Coping with the Commission at that ‘difficult’ age

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Series Details Vol.7, No.6, 8.2.01, p12
Publication Date 08/02/2001
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Date: 08/02/01

A revolution has been quietly taking place in the European Commission. Old-style collegiality has been dumped in favour of cabinet government, but that hasn't prevented displays of petulance by the Commissioners - or a mounting list of gaffes by President Prodi himself. As the EU executive approaches its second birthday, Simon Taylor assesses whether the Commissioners might be better off back in one building

Romano Prodi's European Commission is almost two years old, and it is acting its age. There are tantrums and displays of petulance and disobedience that the President, in his role as baby-sitter, is finding difficult to control.

Eco-chief Margot Wallström is still sulking after e-Commissioner Erkki Liikanen stole her EU chemistry set. Single market guardian Frits Bolkestein is locked in a tug-of-war with Loyola de Palacio over golden shares. Playground tough guy Pascal Lamy is threatening to ruin Franz Fischler's agriculture reform plans over a bowl of rice, sugar and bananas.

Prodi, meanwhile, seems more interested in booking his next trip to the Med than keeping his charges in line.

It is hardly surprising that the aura of harmony surrounding the current Commission would dissipate once members started to focus on the real work to be done by the end of 2004. After Commissioners publish their White and Green Papers, they have to lay out concrete proposals to deal with the major challenges of the next few years: preparing for enlargement, improving the Union's competitiveness, launching world trade talks and possibly tackling farm reform.

Yet despite all the disagreements, it would be wrong to think that the Prodi administration is working less effectively than its predecessors under the two Jacques, Santer and Delors. As Prodi has said himself on several occasions, managing the Commission is like managing a football team: when a goal is scored the striker gets the credit, not the middle-aged man on the touchline.

Noticeably, this Commission has defied the predictions made when the top job was given to the economics professor from Bologna. One of Prodi's first moves as President was to banish Commissioners from their traditional thrones in the Bredyel building so they could spend more time with their civil servants. He trimmed their staff and boosted his own power by recruiting a large, high-powered team of advisors. Crucially, he got each Commissioner to promise that he or she would resign at his request, avoiding the trap Santer walked into when he found he lacked the clout to force out a certain ex-Prime Minister of France.

But it has quickly become obvious that Prodi has ushered in an era of cabinet government that has eroded, though not eradicated, the Commission's operating principle of collegiality.

"I believe in collegiality, but the Commission has become so big that it is only natural that we have had to move to a model of cabinet government like that in the member states," said one high-ranking Commissioner staffer.

Scattered across Brussels in various buildings, Commissioners have simply not been able to interfere in each other's dossiers to the extent they did previously. Officials contrast the friendly weekly meetings of Commissioners' chief advisors - hébdos - in the Prodi era with the interference of former Commission big-hitters such as Sir Leon Brittan.

"Hébdos are much less interventionist than they used to be," said one senior aide. "Brittan would heavily influence documents prepared by other Commissioners. Now that happens much less."

One positive result of the new style of operations is a reduction in special pleading by Commissioners for their national interests, helped by the fact that cabinets are more multinational than in the past. "There's been a real change of culture in chefs. If anyone tries to argue their national interest in state aid cases or infringements they just get blown out of the water," said one official.

But nationalism has not disappeared altogether. When the Commission takes major policy decisions some members will still fight for their own country's point of view. The most notable recent example was over postal liberalisation, when Lamy and justice chief Antoniò Vitorino tried to water down Bolkestein's proposal. Diplomats say that Loyola de Palacio is not afraid to argue Spain's case as the dispute over Bolkestein's plan to abolish 'golden shares' shows.

Insiders reject suggestions that recent bickering among Commissioners is a sign of growing dysfunction. They argue that spats between Wallström and Liikanen over chemicals policy or Fischler and Lamy over the Everything But Arms (EBA) trade proposal were to be expected.

And while Fischler has been fighting Lamy's plans for duty-free access for least developed countries for rice, bananas and sugar, the battle is mainly over tactics.

Both know that the Common Agricultural Policy needs major reforms if it is to survive the challenges of enlargement and the next round of World Trade Organisation talks. But Fischler wants to keep his powder dry until next year, when he plans a shift in funds to boost rural development. Lamy, on the other hand, needs to get his EBA plan through to convince developing countries that the next WTO round will benefit them.

Commission officials say that despite appearances and the trend towards cabinet-style government there is still effective policy coordination within the institution. But coordination has been clearly lacking in external relations. Prodi takes an active interest in foreign affairs but does not always check out his pronouncements with the four Relex Commissioners.

New entries on the list of Prodi gaffes, which began with his overtures to Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi, include plans for a Russian pipeline through Poland that would cut Ukraine's energy supplies and his hasty call for a ban on uranium tipped weapons. Prodi's views on the latter resulted in staff scurrying to find a way for the Commission to be legitimately involved in an issue which is almost exclusively NATO's domain.

Lack of coordination is more of a problem in some areas than others, but most Commissioners and their staff would nevertheless like to be reunited in one building. "The general mood in cabinets is that we would like to be back together because the way things are at the moment makes it more difficult," said one senior staffer.

The latest forecast is that the Commission will not be able to move back into its old Berlaymont headquarters until 2003. Given the challenges it faces over the next four years and the ensuing need for increased cooperation, that may be too late to keep the terrible twos from becoming a permanent state of affairs.

Major feature on the European Commission as the EU executive approaches its second birthday.

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