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Powerplays in the EU Commission

Google-translated (which needed many own improvements) from German source (15 May 2015).

Kindergarten in the EU Commission

In theory, seven Vice-Presidents and a new structure should bring more momentum to the work of the Commission. Instead, the Vice-Presidents and Commissioners block each other.

What can better glue a shattered relationship than a good meal? In particular, if the adversary descends from a wealthy Spanish house and likes to eat well and expensive. Thus thought Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič and treated his fellow Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete to one of the better restaurants in Brussels. Šefčovič and Cañete are since autumn in charge of energy policy in the European Commission.

Together the Vice-President and Commissioner should realize the ambitious project of the European Energy Union, which no less wants to unite climate change, security of supply and the internal energy market. A major project that can only succeed if all pull together. Pulling – the two do with all their strength. Hardly a Vice-President, hardly a Commissioner is so present, travels so much, speaks as much as the Slovak and Spanish. The problem is: they don’t pull in the same direction.

Šefčovič and Cañete, that is since the Commission taking office “Šefčovič against Cañete”. That is: new against old Member State, small country against big country, socialist against conservative, long-standing commissioner against newbie, career diplomat against politician, young ambition against old pride. When Šefčovič entered the important transit country Turkey to talk about the EU’s gas supply, shortly afterwards Cañete also went there. When Šefčovič announced to represent the EU at the international climate conference end of 2015 in Paris, Cañete made known to travel there as chief negotiator. If one appears before the press to present a Commission proposal, the other does not want to wait behind the scenes.

Symptomatic dispute
When Šefčovič and Cañete present the strategy paper on Energy Union in Brussels in February, the presentation turns into a farce. At no question the one wants to yield to the other, each question should be answered by both. In content they agree in almost all points. Afterwards Šefčovič complains: Cañete had repeatedly emphasized, as Commissioner he was solely responsible for the realization. Cañete scolds: the Vice-President had asked for his notes for the opening statement in advance, and had copied them. “Kindergarten” groans a high EU official. “They are just men,” says one of the nine women in the Commission. But it is not that simple. The long standing dispute between Šefčovič and Cañete is an extreme case, but typical of the Juncker Commission. The new juxtaposition of Vice-Presidents and Commissioners simply is not working.

Seven Vice-Presidents are there in the Juncker Commission. Unlike before, the name is not just a honorary title provided with a special allowance. Juncker has a new rol in mind for the Vice-Presidents. They should coordinate core projects of which simple Commissioners work out the details. However, this leads to large overlapping content. Thus coordinates the Estonian Andrus Ansip works on the Digital Strategy, while the German Günther Oettinger is responsible for much of the implementation. The Latvian Valdis Dombrovskis is as Vice-President responsible for the Euro zone, the Frenchman Pierre Moscovici for compliance with the Stability Pact. The aim of the appreciation of the Vice-President was to make the Commission’s work with 28 members – one for each country – more efficient. Instead, Vice-Presidents and Commissioners are thwarting each other.

Ansip can present his first ideas on the Digital Strategy in March alone. No Oettinger interrupts him. At least not immediately. Ansip rails against geoblocking. This prevents internet users to watch German sports or movies from France, or Germans to use their German online television subscription on holiday in Spain. “I hate geoblocking” said Ansip. “I hate my alarm clock in the morning at five,” Oettinger commented a few days later. Even this way you can let your Vice-President come to nothing. Ansip, native of the internet pioneer country Estonia, and the declared non-digital-native Oettinger agree on hardly any point. Ansip has consumers and innovative companies in view, Oettinger big industry. One sees the opportunities of the networked world, the other the supremacy of Google and Amazon. The strategy paper on Digital Single Market, which this time Ansip and Oettinger present together, masks this by vague formulations. “This won’t go well much longer,” warns a senior EU official.

Leader without armies
“The problem is that Juncker has failed to establish a clear hierarchy,” says another EU official. Nowhere is stipulated that the Vice-Presidents are actually superior to simple commissioners. “Who has the power?” asks a close associate of a Commissioner and gives the answer himself: “Who has access to the Secretariat General.” The Vice-Presidents are leaders without an army. The officials of the Secretariat General are not assisting them, but the commissioners. Exceptions are foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and the Bulgarian Kristalina Georgieva responsible for budgetary and personnel, who have their own services. Accordingly, it is quiet around them. So far, hardly anyone intruding on the two other Vice-Presidents Frans Timmermans and Jyrki Katainen. One is responsible for cutting red tape, the other is on promotional tour for the Juncker Investment Fund.

