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Whipping the commission into shape
Nov 17th 2005
From The Economist print edition
The beleaguered president of the European Commission
JOSÉ MANUEL BARROSO, president of the European Commission, is Europe's whipping boy du jour. Jacques Chirac told him to keep out of the European Union constitutional debate because he was so unpopular in France. Before he took office a year ago, the European Parliament made him reshuffle his commission. A recent cover of a Brussels magazine shows him measuring himself against a wall, and falling far short of the mark set by a noted predecessor, Jacques Delors.
There are two theories over why, as the magazine concludes, “Barroso is no Jacques Delors”. One is that it is his own fault. He sucks up to critics (latest example: offering France EU money for riot-torn areas). He has failed to stop commissioners squabbling (an old-fashioned turf war has broken out between the competition and enterprise chiefs). The second theory blames the circumstances. The defeat of the constitution, the euro area's economic troubles, digestion of ten new members; even the sainted Mr Delors would not have risen above such things. Moreover, Mr Barroso was not the first choice of any big country; he was merely the first whom nobody was ready to veto. Without strong support from at least one big country, and preferably two or three, no commission president has much authority.
But does that mean that Mr Barroso is a failure? Next week he will have been in office for exactly a year, time enough for a preliminary judgment. He has not presented much that is radically new. Instead, he has tried to make the commission more modest, more responsive and more business-like. He wants to enforce existing laws, not to make new ones. There will be fewer flights of fancy. So the proper questions are: has he achieved his aims? And are they the right ones?
Mr Barroso has cut a few metres of red tape (the “bonfire of the directives”, as he called it, is more of a fizzle than a blaze). He has introduced some anti-fraud measures and turned down, though not off, the gusher of new laws. But it is too soon to say if he has been successful. Rather, he has prepared the ground, notably by putting allies into the key jobs. When he took over, Mr Barroso palmed off the French commissioner with the second-level portfolio of transport. He refused demands to give the German an over-arching economics portfolio. And he handed two of the three portfolios in which the commission has the greatest power—trade and the single market—to the British and Irish commissioners (ie, to free-market liberals).
Last week, Mr Barroso completed his appointments by reshuffling the commission's top civil servants (who have sometimes been more powerful than their nominal bosses). The reshuffle has been widely portrayed as a fresh Anglo-Saxon triumph, because a liberal Irishwoman, Catherine Day, got the top job of secretary-general, and a French survivor of the Delors era, François Lamoureux, was sidelined. In fact, the ideological balance within the commission may not change all that much (another Frenchman takes over agriculture and an Austrian trade unionist becomes director-general for enterprise and industry). It should also be conceded that Mr Barroso has not managed to generate much enthusiasm among interest groups, notably big business, that ought to be his natural supporters. But he has at least imposed some authority over the commission.
The more important question is whether he has the right aims. He probably does, if only because any others might have made the EU's identity crisis even worse. Mr Barroso really wants to make the commission more like the EU's civil service. Under Mr Delors, it was more of a super member-state, the one that (in theory) looked after the interests of Europe as a whole. The commission has always been the policy initiator of European integration, but the French and Dutch referendums in the spring have called a halt to that entire process.
The political alliances that underpinned the commission's old role of driver of integration have also changed. Mr Delors depended not only on a close Franco-German alliance, but also on the self-confidence of these countries, which are both now in a defensive funk. In so far as Mr Barroso has a sponsor among the big countries, it is Britain. But Tony Blair has not provided his ally with anything like the support that François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl gave to Mr Delors.
His modest aims will also prove right if he can sort out the mess that, a decade on, still haunts the EU bureaucracy. In pursuit of ever closer union, Mr Delors and his staff set up ad hoc groups, bypassed chains of command and outsourced tasks to whoever could get them done. The result was lack of control, no accountability—and corruption. The problems remain. The Court of Auditors has just refused to give the EU's accounts its approval, for the 11th year in a row. In one sense, Mr Barroso is still trying to rein in a bureaucracy that got out of control.
In the Berlaymont's bowels
Yet he may find that simple-sounding task quite a challenge. Deep within the Berlaymont building, Eurocrats' reflexes remain what they always were: Franco-German. Many in the commission believe that their power stems from that alliance. Without it, they feel stranded. The battle between Mr Barroso and the Eurocrats may be just beginning. The very notion that the commission can turn into a model bureaucracy may be implausible. Brussels has been a byword for inefficiency and inertia for far too long. It will take a miracle, not a single presidency, to change that image, even if Mr Barroso's broader agenda succeeds.
And because of that, it is far from certain that Mr Barroso will have enough time to solve the commission's biggest problem: its lack of legitimacy. Ironically, the Delors commission was seen as a success even though its performance may have undermined its successors. The danger for Mr Barroso is that he will be seen as unsuccessful, even if his commission lays the foundation of greater legitimacy for those still to come.