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Ypres European Council is about much more than Juncker

Whilst some EU government leaders have been shouting from the rooftops about the spitzenkandidaten process, others have quietly gone about manufacturing a straitjacket for the next European commission president. Whilst Euro MPs may believe that the power of the parliament has been enhanced, the European council has made a subtle but decisive move that enhances its own political position, writes Tim McNamara.

The UK prime minister might believe that the upcoming European council in Ypres/Brussels is about Jean-Claude Juncker’s future, yet a much bigger game is, almost surreptitiously, being played out. It is now becoming clear that the council will undoubtedly expect the next commission (2014-2019) to more closely follow its priorities.

With the changes introduced by the Lisbon treaty concerning the inter-relationship between the leaders of the three main EU institutions coming into play, the power dynamics between the three can be characterised as making policy on the hoof: from how to appoint the next commission president to deciding who will set out the political priorities for the next commission.

It has been little remarked upon, but the current president of the European council, Herman Van Rompuy, has been laying out a policy framework that the next commission president will be expected to adhere to. In many respects the smokescreen created by the Juncker candidacy has allowed Van Rompuy the time to expand the mandate of the European council president and fight back against what many government leaders saw as a power grab by the European parliament.

The other little-reported consequence of the appointment to the various high-level posts in the European Union is that whoever fills Van Rompuy’s current post will be able to maximise its power and influence. Up until now, Van Rompuy’s scope for manoeuvre has been hindered by the fact that when he took up his post, President Barroso had already been in position for five years. Furthermore, Van Rompuy had little influence on the commission’s priorities as they had been in gestation before he took up office.

In any of the policy/institutional grey areas between the council and commission, the commission was able to use incumbency to great effect. From the first of November, the presidents of the commission and the council will both be new and Van Rompuy’s successor (or could he be re-appointed?) will be able to exert control over the commission in the manner in which the member states desire. An early indication of this power shift will be seen at the European council summit in Ypres/Brussels.

At the behest of some EU government leaders, Van Rompuy has drawn up a “strategic agenda for the Union in times of change,” a document outlining the political priorities for the EU to be presented at the Ypres summit. This document is designed to be a route map for Mr Juncker during his presidency of the commission. Van Rompuy’s priorities appear to be a stronger economy (through greater flexibility), energy security, more focus on fundamental human rights, and a stronger global role for Europe.

Besides energy policy, at the request of Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi and the indulgence of German chancellor Angela Merkel, the other key policy area will be to adapt economic policy to allow for an element of flexibility by member states so that a previous narrow focus on austerity will no longer be allowed to stand in the way of promoting investments and creating jobs. A belated triumph for neo-Keynsianism over Bundesbank orthodoxy.

Italy’s La Repubblica reports that the document is in line with Italy’s indications for its EU presidency and puts more emphasis on economic growth and job creation without asking for changes to the Stability and Growth Pact or to the Fiscal Compact. Of course, it is the change in the interpretation of the Pact/Compact that allows for room to manoeuvre by states such as Italy and Spain.

Besides Renzi’s triumph in the European parliament elections what has also created the political space to challenge Merkel’s previous hardline stance on austerity is the real fear of deflation in the eurozone. The president of the European central bank, Mario Draghi, has already dropped heavy hints about considering quantitative easing to fight the threat of deflation. Renzi’s demands to allow for a more flexible interpretation of EU-level economic policy was pushing at an open door.

The Ypres Council will also symbolically mark the end of the Commission’s self-claimed primacy over economic issues as they relate to member states. The European Semester process has allowed the commission to benchmark member states’ economic policies and issue country specific recommendations (CSRs). Whilst the CSRs were not strictly legal requirements they did work, in the main, by peer group pressure. This was/is especially true for members of the eurozone facing testing economic times.

The end of the European semester mechanism will also see the commission president’s influence decline.  The current triumvirate of the commission’s secretariat-general, the economic and finance directorate-general and the president’s cabinet will no longer play the dominant role formulating policy designed to combat the ongoing economic crisis that still plagues the EU.

The summit in Ypres, will mark the occasion were the political leaders of the 28 member states make a strategic decision to oversee the commission more closely. This is party due to the parliament’s successful introduction of the Spitzenkandidaten process but also as a reaction to any future claims of democratic legitimacy on the part of Jean-Claude Juncker.

Tim McNamara is head of the Peercourt consultancy firm. He was previously political editor at the European Commission.

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