Thursday, April 12, 2012

A Two-Tier Commission?

Listening to the provocative (I guess that's the polite word) presentation of my former "God", Jean-Claude Piris, in Florence yesterday, I was reminded of a reform proposal of my own that I've never really gotten around to examining. So while I will write more about M. Piris's ideas in the next few days, once the footage of his presentation is available on-line, for now I will ask myself: Is it possible to create a two-tier Commission without changing the Treaties?

Firstly: What do I mean by a two-tier Commission? What I mean is a Commission that, in some respects, continues to function as it does today, with one Commissioner for every Member State, voting together as a College of Commissioners. M. Piris reminded us again, today, that in the Barroso Commission (or, if one puts the cause elsewhere, the post-enlargement Commission), the College never votes. It decides everything by consensus. However, that is irrelevant for my question. I have no interest in changing the voting rights of any Commissioner, and no interest in changing their voting practice, at least not for present purposes.

Instead, I would like to change the way the Commission works outside the meeting of the College. As it is, there are too many Commissioners for them to effectively distribute the available portfolios amongst themselves. As a result, too many Commissioners end up sharing responsibility for various areas. Commissioners end up arguing and Directorates-General play their mommies and daddies off against each other until the Directors-General become the real Kings of the EU bureaucracy. A particularly urgent example of this at the moment is the in-fighting between the various Commissioners whose portfolios touch on foreign policy, where no one is willing to give an inch in order to allow Baroness Ashton to craft an effective EU foreign policy.

In the Member States, such a situation would never be permitted to occur. At the national level, the executive branch tends to be run by fewer people who oversee a wider range of policy. (There are ministers for everything the EU does, plus one for every area of public policy the EU doesn't do.) The exact number of ministers tends to very based on the size of the country and the complexity of its party system, but my sense is that very few go near the 27 bosses enjoyed by the EU. (Quick look around: NL has 12, BE: 13, UK: 23, FR: 23, IT: 17, DE: 16, PO: 20, ES: 14.) Instead, the (core) cabinet consists of fewer individuals, and their control over the civil service operates through junior ministers, ministers without portfolio (there are five of those among the 17 members of cabinet in Italy, incidentally), secretaries of state, etc. So why not create such as system for the European Commission?

Imagine a Commission composed of a President and six Vice-Presidents, which is how many there are now. Upon assigning the portfolios, the President could identify six main areas of Commission competence, and assign one to each of his Vice-Presidents. Let's have a go:
  • Foreign Policy
  • Internal Market
  • Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
  • Justice and Citizens' Rights
  • Regional and Local Development, and Transport
  • Economic Policy

This leaves a number of smaller portfolios, but those could be assigned to the President directly. The result would be a core College that manages all Commission policy. Each could then be assigned 2-4 junior Commissioners, who could be put in charge of specific policy areas. Baroness Ashton, for example, would be in charge of foreign policy, and she would be in charge of Commissioners Piebalgs (development), De Gucht (trade), Georgieva (International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response) and Füle (enlargement and neighbourhood policy). Likewise, people like Commissioner Šefčovič (Inter-Institutional Relations and Administration), Šemeta (Taxation and Customs Union, Audit and Anti-Fraud), and Lewandowski (budget) would answer directly to the President. The authority of the Vice-Presidents would extend only to the management of the DGs and the decisions taken by Commissioners in their individual capacity. It would emphatically not affect the equality of all Commissioners in the College.

So can it be done? Let's see what the Treaties say:
Art. 17(6) TEU:
The President of the Commission shall:
(b) decide on the internal organisation of the Commission, ensuring that it acts consistently, efficiently and as a collegiate body
Art. 248 TFEU:
Without prejudice to Article 18(4) of the Treaty on European Union, the responsibilities incumbent upon the Commission shall be structured and allocated among its members by its President, in accordance with Article 17(6) of that Treaty. The President may reshuffle the allocation of those responsibilities during the Commission’s term of office. The Members of the Commission shall carry out the duties devolved upon them by the President under his authority.
And that is it. The next level of law is the Commission's Rules of Procedure, which clearly does contain provisions that would have to be amended in order to create a Two-Tier Commission. However, that can be done by simple Commission decision. That is to say: legally easy, politically still quite tricky, but not as tricky as overhauling the Treaties.

So this is my modest proposal. Is anyone with me?

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