By Christoph Schult
From the outside, it looks as though the European Union is hopelessly divided. Northern member states demand budgetary discipline while those in the south bemoan drastic austerity measures. Furthermore, theFranco-German alliance is brittle, to the point that a planned policy paper on the future of the European common currency area — to be written jointly by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande — has yet to materialize.
Astoundingly, however, the 27 EU member-states can still reach consensus. At the EU summit meeting this Wednesday, leaders are set to rubber stamp an agreement that has been reached on the quiet in recent weeks — that of ignoring the Lisbon Treatyprovision that calls for a reduction to the size of the European Commission.
Currently, there are 27 commissioners on the European Union’s executive body, one for each country in the club. With Croatia set to become the 28th member on July 1, the European Council on Wednesday plans to allow Zagreb to send a commissioner to Brussels for the rest of Commission President José Manuel Barroso’s term.
Yet what looks to be little more than a routine resolution is actually the public face of a much more sweeping ruling set for passage at the summit. The formulation “one commissioner per country” is to be maintained beyond the year 2014, as SPIEGEL ONLINE learned from EU diplomats. It will be valid not only for the incumbent Commission, but also for the next Commission to be installed following European elections in May 2014.
It is a move which flies in the face of the intent of the Lisbon Treaty, which went into effect on Dec. 1, 2009. Article 17, paragraph 5 of the treaty states: “As from 1 November 2014, the Commission shall consist of a number of members, including its President and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, corresponding to two thirds of the number of Member States.” European leaders, however, want to make use of the clause in the treaty which allows the European Council to alter that number.
The decision must be a unanimous one. And thus far, neither among EU ambassadors nor in bilateral talks in the run-up to the summit has a single country indicated its opposition to the decision. Not even Britain, which is normally quick to take the bloc to task for profligacy and has threatened to withdraw from the EU if Brussels’ power isn’t limited, is planning to vote against the resolution.
When the Lisbon Treaty was being negotiated and ratified, the reduction of the size of the Commission was frequently highlighted as evidence that the EU sought to streamline its inflated bureaucracy. Once Ireland voted “no” to the treaty in 2008, however, Dublin was given a commitment that each member state would continue to be allowed to send a commissioner to Brussels. Many countries were concerned about the fact that a reduced Commission size would mean that some countries would have no presence at all on the EU executive body for an entire legislative session.
Critics of the Ireland commitment, however, note that even though the treaty allows EU leaders the ability to side-step the provision, the intent is clear: that of reducing the size of the Commission.
Room for Consolidation
Furthermore, at a time when Brussels is requiring many of its member states to commit to painful austerity measures, the message is a problematic one. Each commissioner earns some €20,000 per month; together with expenses, each member costs an estimated €1.5 million per year.
While the amount is surely not enough to make much of a difference in the EU budget, there is clearly plenty of room for consolidation. Why, for example, does Brussels need a commissioner for the environment as well as one for climate policy? The culture portfolio is also questionable, given that the EU has been granted no authority over cultural issues by its member states. There is likewise plenty of overlap between the offices of High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Regional Policy Commissioner and Enlargement Commissioner.
Prior to the Irish referendum, the size of the body was originally to have been reduced in time for the current iteration of the Commission, led by Barroso. Allowing the size of the executive body to remain the same was seen as a way to alleviate the concerns of smaller member-states who feared they would lose influence under the reform. And it worked: The Irish approved the Treaty of Lisbon in the second referendum, held in October of 2009.
But it was always seen as a temporary measure. And if EU leaders were now to maintain the status quo despite the treaty’s verbiage to the contrary, it would leave a bitter aftertaste. Dublin currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Council.