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A fascinating European Commission

A fascinating European Commission

Success depends on return of growth and confidence

by Denis MacShane

Thu 11 Sep 2014

The new European Commission has given Commissionologists much to think about. One can see the Juncker method at work. People often patronise the small EU member states, but the politics there are as tricky and full of rivalries and ambition as anywhere else. Jean-Claude Juncker did not stay as long as he did at the top of Luxembourg’s ministerial ladder, nor be as long-serving a chairman of the euro area finance ministers group, nor segue effortlessly into being president of the Commission, without having some very acute political skills.

Foremost among these are compromise, coalition and consensus. They served Juncker well as Luxembourg was transformed from a sleepy steel and coal duchy into one of the world’s foremost purveyors of financial services. The British media is proclaiming a great victory for London and the City in the appointment of Jonathan Hill as financial services commissioner.

From Juncker’s perspective, it might be better to see Hill as the perfect fit – a Tory professional from London, the world’s most sophisticated financial centre, who will understand perfectly the needs of Luxembourg bankers as well as other under-the-radar banking sectors such as Vienna and the Channel Islands. Dubai, Singapore and other city-states are trying hard to prise more financial services out of the hands of Europe. Hill is the right man to keep the business of money in EU hands.

There is a fascinating tandem in Frans Timmermans and Pierre Moscovici. Over the last 15 years the Dutch and French social democrats have been at the forefront of rethinking what modern left-wing politics should be. Both are tireless conférenciers and with their impeccable English are bridges between the different left parties in Europe.

There is a view expressed by the Libération newspaper’s Brussels guru, Jean Quatremer, that Timmermans is an Anglo-Saxon puppet. Nothing is further from the truth. As a minority member of Mark Rutte’s government, Timmermans clearly has had to support the harder fiscal line from The Hague. But while he calls for more authority for national parliaments in Europe, he has never adopted the tone or demands of British Tory Eurosceptics and has pleaded for a more integrated Europe as the sine qua non for a Europe of reform and growth that all dream of.

Moscovici as economy commissioner has a general brief but little power to oblige EU member states to change policy. His will be a bully-pulpit role. In giving the centre-left such key positions, Juncker is reinforcing the grand-coalition nature of his Commission.

Margarethe Vestager, the Social Liberal from Denmark, has got the key job of competition commissioner. She has a burning dossier to deal with in the shape of the endless complaints about Google crushing European start-up companies with the power of its universal search engine and the inter-connectedness of its other products. The outgoing commissioner, Spain’s Joaquín Almunia, has not been able to find a settlement that remotely satisfies those with serious complaints about Google.

Also fascinating is the shift of power to eastern Europe with Poland’s Donald Tusk as European Council president and a raft of commissioners from the Baltic states, Romania and Poland.

In addition, Juncker is taking an important risk by setting up vice-presidents almost as supervisory commissioners. They do not have treaty power to tell fellow commissioners what to do and it will be interesting to see how this long-demanded idea of streamlining the Commission into senior and junior commissioners works in practice.

Right now the sound of thumbs being sucked can be heard all over Brussels. No one will really know who is going to have power, or use power, or be seen as change-makers. But after the two Barroso Commissions, where drift and endless crisis management seemed to predominate, this is a fresh start for Europe.

Juncker was traduced by the British press corps, by Downing Street and, disgracefully, by British diplomats. Now he has produced the most interesting Commission since the Delors years. Will it work? That depends on a return to growth, innovation and confidence in Europe. And that in turn depends on national governments which remain firmly in charge, notably those which speak German.

Denis MacShane is a former UK Minister for Europe.

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