European Union power games

Please allow me a bit of EU-wonkery this evening.

European Commission President-designate Jose Barroso’s decision today to withdraw his proposed European Commission before it was to be rejected by the whole European Parliament might seem on the surface to be about Rocco Buttiglione, the Italian commissioner-designate who suffers from foot-in-mouth disease.

But the whole affair seems to me to be a power struggle between two of the three branches of EU government. Consider that many of the criticisms of the EU have to do with its lack of direct representation, especially in its executive branch. And also consider that in this respect, MEPs (members of European parliament) have a much clearer mandate, because they are directly elected by their constituents.

European commissioners are not. They are appointed by their respective member states for their five-year terms. The only check and balance between the two branches has to do exactly with what went wrong today: the European Commission has to be confirmed by the parliament. But it’s not a person-by-person affair. It’s take-it-or-leave-it, like-it-or-lump-it.

It sounds to me (and apparently to a lot of others as well) that Buttiglione’s proposed membership on the commission simply gave MEPs a chance to vent frustration over this current arrangement, while at the same time giving them a chance to stand up for what they consider to be core modern European values like equal rights for all. Plus they got to thumb their noses at one of the more hated figures in European politics, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. When presented with an opportunity like that, how could they resist?

Barroso also deserves a heap of blame for his ‘perfect storm’ today. He could have done more to dissuade Berlusconi from pushing such an unacceptable candidate. But his hubris led him to believe he could call the MEPs’ bluff.

Now the damage control he’ll have to perform, in Brussels’ notoriously consensus-oriented culture, will be immense. And if he can’t pull some kind of rabbit out of his hat and achieve that consensus, he’ll be out of a job before he can even put his name badge on his desk.

The debacle will also give ammunition to Euroskeptics like Czech President Václav Klaus, who has yet to say a single nice thing about the EU. But it may give reforms – especially those outlined in the European Constitution – a needed kick as well.

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