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.
But Sarkozy wasn’t alone in his post-game assessment. “The big losers are the British,” echoed Kevin Doran, the director for European Affairs at Bell Pottinger Public Affairs who blogs about the European bureaucracy at Reseuropa. “They should’ve been more careful” about focusing on the high representative job at the expense of internal markets, he chided.
A couple other winners and losers, according to Doran:
Belgium: Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht. Belgium is a big winner in the appointment game, Doran said. In addition to having its low-key prime minister Herman van Rompuy appointed as the EU’s first president, it snagged this prestigious commission post.
Germany: Energy Commissioner Gunter Oettinger. Oettinger was reportedly posted to Brussels — to his own great surprise — by German Chancellor Angela Merkel because he was her rival in domestic politics. While Oettinger is “not the most charismatic of people,” nor has held a national post, Doran noted, “Germany’s got a very important energy interest and so for Oettinger to get this is not such a bad thing for the Germans.”
The Netherlands: Digital Policy Commissioner Neelie Kroes. Kroes wanted desperately to remain head of the competition commission, having seen such heady cases during her tenure as the successful suits of Microsoft and Intel for anti-competitive practices. She had threatened to leave the commission if she lost her post, but later relented and took this newly created profile. Dutch Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende had also been mentioned as a possible candidate for EU president, so that loss along with Kroes’ disappointment, means “the Dutch are not among the winners,” Doran said.
(See the full list of commissioners-designate.)
Back to Brown and Sarkozy: After the thrill of victory and sting of defeat regarding the commission assignments began to wear off, they realized they needed to spin all the bad press they were getting for the tiff.
Wednesday the two published a joint editorial in the Wall Street Journal calling for global financial regulation. Thursday they had a private tete-a-tete in Brussels before joining a head-of-state summit, after which aides proclaimed the two were “completely aligned” even as they denied there had ever been a problem. Friday they held a joint press conference to announce their decisions on funding a climate change package. There, Brown proclaimed Sarkozy as “one of [his] best friends,” while the French president spent several minutes praising his good buddy’s leadership.