Did you see the photos of European Commission President-elect Jean-Claude Juncker “interviewing” prospective members of his team? Circulated on Twitter by his press aides this week, the snaps might look insignificant to outsiders, but for those within the Brussels bubble they say much about Juncker’s plans to restore respectability to the Brussels executive, writes Justin Stares.
On the other side of the table were the chosen representatives of the member states, sitting like schoolboys and schoolgirls with nervous looks on their faces as if taking an oral exam.
The interviews, Juncker said, were needed to ensure nominees’ “independence is beyond doubt”. Legally, commissioners are supposed to place the European interest above their home country’s; they swear an oath before the European Court of Justice to this effect. Specifically, they swear “neither to seek nor to take instructions from any Government or from any other institution, body, office or entity”.
In reality, this oath has over the last 20 years become a sham. The trip to the court in Luxembourg has for commissioners been akin to a Sunday church service for non-believers: you sit and stand when you are told to, but there’s no point paying much attention.
Outgoing commission president Jose Barroso claimed the oath was “more than a symbolic act”, but both Barroso and his team have acted as if commissioners were in fact the mouthpieces of their capitals in Brussels. For example: Catherine Ashton, Britain’s commissioner, lobbied her colleagues a year ago in an attempt to protect the interests of the UK ports industry. Given that she is high representative for foreign affairs and doesn’t know the front end of a port from the back end, what did she think she was doing? The British Government had clearly asked her to give them a hand.
The Juncker interviews, therefore, send out a signal: if you’re not at least prepared to pretend to be independent, you’re not on my team. At the moment, the interviews mean nothing more. Interviewees will obviously tell Juncker what he wants to hear: “no boss, I’m your man, not London’s man”. Will they have their fingers crossed under the table when they tell their fibs?
Putting his team through an interview process is already a departure from the subservient Barroso commission, but will Juncker go further? Will he effectively sack a candidate for his or her lack of independence? That would be big news, and in so doing the commission would make waves across Europe before it had even started work. If he does sack someone, national leaders will start to mumble that perhaps David Cameron was right; that they’ve let a viper into the nest.
I would, however, not put any money on it.
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