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Commissioners on the move

EU Governance / COMMENTARY
Antonio Missiroli , Jérôme Bacquias

Date: 20/03/2008
Is the Barroso Commission unravelling before time? With the resignation of Markos Kyprianou and the one-month ‘unpaid leave’ taken by Franco Frattini, two members of the College have departed within less than a month - and more than a year before the end of their term of office.
The two chairs are currently empty for ostensibly different reasons. Mr Kyprianou has gone back to ‘the country he knows best’ to become its new Foreign Minister in the wake of last month’s Presidential elections. He will be replaced at the Commission by Androula Vassiliou, who will appear before the European Parliament on 1 April for an informal hearing before taking up her new post.
Mr Frattini has left, initially for a month, to participate in Italy’s electoral campaign, following the precedent set by the Belgian Commissioner Louis Michel in Spring 2007. Unlike Mr Michel, however, Mr Frattini may choose not to return to the Commission’s Berlaymont headquarters after the vote, if he is offered a top ministerial post. In the meantime, his duties have been taken over by fellow Commission Vice-President Jacques Barrot.
These different motivations and possible outcomes notwithstanding, the impression remains that the two outgoing Commissioners may not be the last to leave the Barroso team prior to October 2009.
A comparable trend emerged in the final months of the Prodi Commission (1999-2004): Erkki Liikanen left to become Governor of the Bank of Finland, Michel Barnier to become Foreign Minister in France, and Pedro Solbes to become Finance Minister in Spain. Moreover, Anna Diamantopoulou resigned to run for the national parliament in Greece and Philippe Busquin to run for the European Parliament, and both were eventually elected.
The good news for the Commission(ers) is that there seems to be political life - and at a very high level in government - after a term in Brussels. Mr Prodi himself proved this by returning to lead the Italian government in 2006, albeit precariously and relatively briefly. In other words, they appear to be in strong demand, which may be a sign that direct experience of EU affairs (both political and administrative) is better appreciated at the national level.
By comparison, during the Delors era (1985-1995) hardly any Commissioners left the College until the very end: in a way, the strong public standing they enjoyed as a result of serving in what arguably was the Commission’s ‘golden age’ was offset by a conspicuous lack of visibility (and opportunities) in national politics afterwards.
The bad news is that the Commission increasingly resembles an outgoing US administration, in which the departure of its most prominent initial members towards the end of its term - ‘deserting the sinking ship’, generally to snap up highly lucrative jobs in the private sector - is considered almost a fact of life.
There have been similar cases of pantouflage (crossing over from the public to private sector) in previous Commissions - most famously with Martin Bangemann’s move to Spanish telecoms company Telefonica in 1999 - but not without controversy over ethics and the need for a ‘cooling-off’ period.
It was precisely the experience of the Santer and Prodi Commissions which prompted José Manuel Barroso to ask all his Commissioners to sign up in advance to a detailed ‘Code of Conduct’ regulating, among other things, their possible external engagements - a code that is now being applied systematically.
Looking back over EU history, however, there has been no shortage of early ‘quitters’ at the Berlaymont. In terms of sheer numbers, the Italians and the French - with five and four cases respectively, including an Italian Commission President, Franco Maria Malfatti, who left in mid-term in 1972 to become a mere MP - hold the European record. This may in part reflect the fact that the founding Member States have had many more Commissioners over time than the others, and that the bigger countries had two each until 2004. It is nevertheless striking that virtually no British or German Commissioner has ever left the College ahead of time - an interesting exception being Ralf Dahrendorf in 1974, who happens to be of both nationalities now and has a seat in the UK House of Lords.
Political career patterns and incentives differ a great deal from country to country, and the Commission of decades past is not comparable to the Barroso team (which has the highest proportion of former prime ministers and foreign ministers ever). But it is legitimate to wonder whether, at this particular moment, these early departures highlight a broader sense of uncertainty - over personal prospects, of course, but also over the future of the Commission itself.
Later this year, one other Commissioner may have to leave for purely legal reasons: if the Lisbon Treaty enters into force according to plan and the European Council appoints a ‘temporary’ double-hatted High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the College member from the same country as the new Commission Vice-President will have to resign. A minor reshuffle of portfolios among the existing Commissioners may also prove necessary - although this, too, will only be for a few months, because a brand new team will be nominated in the summer of 2009.
It is too early to predict who, among the current Commissioners, is likely to get another mandate, considering also the changes in national governments which have occurred since 2004. At any rate, it may prove tricky to accommodate everyone’s ambitions in the new 27-strong College, especially if high-profile personalities abound. Weighty portfolios are scarce and they may have to be downsized anyway to create suitable areas of responsibility for each team member.
Alternatively, some more or less explicit hierarchy may have to be established, for example by organising the new College around a few homogenous ‘clusters’ of portfolios each coordinated by a Vice-President - an option that, in turn, may hurt some national and personal sensitivities.
Either way, uncertainty is on the rise at Commission HQ in Rue de la Loi, along with a slight sense of malaise for an institution in need of aggiornamento - to borrow from the native languages of the serial ‘quitters’.
Antonio Missiroli is Director of Studies and Jérôme Bacquias is a Programme Assistant at the European Policy Centre.

The issues raised in this commentary are among the themes discussed within the EPC’s EU Governance Forum.

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