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Prospects for Britain in the new European Commission

While public debate in recent weeks has centred on the question of the next European Commission President, decisions on the Commission’s work programme and the other Commissioners are just as, if not more, important to shaping the future direction of the EU. Britain’s interests rest in the key economic portfolios, but the final remit given to the next British Commissioner will result from the complex negotiations on all the top EU jobs.

PM at European Council March 2014, UK Government, Crown Copyright CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

PM at European Council March 2014, UK Government, Crown Copyright, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The renewal of the European Commission every five years provides an opportunity for each Member State to try to obtain the best Commissioner portfolio available to it. While the Commission is tasked with representing the interests of the entire European Union as the guardian of the treaties, national governments, unsurprisingly, maintain close links with ‘their’ Commissioner. The attribution of roles results from the legendary EU bargaining process, in this case involving the Heads of State/Government and the new President-designate of the European Commission.

With the Commission term now aligned with that of the European Parliament, the formation of the new College of Commissioners begins in the aftermath of the European elections. Much of the public focus in recent days has rested on the nomination of the Commission President, which must be made ‘taking into account’ the results of the election. The interpretation of this obligation has been the subject of intense debate, and I have argued that the leading candidate process as designed and operated lacks credibility and should not be endorsed.

However, beyond the new President, two further factors stand out in the formation of the next Commission. Both demonstrate the relative weakness of the Commission President compared to lead executives in other organisations. The first is the Commission’s work programme for the next five years (2014 – 2019), which guides the EU’s areas of focus and the resulting legislation which the Commission puts forward to the Council of the EU and the European Parliament (the Commission being more or less the only entity with the right to propose laws).

This agenda is heavily influenced by the Member States, and indeed national leaders have been working to develop the content they want to see in the work programme. One high-profile instance of these kinds of discussions was the recent gathering of the Prime Ministers of Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK at the Swedish Harpsund summer residence. The European Parliament has progressively sought to have more influence in the work programme and its contents will likely be a factor at play in the negotiations for the Parliament’s en bloc approval of the new Commission.

The second is the other 27 Commissioners. Operating on the principle of collegiality, the College of Commissioners takes collective responsibility for decisions and indeed, on matters brought before it, the President formally serves as a primus inter pares, with only a single vote like every other Commissioner. Consequently, the individual Member States nominees and the roles with which they are tasked will be fundamental to determining how the new Commission will function.

With all this in mind, what are the prospects for Britain in the new European Commission? The UK Government has taken a highly critical line on the leading candidate process for the Commission President. Indeed, it has been far and away its most outspoken Member State critic and whatever the decision on the President, this stance may not bode favourably for the UK in terms of the possible portfolio for its new Commissioner.

Britain’s outgoing Commissioner, Baroness Cathy Ashton (Labour), has served as the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the relatively new hybrid Commissioner who is both a Vice President in the Commission and permanent Chair of the Foreign Affairs Council. It seems likely that the Prime Minister will appoint Andrew Lansley (Conservative), the current Leader of the House of Commons, to be the next British Commissioner. The question remains whether a comparably high-profile role awaits the UK nominee.

In the current circumstances, the portfolios of greatest interest to the UK are the Internal Market, Competition, Trade and Energy. These areas reflect the Government’s focus on maximising the economic benefits from the European Union, presumably both to support growth in the UK and to provide more compelling reasons for why the UK should remain within a reformed EU.

Internal Market

Despite the efforts of recent years, the Single Market remains very incomplete. The UK would particularly stand to gain from the opening up of services in the EU, as it has key competitive sectors. In this respect, financial service regulation is an area of great concern and, while not in the Eurozone, its stability and durability are equally important to the UK.

Competition

Britain runs a largely open economy and as such it benefits from policies which encourage active competition across the entire European Union. Vigilant monitoring of state aid and expeditious decisions on mergers and acquisitions would boost confidence in the EU legal framework and the increased transparency would complement the UK’s position.

Trade

The EU remains engaged in negotiations for trade agreements with a number of countries and regions, none more important that the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the United States. Britain has strongly supported TTIP and other efforts to liberalise trade beyond the EU, and successful conclusion of these deals would bolster international economic relationships.

Energy

One notable area of systemic fragmentation in the internal market is energy. In most cases, it remains divided very much into national markets. Benefits for the UK and the rest of the EU include greater flexibility in energy sources, increased consumer options and reduction in dependency on external supplies.

Another old idea which has returned once again is that of Super Commissioners. Instead of a collegiate and equal system, the Commission would be organised in clusters, each headed by a Cluster Commissioner with several Junior Commissioners. While an interesting attempt to reduce the complexity of an ever-growing number of Commissioners, any such proposal is unlikely to go very far.

Britain would do well with any of these portfolios. The Internal Market post would be especially useful in continuing to shape market regulation in the aftermath of the economic and financial crisis, while the Trade post would be helpful in opening up new opportunities for global commerce. The job given to Britain’s next Commissioner will inevitably arise as the product of the negotiations for all of the EU’s top jobs.

The UK might be compensated with a sizeable portfolio in exchange for comprise on the Commission President or as a consolation for losing that fight, or (less likely) it could be isolated by other Member States annoyed with the UK’s loud objections and end up with a less important position.

Whatever the remit of the next British Commissioner, success can only be found in cooperating closely with Commission colleagues, the other EU institutions and Member States. Grandstanding for the home audience, while potentially politically expedient in the short term, will result in minimal policy achievements.

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Shortened link: britainseurope.uk/20140620

How to cite this article:

Salamone, A (2014) ‘Prospects for Britain in the new European Commission’, Britain’s Europe (Ideas on Europe), 20 June 2014, britainseurope.uk/20140620



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