Europe’s Juncker Revolution

MADRID – Before his appointment as EU Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker was pilloried as an old-school federalist who would do little to alter the status quo. But the new structure that he has imposed on the Commission implies a radical overhaul of how things are done in Brussels.

Up to now, a focus on who has been appointed to what post – in particular, the appointment of the relatively inexperienced Federica Mogherini as EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy – has overshadowed the Commission’s structural transformation. But individual commissioners are far less important than the trends that have caused the Commission to shift its priorities from enlargement and the internal market toward energy and monetary union.

One such trend is Europeans’ growing skepticism toward integration, exemplified in May’s European Parliament election. With newer European Union members backsliding – Romania on the rule of law, Bulgaria in corruption, and Hungary on democratic norms under Viktor Orbán’s government – now is the time, or so it seems, to focus on existing members.

Reinforcing this shift is Turkey’s drift toward authoritarianism, which is undermining the viability of its candidacy for EU membership. As for Ukraine, recent gestures of solidarity, such as the signing of an association agreement, are unlikely to develop into anything substantial in the foreseeable future.

In downgrading EU enlargement as a formal policy priority, the Commission is preparing itself to take other important steps. The upheaval among Europe’s southern and eastern neighbors may well bring about a long-overdue revamping of the EU’s Neighborhood Policy. And, in pursuit of other avenues for expanding the EU’s reach, European leaders might reinvigorate the European Economic Area.

Another policy area that has lost its centrality is the internal market – a notable decision, given that it has been the centerpiece of the European project since the Commission was created in 1958. The internal market’s four pillars – the free movement of goods, services, capital, and people – have underpinned broader EU measures, in areas like foreign policy and justice and home affairs, and will now be subsumed under new policy labels, from economy and financial affairs to the digital agenda.

This move away from the internal market can be explained partly by member governments’ aversion to more EU-level legislation. Though complaints about the “bloated” acquis communitaire (the body of EU law) are often unfounded, the EU legislative process is not without its shortcomings, as recent attempts at harmonization clearly demonstrate.

For example, for the EU-wide statutory audit that was completed in April, the European Parliament agreed to a revised directive and new regulation that should have been directly applicable in all 28 member countries. But, in more than 20 cases, member states were given discretion over its implementation and interpretation.

The new Commission will attempt to change this by focusing on rule implementation and oversight, rather than creation. This effort will be coordinated by representatives in seven newly established vice-presidential positions, and spearheaded by the first vice president to have a portfolio focused on “better regulation.”

To be sure, easing regulatory burdens is a longstanding leitmotif of the EU. Though the last two Commissions, led by José Manuel Barroso, espoused a commitment to rationalizing, clarifying, and compiling rules, little concrete action has been taken.

Juncker’s changes, however, may portend genuine progress on this front, as well as toward monetary and energy union. Indeed, the new Commission’s structure suggests that Juncker hopes to enhance its role in guiding the European Monetary Union and related policies, control over which largely rested with the European Council and EU member governments (especially Germany) during the crisis.

Similarly, a new vice president has been introduced for energy, which has been reframed as “energy union.” The lack of progress on this front during the last two Commissions was rooted mainly in Germany’s Russian modernization project, which has shaped its approach to energy security. For its part, France has been reluctant to build an interconnected European grid, owing to its heavy reliance on nuclear energy.

Given Russian behavior in Ukraine, however, EU leaders have been rethinking their approach. In this context, the Commission’s new structure – not to mention the fact that the new European Council president, former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, has long sought an energy union – may well push the policy forward.

Though it is impossible to understand fully the implications of the Commission’s new structure at this early stage, some of its institutional ramifications are already emerging. Beyond inciting a kind of tug-of-war with the European Council, the Commission’s shift away from lawmaking will alter the European Parliament’s role, which it has forged over the last five years on the back of the Commission’s active legislative agenda. With little authority to initiate legislation, the Parliament, too, will have no choice but to pivot toward oversight.

Precisely how all of this all plays out in the coming months and years will determine whether the European project progresses or stagnates. Perhaps observers should be paying a little less attention to the “who” and a bit more to the “what.”
Ana Palacio, a former Spanish foreign minister and former Senior Vice President of the World Bank, is a member of the Spanish Council of State and a visiting lecturer at Georgetown University.
Project Syndicate,