The start of 2014 marks and important turn in the EU: the euro crisis seems over, everyone is getting ready for the ‘this time it is different’ election campaign for the European Parliament, and the EU has to come to grips with a new president and, possible, a new balance in the inter-institutional relations. It is this set of conditions that typify the current situation in European integration in which not all is what it seems. The reason of the current confusion is that we have not come to terms with the institutional fall out of the euro crisis.
The Lisbon Treaty was supposed to be the mother of all treaties putting an end to the need for further treaty reforms. The EP was a clear winner with new voting rights and the Commission was regarded as the main loser. The extent to which the European Council was the real institutional winner only became clear as the euro crisis advanced. Member States abhorred Barroso and his Commission so that new tasks were located elsewhere – EFSF/ESM to a special body in Luxembourg, banking control to the ECB. Yes, the Commission acquired an independent budget tsar but the real bite and the extent to which this commissioner is really independent are still in the balance. The first EU semester of Rehn gained applause; his second harvested doubts. Beyond doubt, however, seems to be the president of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy. Whilst Barroso was seen as a ‘pitiful coward’ who thwarted the Commission’s right of initiative, the European Council could shine under the seemingly spirited leadership of Van Rompuy.
However, the winner of the euro crisis might well be Barroso. Certainly, he has not nearly been the leader everybody had hoped for and he is known for his vanities. However, he showed himself able to play three games at the same time. First of all, he was wise enough to recognise that in the build-up of economic structures, heads of state had to come to grips with new rules – and loss of sovereignty. Therefore, he avoided collusions where there was no possibility to win. Knowing when to pick a fight is probably one of the most important characteristics of a Commission president. Secondly, he defended the traditional role of guardian of the treaties. How weak was he really? Commission president Barroso was not weak-hearted when it came to blocking state aid to sacred cows such as Opel and Citroen or to breaking up banks in Member States. France was attacked over fundamental human rights when groups of Roma were expelled – and, painful for Sarkozy, while a summit was going on and maximum press visibility was ensured. Similarly, free movement of people is defended with gusto against political pressure from countries such as Germany, UK and the Netherlands. Thirdly, Barroso reinforced the institutional relations with the European Parliament. The ‘this time it is different’ slogan is a next step in this trend. Barroso has been publicly expressing ‘governmentalisation’ ambitions and referred to commissioners as ministers in his economic governance blueprint. And European ministers need a true European Parliament.
Now that the important economic governance rules are being formulated and implemented, it is to be expected that the European Council will have less to do. Hence, the successor of Van Rompuy will be (much) less relevant. If, of course, Van Rompuy was really as relevant as seems now – he might well have provided the only fig leave behind which Merkel could hide her power. What will remain after the elections of 2014 is a stronger bond between EP and Commission and a more symbolic role for the president of the European Council. So, the EU may have a president at last: the president of the Commission.
Dutch minister for foreign affairs, Frans Timmermans, wrote in the Financial Times that he would now like to see that the Council broke into this ever closer bond between the European Parliament and the Commission. In 2009, the Benelux countries argued for a stronger role for the Commission. In view of the ‘governmentalisation’ of the Commission, the Dutch now argue in favour of strengthening the European Council. This may well be a big compliment to Barroso: the ‘weak president’ has thwarted the inter-institutional balance.
Before 2008, the EU basically consisted of the internal market and was based on the community method. At the start of 2014, the EU consists of two veritable pillars: the internal market and the political economic governance pillar where Commission and EP are looking for a different (political) ball game all together. Of course, the euro crisis has been hugely instrumental in this development. Yet, judging by the results, the position of the Commission under Barroso has certainly not been marginalised. History may well be kinder to him than his current critics.