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What’s in a European Commission President?

The next President of the European Commission faces a number of obstacles to a successful term of office. Political and institutional challenges, ranging from the power of the Council and the Parliament to the difficulty in building unity in the Commission, stand in the way of the President’s goals for the EU. In order to have the best chance of a decent legacy, the Commission President needs to accept the limitations of the role and the high probability of being blamed for matters beyond the Commission’s control.

Brukselka,  barbiez, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Brukselka, barbiez, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Imagine working in a job for 10 years in which you’ve enjoyed the support of your superiors and everything seems to be going pretty well. In your decade of service, you’ve been confronted with some serious challenges, but on the whole you’ve managed to work through them. However, near the end of your contract, events on the ground change substantially and opinion of you turns quite dramatically for the worse. The progressive spiral continues so that, by the end, most people think you hadn’t actually accomplished much at all.

This scenario appears the fate of José Manuel Barroso. The outgoing President of the European Commission, once respected quite widely (enough to be reselected for a second term), has seen the outlook on both his time in the Commission and his legacy sour. When he leaves office the end of this October (having served from 2004 to 2014), Mr Barroso will be largely recognised as a competent leader, but one who fell short of expectations.

In the current political context, the inevitable question surfaces of whether a similar fate awaits the next Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker. While we’ll have to wait to see how Mr Juncker performs in the role (and how he does/doesn’t differ in style from Mr Barroso), we can say now that the incoming president will face many of the same political and institutional challenges as the outgoing one.

Commission Presidents bring their own goals for the European Union during their tenure and, while they have number of tools to help achieve them, the EU’s institutional arrangements and the realities of European politics limit the president’s ability to see through his/her own agenda. Five difficulties in particular stand out as roadblocks on the path to a successful presidency and the all-important positive legacy of it.

1. The European Council sets the main agenda, not the Commission

EU national leaders, in the form of the European Council, provide the overarching agenda for the Union. While the Commission has a role in transforming that agenda into policy proposals and filling in the gaps, it certainly does not decide the EU work programme independently. On the same day it nominated Mr Juncker to the post, the European Council issued its first guidance to the new Commission in the form of a Strategic Agenda for the EU. President-Elect Juncker has himself put forward a ten-point agenda, but this will surely have to fall in line with the European Council’s guidelines.

2. In legislative decision-making, the Member States have the last word

For all the EU’s development of a supranational order, one maxim has always held true. Where the Member States do not want a particular policy, it will not happen. The growing applicability of QMV in the Council has changed the dynamic in some respects, but the Member States ultimately have a say on all legislation. The Commission is well aware of this fact and it is usually not so bold as to introduce legislation which it is certain will fail in the Council. The Commission President must therefore tailor proposals to the temperaments of the Member States rather than what the Commission believes to be in the unfettered interests of the Union. Of course, the European Parliament nearly always has a say too but, as a fellow supranationally oriented institution, it is on balance more minded to endorse a European focused agenda.

3. National leaders are fond of blaming the Commission

President Barroso has frequently spoken of the tendency of national politicians to ‘nationalise success and Europeanise failure’. It’s true that national leaders often make use of the EU, and the Commission in particular, as a shield for justifying decisions. Already faced with the feat of explaining itself and its work across numerous languages, cultures and traditions, the Commission and its President can always count on further criticism from national politicians. Although it remains questionable on accountability grounds, the phenomenon will continue uninterrupted after the Commission handover.

4. The European Parliament wants ever more power

In the Union, the Parliament’s steady accrual of powers has yet to taper, and the EP itself would certainly see no reason for it do so. Since it voted for Mr Juncker and indirectly put him into office via the Spitzenkandidaten process, the Parliament will undoubtedly expect more influence over the new EC President. It already wants more of a say in the Commission’s work programme for the next five years. Indeed, President-Elect Juncker will find himself in the difficult situation of recognising the power of the Member States but being aware of the substantial influence of the Parliament. The development of the EU’s institutional dynamics has made it more likely for the Commission to side with the Parliament than the Member States, even where it creates problems for the Commission and its objectives.

5. The President has 27 Commissioners to work with

On the home front, the President must navigate the coordination of a 28-member College of Commissioners. In contrast with the formal positioning of the EC President as a primus inter pares among the Commissioners, President Barroso has been known for firmly ruling the College. Considering a tour de table of five minutes each would last nearly 2.5 hours, perhaps a degree of presidential control is not surprising. Beyond the difficulty of finding a meaningful brief for so many individuals, the President must build a culture of cooperation and mutual understanding. Crafting a shared vision is an essential, if hefty, task, as the collegiate nature of the Commission demands effective teamwork and burden sharing. More than any other challenge, the President’s success in managing his/her own institution is a true marker of the presidential legacy.

The renewal of the Commission and the new process for choosing its President have catalysed reflection on President Barroso’s two Commissions and his time in office. Clearly the economic and financial crisis of the Great Recession had a major impact in shifting the focus of the European Union and in changing the fortunes of the outgoing Commission President. The general perception of Mr Barroso is that he has been relatively weak and he hasn’t achieved as much as people would have hoped. Particular criticism has been of an inability to stand up to Member States and the reduction of the Commission’s role from a policy entrepreneur to a mediator and secretariat. It’s not certain such an assessment is entirely accurate – Mr Barroso has likely simply fallen victim to the political circumstances of the time. In the years to come, his legacy may well be interpreted in a more positive light.

Jean-Claude Juncker will face the same institutional difficulties as his predecessor. However, he will also have to contend with additional political difficulties as a result of the new method of selecting the Commission President. For instance, should Mr Juncker be interested in reappointment, he will inevitably focus on proving himself to be ‘electable’, a novelty for the Commission. An election imperative could mean that the President steers the Commission to concentrate on policies which would be easiest to demonstrate success, rather than on those which best serve the EU interest.

In the short term, the incoming President has plenty of other matters to think on. Squaring his policy programme with the European Council’s guidelines (although they overlap in a number of areas) is one. Building the College of Commissioners, in consultation with the Member States, is another. The current absence of a gender balance is a problem. To date only one woman, Vera Jourova from the Czech Republic, has been officially nominated to the Commission. The present scenario puts pressure on countries which haven’t announced their nominee to make up for the shortfall of women in the new Commission, or indeed for Mr Juncker to rely on countries’ backup choices for Commissioner to ensure a moderately respectable gender balance. The idea of organising the Commission in clusters has also not gone away, though if anywhere it is most probable to happen with the foreign policy portfolios.

It’s clear the Spitzenkandidaten process has intensified the already substantial pressures on the Commission President. Even if the President is not interested in a second term, the sense or appearance of a sense of increased loyalty to the European Parliament, the President’s European political party or certain supportive national leaders may make it more difficult for the President, and thus the Commission, to be seen as a fair arbiter concerned only with the European interest.

It’s worth remembering that the Commission President is only one of many actors who impact the EU’s agenda and its policies. The President’s role is a challenging job with relatively limited powers, little of the credit and almost all of the blame. All things considered, anyone who actually wants the job really must care about the common European interest.

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How to cite this article:

Salamone, A (2014) ‘What’s in a European Commission President?’, Britain’s Europe (Ideas on Europe), 25 July 2014,

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