4 million, the Republic has 166 TDs (MPs for the Dáil) and 60 Senators (Seanad/Upper House), plus 1 President - though we've remained minimalistic when it comes to our presidents. In Northern Ireland, which has a population of around 1.7 million, the devolved Assembly has 108 members (MLAs) to "decide"* on a selection of issues that aren't dealt with in London.

But are there enough jobs to go around for 27 Commissioners? Here are the portfolios at the moment (take a deep breath and say them with me):

- President
- Industrial Relations and Communications Strategy
- Enterprise and Industry
- Justice, Freedom and Security
- Transport
- Administrative Affairs, Audit and Anti-Fraud
- Economic and Financial Affairs
- Internal Market and Services
- Agriculture and Rural Development
- Competition
- Trade
- Fisheries and Maritime Affairs
- Environment
- Health
- Development and Humanitarian Aid
- Enlargement
- Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities
- Taxation and Customs Union
- Financial Programming and the Budget
- External Relations and European Neighbourhood Policy
- Education, Training and Culture
- Regional Policy
- Energy
- Science and Research
- Information Society and Media
- Consumer Protection
- Multilingualism

There will always be some jobs that are more important than others in an executive, but when it comes to non-jobs, we're really spoilt for choice here. Member States, of course, want their nominee to get one of the best jobs, and fear being "Orbanised". And sometimes, the number of policy areas and portfolios means that the Commission can come up with policy statements and announcements that give the impression that the Commission is more powerful/influential than it really is (for example).

If the Lisbon Treaty comes into force, then it will mark the end of reform for a while, but pressure will continue to build on the shape of the Commission - with Iceland, Croatia, Turkey and the Western Balkans knocking at the door, the number of Commissioners will continue to increase with enlargement, and new portfolios will be cobbled together by splitting up old ones.

So what are the options for reform? Here are a few suggestions:

1. We stick to the 1 Commissioner per Member State principle. In the interests of safeguarding national representation in the Commission (even though the Commission is supposed to take care of the "European" picture), we accept the costs and inconvenience of an over-population of Commissioners.

2. Rotation of "nationalities" represented. This is basically the same idea that was on offer in Lisbon I: the right to have a Commissioner rotates among countries, so for a certain period of time a nationality is not represented in the Commission. This was rejected in the first Irish Lisbon referendum, but it might be revived if Lisbon II results in a "No" (since the number of Commissioners must be lower than the number of member states under the Nice Treaty), or later on down the line.

3. Absorb the Commission's civil service into the Council and abolish the Commission as an independent organisation. The President of the Council would have an executive role. However, under this arrangement state power would become more important, and the independent functions of the Commission (anti-Cartels, etc.) could come under greater state and political influence and become less effective. Also, the political weight of states would matter more and big states would increase their influence at the expense of small states.

4. The President of the Commission is elected by the EP; the Commissioners are appointed by the President and confirmed by the EP - the link between nationality, state and office is abolished. This would increase the independence of the Commission from state interests, and allow for fewer Commissioners. However, under this model not all nationalities would be represented in the Commission.

5. As 4, only with the added obligation that the Commissioners must reflect the diversity of the Union (certain number from big and small states, percentage of female Commissioners, etc.). Downsides: again, as in 4, though a certain amount of small states would be represented under this model - but which states wouldn't be certain.

At the heart of Commission reform is the question of what kind of Commission we want. There are a few interests to balance here:

- The more nationality/statehood is emphasised in the Commission, the more unwieldy it becomes, but the more nationalities can feel themselves to be represented (so the Commission is perceived as more legitimate, though perhaps less effective).
- The more state control over the Commission appointees, the more open the Commission is to state influence - especially the influence of big states.
- The more state control over Commission appointees, the more confidence the states will have in the Commission, but the less likely the Commissioners are to be the best people for the job.
- The more state influence over the Commission, the less legitimacy the Commission will have with small states, as big states will be more able to exert more political influence and bend the rules their way (a complaint in Ireland at times).
- The greater the independence of the Commission, the more it is able to apply/enforce the law equally among states, and the more legitimate it will be for small states, but also the more its legitimacy/usefulness will fall in the eyes of larger states.

From a small state perspective, strengthening the EP and the independence of the Commission is part of maximising the usefulness of the EU for small states: for small states, the EU equalizes the relationships between states and plays down the relevance of size (though it does play a big part in legislating). The stronger and fairer a legal system is, the more legitimacy and usefulness it has in the eyes of small states.

The question for small states as the EU expands and reforms is how to balance the need for representation in the executive (beyond that in the Council and EP) with the effectiveness and independence of the executive.

At the heart of the "Commissioner Question" in Ireland is the question of equality - how small states view and balance the different factors of equality will be an important factor in how the EU will be reformed in the future.

* Note the the Executive commands a massively overwhelming majority in the Assembly due to the 4 party coalition. And the Executive itself is so divided, that the general impression (if not the reality) is that ministries are the fiefdoms of the parties that control them.


  1. Thanks for this post: you raise an important issue. From your listing of existing Commissioners it is clear there are already too many (remember that each additional Commissioner requires a consequent additional entourage of civil servants, counsellors, etc - at the EU taxpayers' cost).

    You suggest, #3, that the independence of the Commission could be threatened by your proposal shown there. Surely this independence has already been compromised by Barroso? He has shown himself too easily swayed by strong national leaders: to the extent that he has over-ridden Commissioners to prevent proposals that those leaders don't care for. Barroso has failed the EU in his role as Commission President.

    I prefer your #4 or #5. The election of the Commission President is already too much under the influence of strong national leaders. Parliament, which we do get to elect, should offer a more democratic way of electing the Commission President. Sadly, the newly-elected EMPs don't appear to have any candidate to put up against Barroso.

  2. As well as the extra cost, it creates confusion over which Commissioner has control/competence over what, and it encourages bureaucratic turf-wars.

    #3 would be an option I would be completely against, but I have heard it suggested somewhere before, so I put it up as an option. Barroso has been more a follower of the Council than a shaper of the agenda, and I'd agree that he's been a weak Commission President.

    #4 is definitely a long term option, if anything. #2 or #5 would be more realistic (if still politically controversal) because national identity and representation is still an important part of the Commission's legitimacy, even if it needs to be slimmed down for practicality's sake.

  3. At the end of the day, the council has to be the outlet in which national governments are involved in the decision making process. The faster that the commission becomes a proper cabinet appointed to run real portfolios the better. And parliment will never gain it's legitamacy in the eyes of ordinary people until the commision is derived from it.

    As you say, we can all agree that this will not happen anytime soon. In fact the only way these things happen is if they are part of a full root and branch reform of the way the EU is run, not through piecemeal reform.