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New EU Commission Line-Up Cements Influence Of Berlin And Paris

  • Ahto Lobjakas

The newly appointed commissioners

The newly appointed commissioners

BRUSSELS -- Jose Manuel Barroso's announcement today on the composition of his new European Commission for the next five years fills the last remaining blanks in the bloc's line-up of top jobs.

The decision should bring to a close a lengthy period of internal turmoil for the EU -- although the new commissioners' confirmation hearings in the European Parliament in January could serve up further controversy.

The EU's change of guard brings a marked entrenchment of the influence of the larger member states.

In foreign-policy terms, a time of adjustment beckons under a weak leadership likely to be immersed in turf wars and other institutional preoccupations.

In theory, the EU can now look forward to a few quiet years, with the Lisbon Treaty in force as of December 1 and all the top jobs now distributed.

In practice, however, things are likely to remain complicated. Some of the positions -- like the European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, who is charged with chairing EU summits, and foreign minister Catherine Ashton -- are new.

As their holders settle in, friction is likely. Also, the fact that the new European Commission will have to be voted into office by the European Parliament, could lead to complications.

Virtual Unknowns

The appointment of Van Rompuy and Ashton -- virtual unknowns on the European scene without noteworthy authority and leadership experience -- marked a distinct downgrading of the EU's drive for further political integration and a reassertion by the larger member states of their sovereign and often competing interests.

This is likely to rule out any visible new impetus to EU foreign policy for some time to come.

The line-up of the new European Commission, made public today by its president Jose Manuel Barroso, strengthens the trend toward large member state dominance. Barroso's choice for the EU's new enlargement and neighborhood commissioner -- the former Czech Minister for Europe Stefan Fuele -- also suggests the bloc is putting relations with its eastern neighbors on the back burner.

By nominating Fuele, Barroso has taken more than one risk for reasons that are difficult to fathom. Fuele could easily become the commission's first casualty in the European Parliament, with right-wing deputies vowing to vote against him on account of his stint during the 1980s at a Soviet diplomatic academy associated with the KGB.

Finding and exploiting weaknesses in Barroso's team is a natural strategy for the parliament as it seeks to extend the boundaries of its power. In 2004, the EU legislature forced Barroso to drop two nominees and it is doubtless looking to better that result now.

Should Fuele make it -- the fact that he once served as the Czech ambassador to NATO may see him through -- Barroso is nevertheless unlikely to have endeared himself or the EU's neighborhood outreach to eastern partners that are on less than good terms with Moscow.

Catherine Ashton, who as the EU's high representative for foreign policy and a vice-president of the European Commission, will to some extent guide Fuele in his duties. She faces a similar problem at the European Parliament.

Ashton has come under fire for her high-profile role in Britain's Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in the early 1980s. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was suspected of having taken money from the Soviet Union.


Any controversy over the records of the EU's leading foreign-policy makers cannot but damage their credibility both inside and outside the EU. The Lisbon Treaty is also very vague on the distribution of competences, and turf wars for influence could easily break out involving Van Rompuy, Ashton, Barroso, and even Fuele.

Ashton also could be weighed down by the need to oversee the build up of the EU's first ever pan-national diplomatic corps -- the External Action Service -- which was created by the Lisbon Treaty.

Kick-starting what eventually will be an 8,000-person new institution is going to leave little time for anything else, especially given that EU member states, the European Commission, and the European Parliament already are viciously fighting for control of the new agency's staff and finances.

Ashton could be further weakened if, as is highly likely, the British Labour Party loses the upcoming general election, which must be held no later than May 2010.

Ashton only spent a year as trade commissioner with the outgoing European Commission. Without an independent EU power base or a major capital to fall back on, the new EU foreign minister could find herself powerless to stand up to Berlin or Paris.

The resurgence of big-power politics within the EU is visible in the rest of the line-up for the new Barroso commission. Virtually all of the influential jobs are going to representatives of large member states.

France's Michel Barnier gets the internal market portfolio, overseeing the functioning of the world's largest single market. He will also be responsible for financial services and the banking sector, with Paris having won a very public battle with London.

Britain fears Barnier, notoriously critical of the excesses of "Anglo-Saxon capitalism," will work to undermine the status of the City of London as one of the world's preeminent financial centers.

The European Commission, as the EU's executive, is supposed to act independently of member states. But the British-French spat illustrates the degree to which larger capitals can influence it.

A German, Guenter Oettinger, has been given the energy brief. That reflects Berlin's strategic interest in gaining control over the EU's cooperation with its main supplier of gas and oil, Russia. The portfolio previously belonged to Andris Piebalgs, a Latvian, who got the job in 2004 when it still seemed of little political consequence.

Italy, the EU's fourth-largest country, gets the industry brief. Poland did well, with Janusz Lewandowski being made responsible for the EU's nearly 150-billion-euro annual budget as a major spending review comes up in 2014. Romania got agriculture, a heavy-expenditure sector, largely thanks to French support.