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EU politics cause UK-France rift

The appointment of a new European Commission every five years sees countries jockey for key slots.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, left, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy address a news conference during a two-day European Union leaders summit in Brussels, Dec. 11, 2009. (Thierry Roge/Reuters)

BRUSSELS, Belgium — Those who start snoring at the mention of the European Commission — the European Union’s executive arm — should look again at its politics, for example a recent battle between London and Paris, or more specifically, between British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

At the end of each commission’s five-year term, there is a scramble for jobs in Brussels. Each member state gives the name of one proposed candidate to the president of the commission, currently Jose Manuel Barroso. The president then assigns each candidate to lead a commission department. The parliament then approves the commission slate.

The reason for the politicking is that not all commission spots are created equal. National governments get into the game, exerting public and private pressure on the commission president to appoint their candidate to a top spot. After all, it is the European Commission where most legislation in the EU originates. Increasingly, these EU directives override member states’ own laws.

Even though commissioners swear to leave behind all nationalistic sentiments, it’s not hard to fathom why a government would prefer to have its representative running the EU’s trade commission than, say, its multi-lingualism office. The latter was created in 2007 amid questions about whether it served any purpose other than providing another job so the ever-expanding number of member states could each have their own commissioner. “Multilingualism” will now be folded into the Culture and Education commission.

The politics this year were even more complicated than usual because of new dynamics created by the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty on Dec. 1. The treaty created a seat for a permanent EU president, to be chosen by heads of state. It also integrated into the commission the role of the High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, a job that had been held by Javier Solana for a decade, by adding the role of Commission Vice President to its functions.

After a special head-of-state summit Nov. 20 clinched the presidency for Belgium’s Prime Minister Herman van Rompuy and the High Representative’s seat for British Trade Commissioner Catherine Ashton, Barroso was finally able to fill in the remaining blanks of his cabinet. After a week of high-stakes, high-stress consideration, Barroso made his announcement.

Though there were 26 posts left to fill, one would be forgiven for thinking there was only one given all the headlines following the announcement of France’s Michel Barnier as the internal market commissioner. That commission is also responsible for financial services and accounting practices, which have taken on great importance in the aftermath of the global economic crisis.

For the Brits, it wasn’t so much that they didn’t get the job as that it was the French who did get it. Brown knew that by offering the British trade commissioner, Catherine Ashton, for the new High Representative position, he would not get another commissioner. His critics had a field day with the notion that he had surrendered London’s eminence in the financial world to put a little-known public official in a foreign policy slot.

It was a point Sarkozy sought to underscore — and overplay. “It's the first time in 50 years that France has had this role,” Sarkozy crowed in Le Monde. “The English are the big losers in this business.” He went on, Le Monde wrote, to characterize Ashton’s new job as much less important than Barnier’s. He also criticized the “Anglo-Saxon model” of economics, which he has blamed for the financial crisis.

London erupted with such furor — both over the assignment and the commentary from Sarkozy — that the French president cancelled a trip to the U.K.