Tentatively decided, however, seems to be the struggle for power between VP Dombrovskis and Commissioner Moscovici – in favor of the Commissioner. “He has boldly cut Dombrovskis from access to all information from the administration,” it is said in the Commission. On major issues, such as not least the use of the high French budget deficit, Dombrovskis simply cannot join the conversation. When presenting the spring forecast earlier this week Dombrovskis, unlike announced before, is no longer even there. Following the appointment of the Commission, Moscovici in Brussels passed for “a ham in a very German-tasting sandwich” – wedged between the followers of strict austerity, Dombrovskis and Katainen. Now the first is sidelined, the second travels around the world, and Moscovici gives France – backed by Juncker – more time to bring the budget in order.

It is still too early to write off the new model for the Commission. “It’s obvious that such a transition causes frictions,” says an employee of the former Commission President José Manuel Barroso. “It will come,” it is said soothingly from the environment of Cañete. After all, since some time there are weekly meeting of the Cabinets, the personal advisors of Šefčovič and Cañete, even if both sides usually say nothing to each other. “Juncker should eventually speak a word of power,” is said in the Commission, “but he has no desire or no interest for that.” Indeed, many in the Commission are complaining that they lack access to [Juncker] the Luxembourg resident of the thirteenth floor of the Commission building Berlaymont – and not just because he reduces his weekly presence in Brussels to a minimum. “Of course as a Conservative, I have an easier ear from Juncker,” it is said by someone. But that is only partly true. At least CDU-man Oettinger rarely finds the ear of Juncker.

Calculated chaos?
“The real question is whether Juncker is at all unhappy about the long standing dispute,” says a senior official. “This makes it much easier for him stay in power.” That is: for his cabinet chief Martin Selmayr, who is considered the inventor of the new structure in Brussels. As Chef de Cabinet of former Commissioner Viviane Reding he learned to know and use the strengths and weaknesses of the system. He likes to praise himself for having placed ideas on the Commission’s agenda against Barroso’s will. Which is precisely what he wants to avoid now. In the new system there is no way past his office. “Never before has the team headed by the Commission President been so powerful,” says a longtime Cabinet member. Ultimately, the Commission’s proposals are currently drafted neither by Vice-President nor Commissioner, but by the President’s team.

The big question is whether the duo Juncker / Selmayr can and want to single-handedly lead the Commission in the long term, with vice-presidents and commissioners as accessories. Discontent in the Commission, also under the lowest-ranking officials, is already enormous. “I did not become an official to write briefings in turn for a Commissioner and for a Vice-President, and in the end nothing happens because they are envious of each other,” says one. In Juncker’s environment they see things differently. They mention normal disagreements as in every government and the healthy competition of ideas. When the Spanish King Felipe VIth was on a visit to Brussels, Šefčovič and Cañete had quarreled violently on the list of speakers. In the end, both could talk at length and each has shined with other energy issues.

Sounds good, but according to information from the affected Commissioners’ environment it is no more than a nicely made-up story. Sure, Šefčovič and Cañete did have dinner together. The atmosphere was good. A great success. “For four days or so,” says someone from the Commission. A little later Šefčovič wanted to bring along a senior official to bilateral talks with Russia on gas supplies. Per SMS came Cañete’s refusal. “An official would have given the informal meeting another character,” justifies an employee of Cañete the decision. But this time Šefčovič insists and is allowed to bring along the official in the end.

At the end of the presentation of the Digital Strategy Oettinger suddenly starts talking about the new structure of the Commission. He praises the smooth cooperation with Ansip. “Does the new structure prove itself? I can say yes,” the German says to the satisfaction of Juncker’s spokeswoman at his right hand. But then he makes a mistake in the apparently auto-cued statement. “With today’s package, the new structure has proved itself,” he should say. “For the first time proved itself,” he says. But that, after six months in office of the new Commission, would nevertheless be a start.

@StollmeyerEU • 24th May 2015

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