EU’s game of European thrones

Written by on August 28, 2014 in Europe - Comments Off
Jean-Claude Juncker photo epp eu via flickr

European Union ambassadors were meeting on August 28 ahead of a scheduled gathering two days later to deal out posts in the future Jean-Claude Juncker European Commission, with it remaining unclear how far EU leaders would get in deciding on some of the most important portfolios.

In particular focus when the heads of EU countries meet on August 30 will be the posts of the bloc’s foreign policy chief, to succeed Catherine Ashton, and European Council President, to succeed Herman van Rompuy.

The August 30 European Council special meeting on the top jobs in the Juncker European Commission was called after a July meeting on the same issue ended without result.

In the case of the foreign policy job, at the time of the July meeting the two top contenders were seen as Bulgaria’s Kristalina Georgieva and Italy’s Federica Mogherini.

Ahead of the August 30 rematch, rival media reports claimed, respectively, that the post was likely to go to Mogherini or Georgieva. But given the traditional dynamics of the complicated interactions when EU leaders get together to decide anything, all of these reports might be proven untrue should a third nominee get the post.

A name frequently mentioned of late is that of Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski, although some reports have suggested that Warsaw’s nomination is in fact a gambit for Poland to be accorded an entirely different post of some significance – specifically, in the economy field – and that the Eastern European EU heavyweight will declare for Bulgaria’s Georgieva.

This is but one scenario of several. Another one, chosen practically at random, could see the emergence as EU foreign policy chief, say, of the Netherlands’ Frans Timmermans, who would bring experience and credibility to the job – and without the liabilities of Mogherini, about whom reservations earlier were expressed regarding her inexperience and supposed softness of approach towards the Kremlin.

But mentioning a figure such as Timmermans produces, at once, the important reservation that the Dutchman is the wrong gender.

An anomaly in the way the race for posts has turned out is that the pious ambitions about strong representation of women in positions of significance in the Juncker EC have not been fulfilled, at least in the sense of arithmetic.

On the basis on known nominations and those that are the subject of confident speculation, the number of women in the next European Commission could be somewhere between four and nine.

Juncker has spoken repeatedly of his imperative of wanting a European Commission that has an appropriate gender balance, including in the importance of portfolios – going so far as to signal to EU countries that those putting forward women candidate commissioners will have their due reward in terms of the weighty portfolios conferred in return.

That has been the carrot, with the stick being waved by European Parliament President Martin Schulz, who has hinted that a Commission with an unsatisfying gender representation might be turned down when put to the vote in plenary.

There are further complications in addition to the gender factor. A major one is the existing agreement on political balance, the deal whereby the major centre-right and centre-left forces elected to the European Parliament in May 2014 have agreed to carry the process forward to the new European Commission due to take office in November.

For instance, it is precisely this seeking of political balance that has formed the basis of claims in media reports that Mogherini, a socialist, will get the EU foreign policy job. These reports have claimed that behind-the-scenes agreements on giving the job to a left-winger have got far enough down the line for Italy to be confident about success, especially after addressing concerns about Mogherini’s “softness” towards the Kremlin by Rome making the right noises in relation to Russia.

Further, there is geographic balance – significantly, for instance, both the Nordic members of the EU and its Eastern European members wanting portfolios of note. As an aside, it is clear by now that what London wants hardly sways the bloc; the message that the UK needs the EU more than the EU needs the UK seemingly never having filtered through, though it possibly might in a post-EU UK, should matters ever plummet that far.

Ahead of the August 30 European Council meeting, a number of names were being punted for the European Council President post. These included Denmark’s prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Poland’s Donald Tusk, Lithuania’s former prime minister Valdis Dombrovskis and Ireland’s Enda Kenny.

As noted, it is seen as somewhat unlikely that the August 30 summit will end with the announcement of the allocation of portfolios to all 28 Commissioners. Juncker may do this only some time before the end of the first half of September, also considering that depending on the outcome of the August 30 meeting, the possibility of some countries changing their nominations has not been ruled out.

Some EU countries have decided to nominate their members of the Jose Barroso European Commission to return as members of the Juncker EC. These include Austria (Johannes Hahn), Bulgaria (Georgieva, belatedly, after the petty games played by the failed and now-departed BSP government), Croatia (Neven Mimica), Finland (Jyrki Katainen), Germany (Günther Oettinger), Romania (Dacian Cioloş), Slovakia (Maroš Šefčovič) and Sweden (Cecila Malmström).

However, given the overall picture of trading, it is expected that most if not all of those who will be commissioners for a further term will occupy portfolios different from their present ones. To take Georgieva as an example, should she not get the EU foreign policy chief job, there have been reports suggesting that the Bulgarian might get anything from a finance portfolio to that of environment.

And to add to the mix, it is not yet known whether and how existing portfolios may be changed, for instance by the addition of a new migration portfolio – a matter of discussion for some time, but perhaps lent new impetus by the latest headlines about tragedies of would-be migrants dying in the Mediterranean.

Whatever emerges from the August 30 European Council meeting and from portfolio announcements, as noted probably some days later by Juncker, the process of putting in place in a new European Commission always has the possibility of seeing yet another slip between cup and lip. Because, after all, the nominees will stay have to face European Parliament confirmation hearings, and a withdrawal of a candidate as a result of those would not be unprecedented.

(Photo of Jean-Claude Juncker: epp.eu via flickr.com)

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Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe