The recipe for a successful Commission

The recipe for a successful Commission

Bulletin article
Alasdair Murray
02 August 2004

Dear José Manuel Durao Barroso,

Congratulations on your appointment as president of the European Commission. You were not everyone's first choice for the post ­ in fact you were initially not even in the running. But you do possess one major advantage over your predecessor: you start the job without the overwhelming expectation of success.

As a former Portuguese prime minister and foreign minister, you will take office with few illusions about the difficulty of the task ahead. Over the last decade or so, the Commission has lost much of its credibility. Fraud allegations and corruption scandals have tarnished its reputation. Weak leadership and ineffective management have eroded its standing vis-à-vis the other EU institutions and national governments.

The European elections in June demonstrated just how unpopular 'Brussels', which is usually synonymous with the Commission, has become in many parts of the EU. It is your unenviable task to try and arrest this decline. In addition, you must find a way to ensure that an enlarged Commission of 25 does not become gridlocked. Here are a few thoughts on how to make a success of your new post.

First, you must use fully the president's powers to manage the college of commissioners, and in particular the right to allocate portfolios, reshuffle and even sack non-performing commissioners. You have made a promising start in asserting your independence, telling the European Parliament that you do not want "first and second class commissioners". Your remarks appear to rule out the appointment of a 'super' commissioner for economics ­ as demanded by the German government which hoped to parachute Günter Verheugen, commissioner for enlargement, into such a post. Your acquiescence in the German plan would not just have left you looking weak. It would also have damaged the credibility of your Commission's economic policies: the German government has made clear its desire to water down competition and single market proposals that might threaten German industry.

But national governments will continue to lobby you intensively, demanding that 'their' commissioner get one of the key jobs, such as competition internal market or trade policy. The EU treaties are quite clear that it is the president, not the member-states, who hands out Commission posts. You should stand up to the member-states and structure the next Commission as you see fit.

And when the time comes, you should become the first president to use your power to reshuffle Commission posts, freshening up your team and rewarding those commissioners who have performed well. You should also encourage your commissioners to do a much better job than their predecessors at explaining the Commission's work to the outside world. Every commissioner should go before the national parliament of their home country at least once a year to explain key decisions.

Second, you must make clear that internal reform remains a priority. Romano Prodi, and Neil Kinnock, the departing vice president for internal reform, have worked hard at putting the Commission's house in order after the scandals that shook the Commission when Jacques Santer was president. The temptation will be for you to find some other way in which to make your mark.

But the Commission should not make the mistake of believing that the internal reform process is already complete. The Commission is still far from being a world-class bureaucracy and remains vulnerable to accusations of incompetence and inefficiency. You should bring forward plans to improve further the Commission's recruitment systems, tighten its accounting rules and enforce professional standards.

Third, you must do everything possible to preserve your neutrality in you dealings with the national governments in the Council of Ministers, and with the European Parliament. In an enlarged and increasingly diverse EU, the Commission's role as a trusted broker of legislation and an independent referee of EU rules has become even more vital. Often, this will mean having the political courage to stand up to the larger member-states over contentious decisions.

Some parts of the Commission continue to argue that it should act as an advocate of ever deeper European integration. But this is potentially a dangerous belief that could lead to the Commission favouring certain member-states over others, possibly harming the Commission's independence. Only a neutral Commission, committed to advancing the general European interest, is capable of acting as the necessary glue to hold the enlarged EU together.

But above all, you must make a habit of saying no. Too often, the Commission has bitten off more than it can chew. Previous presidents have timidly accepted each new project dreamt up by the Council, fearful that a refusal would lead the member-states to sideline the Commission. The Commission's willingness to take on an expanding array of spending programmes, such as the Phare and Tacis programmes in Eastern Europe, was a direct cause of the fall of the Santer Commission in 1999. The Commission was simply not equipped to spend large amounts of money, lacking both trained personnel and reliable systems to monitor the use of funds.

The Commission must now concentrate on what it does best ­ managing the single market, concluding trade deals and enforcing competition rules, for example. You should curb unnecessary programmes, shut down unwanted departments ­ such as the culture, media and sport directorate general ­ and resist taking on a wide range of new powers. That would make it harder for national governments or MEPs to force the Commission to undertake tasks for which it is ill-suited. The Commission will only win the battle to restore its own diminished credibility if it focuses on its core tasks.

Alasdair Murray was director of the business & social policy unit at the CER (2000-2005).

Copyright is held by the Centre for European Reform. You may not copy, reproduce, republish or circulate in any way the content from this publication except for your own personal and non-commercial use. Any other use requires the prior written permission of the Centre for European Reform.