Opinion: ′Last-chance Commission′ must shake things up | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 01.11.2014
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Opinion: 'Last-chance Commission' must shake things up

The new European Commission under President Jean-Claude Juncker takes office on November 1, and Europeans are hoping for something new. DW's Christoph Hasselbach hopes that Juncker has learned that change is necessary.

Jean-Claude Juncker is an old-school European politician. He's been in the business of politics for decades, knows every Tom, Dick and Harry in Brussels and has worked tirelessly for European integration. At the same time he is a man of balance and compromise, a skilled coalition builder between his Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats or Liberals.

In other words: Juncker is an integral part of the Brussels machinery. For many European governments, that meant he was particularly suited for his new role as President of the European Commission. For others, it was precisely this reason that made him the wrong man for the job. With Juncker, at any rate, we at least know what we're getting - for better, or for worse.

Christoph Hasselbach

DW's Christoph Hasselbach

Foxes in the henhouse

Many were astonished by the composition of his new team of commissioners, both the individuals and the structure. It appeared as if Juncker had assigned a whole skulk of foxes to guard the EU henhouse: France's Pierre Moscovici, who, as finance minister in Paris openly defied European economic stability criteria, will be in charge of economic and financial affairs, while the UK's Jonathan Hill, with his close ties to the London banking community, will be monitoring Europe's financial services and capital markets.

But what at first appeared to be the worst possible choices in terms of personnel decisions could actually turn out to be a brilliant move on Juncker's part. The commissioners will be closely watched, and if there is even the slightest suspicion that either of the commissioners is acting as a Trojan horse for the interests of his own country, there will be no shortage of EU citizens to call them on it.

Checks and balances

Juncker's new Commission structure also aims to ensure a certain balance of power. In addition to the commissioners specialized in their various areas, there are now seven vice presidents with broad portfolios, whose job it will be to coordinate the work of the other commissioners. Should one of the commissioners go too far, one of the vice presidents could rein him or her in.

But this new structure, with its overlapping responsibilities and various hierarchies, can just as easily lead to hopeless confusion. Whether the reorganization will help the Commission to work more efficiently, or simply be a cumbersome mess, remains to be seen. In any case, Juncker knows that he and his team have absolutely no chance of enjoying the comfortable, quiet life of a bureaucrat.

'More Europe' not always the answer

The new Commission president may be a product of the old system, but he's not one to sit in the ivory tower. Juncker has a keen sense of the dramatic political and social change brought about by the European elections in May. The new European Parliament is overflowing with representatives who want to freeze further European integration, or even roll it back. EU citizens distrust the Brussels bureaucracy and are turning away from the idea of a united Europe. And since the start of the financial crisis, many are associating Europe more with economic hardship than with opportunities.

Former European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso's answer to every problem was always "more Europe." He may have been right, but in the end Barroso found himself far removed from the sentiments of the general public. His successor has called his team the "last-chance Commission." Such humility is the first step to recovery.

North-South divide

Juncker wants to seize the opportunity to once again make Europe relevant for its citizens. The clearest sign of his plan is a 300-billion-euro ($376 billion) public investment program that Juncker has said he will introduce before Christmas. But here again lies a trap.

France and Italy prefer to spend as quickly as possible, preferably with money from the common EU pot, while pushing reforms on the back burner. And the new Commission has already generously supported efforts by both countries when it comes to meeting the rules of the Stability and Growth Pact. It is precisely this attitude that northern countries, like Germany, have viewed with suspicion. Juncker's investment plan threatens to reignite the old dispute between the EU's strong northern and weaker southern members.

More than light bulbs

Let's not forget the threatened withdrawal of the UK from European Union, a move that would be disastrous for both sides but now seems increasingly likely. This problem alone will no doubt take up much of the new Commission's time.

Juncker and his crew have an unenviable task: They must find a way out of the economic crisis, all the while holding down the fort and increasing Europe's global influence. The big difference is that today, Europe is no longer a matter of fact, not for citizens or even all individual governments. Barroso called for "more Europe," but what EU citizens ended up with was a ban on conventional light bulbs. The Juncker Commission will have to be different.

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