Fabian Zuleeg on ensuring that the European Commission maintains its ability to make decisions.
First published in July 2019.
Now that Ursula von der Leyen has been confirmed as head of the European Commission for the next five years, it’s time for her to get to work. As the first female Commission president, and after having pledged before Parliament that the next Commission team will be gender-balanced, her first challenge is to deliver on that promise, while ensuring that the new EU executive has enough experience to give it political weight.
The five-yearly balancing act of allocating portfolios to 28 national nominees will be more delicate than ever: the intransigence of some member states may result in some outright Eurosceptic candidates coming to Brussels. And as von der Leyen herself has already experienced first-hand, it will not be easy to satisfy the demands of the European Parliament in the hearings process.
By the time she takes office on 1 November, she must, crucially, have set a structure for her team. Her predecessor, Jean-Claude Juncker, made some innovations. In particular, he established a First Vice-President. The role of the Vice-Presidents was upgraded, too; they were tasked with leading project teams to address significant areas of policy such as the Digital Single Market or the Energy Union.
Von der Leyen should continue this process, in part to address the shortcomings of the previous reforms but also to build in a possible framework to guarantee consistency of decision-making in case a few Eurosceptic Commissioners behave in a not-so-cooperative way.
The best way to ensure this is to move from a structure with varying clusters for different policy areas to permanent teams of Commissioners, each led by a Vice-President. These should not only coordinate and direct their teams’ work but will also need significant portfolios of their own, giving them direct control over both financial and human resources. Under Juncker, some national leaders grumbled at ‘their’ Commissioner getting a junior rank; but Vice-Presidents complained in turn of lacking clout over Commissioners’ greater staffs and budgets.
In the table below is a suggested structure of what a more efficient and streamlined Commission might look like. The leadership team (marked in red) consists of von der Leyen; Señor Borrel, the foreign affairs High Representative; two deputies already imposed by leaders – Frans Timmermans and Margrethe Vestager – and two additional Vice-Presidents (with specific portfolios for the leadership team marked in cursive).
This streamlined structure will lead to greater policy coherence and efficiency, as well as ensure that the Commission maintains its ability to make decisions despite the added complications. Given the scale of the challenges the next Commission will have to deal with, that is no luxury.🔷
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