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The Juncker Commission: On the way to a smaller European Commission?

Today, the new President-elect of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, announced the composition and structure of the European Commission for 2014-2019 (video of the press conference, press release), a Commission that looks much more like a prime minister’s cabinet than any other Commission before. However, is this the first step to a new type of European Commission, one that will also be reduced in number in the future?

Structure of the 2014-2019 EU Commission

The EU-bubble Twittersphere was filled with #teamjunckerEU tweets today, and a lot of articles have been published in recent hours (e.g. EUobserver, European Voice, EurActiv) and more will be published in the next days. The past days have seen wild speculations about who would get what and what kind of structure the new Commission would have. Those speculations are now replaced with what this will mean for EU politics of the years to come. Let me add my 5 cents on one particular aspect:

During the next five years, the European Council will have to decide whether to reduce the European Commission from 28 to 18 or 19 members, i.e. two thirds of EU member states according to Article 17.5 of the Treaty on European Union.

As I’ve blogged in October 2012, the European Council back then took the decision to take the decision not to reduce the number of Commissioners in order to cater for a promise made to Ireland for ratifying the Lisbon Treaty. However, this decision has a review clause:

“The European Council shall review this Decision, in view of its effect on the functioning of the Commission, in sufficient time in advance of […] the appointment of the Commission succeeding that due to take up its duties on 1 November 2014″

Seeing the need to review the size of the Commission in the coming years, and looking at the structure and what Juncker said during the press conference, one could see Juncker’s choices as an experiment leading to a decision to reduce the European Commission:

  1. The new structure of the European Commission chosen by Juncker is a clear hint to the fact that 28 members are too many. In order to keep things together in such a large political body, he had to assign cross-cutting portfolios to his new vice-presidents who will be filters for future legislative initiatives and who will coordinate the work of their fellow Commissioners that have related responsibilities. By showing that there are too many for all jobs, Juncker makes a point for reduction.
  2. The increased importance and role of Vice-Presidents (VPs) is a first step showing to member states and the public that there can be more and less important Commissioners. Depending how things will work, this could mean that  some Vice-Presidents may significantly overshadow the Commissioners whose work they coordinate or whose initiatives they filter, even though most VPs come from smaller EU member states. The latter could highlight that big member states don’t always need to have a Commissioner or a Commissioner in a key position for the Commission to work.
  3. The strong statement that Commissioners should not represent national silos that Juncker made during the press conference and his remark that if Commissioners don’t represent European interests he would be ready to put them on a different position, underline that Juncker wants to reduce the impression that Commissioners are sent to Brussels to represent vital national interests – even though some of his choices clearly have to do with the nationality of the person. However, if he succeeds, losing a Commissioner in the past may not be considered so vital in the eye of national publics.

All three points don’t guarantee that the number of Commissioners will be reduced during the next five years. So far, it looks like the Commission will “just” be more personalised, more political, less micro-topical, less national – much like a prime ministerial cabinet of a coalition government.

However, when the heads of state and government sit together in 2-3 years to decide whether to keep the Commission in its current size while continuously asking the EU to reduce administrative costs, they may lack the arguments that it is necessary to have 28 Commissioners to keep the ship running or that 28 Commissioners actually guarantee national influence within the Commission. As with many things, that’s just speculation at this point – but today is a good day to speculate.

PS: You may also want to read the EUROPP-Blog on the “presidentialisation” of the Commission (although I’d rather say “prime-ministerialisation”). This blog post by the College of Europe blog also adds a very interesting perspective on potential effects of overlapping portfolios on competition between Commissioners.

Note: This article has been slightly edited following its initial publication.

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