The Juncker Commission: a big chance for small states?

 Veronika Czina


The long awaited final list of Commissioners was announced on September 10 by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. The composition of the new group of European policy-makers reflects some fundamental changes compared to the previous, Barroso Commission.

The release of the full list of Commissioners has obviously been preceded by backdoor negotiations and guesses about who will get what kind of portfolio. The first and not full version of the list was leaked on September 2 and already contained major changes compared to the composition of the Barroso Commission and nominations that would leave some countries dissatisfied. The internal market and enlargement portfolios, for example, were believed to be disappearing and some countries, for example the United Kingdom and France would not have gotten their expected portfolios. However, the final composition of the Commission is a bit different from the first leaked version.

The most important changes occurred in the structure of the portfolios. Some posts, for instance, have been reshaped. In line with what Mr Juncker openly stated about not having an EU enlargement during his term as Commission President, he reshaped the portfolio previously held by Štefan Füle. The new portfolio is called European Neighborhood Policy & Enlargement Negotiations and it is held by the Austrian Johannes Hahn. So Juncker did not completely abolish the enlargement portfolio but chose the middle path by keeping it but downgrading it to the level of negotiations. It was a wise step which might protect him from future attacks on this issue. Another major change in the structure of portfolios was creating several posts dealing with financial and economic affairs, which also meant splitting the area of Economic and Monetary Union from the financial markets. France got its much desired economic portfolio with Pierre Moscovici becoming Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, Taxation and Customs, and UK’s Jonathan Hill got the Financial Stability, Financial Services & Capital Markets Union portfolio. To top all this, one of the vice presidents of the Commission will be responsible for The Euro and Social Dialogue (Valdis Dombrovkis). Germany is not so happy about these choices which might also be the reflection of the country’s dissatisfaction with Günther Oettinger’s digital portfolio instead of the coveted trade. The digital agenda portfolio has also been reshaped: it got split into more components, with Estonian Andrus Ansip becoming Commissioner for Digital Single Market and Oettinger becoming Commissioner for Digital Economy & Society. One of the most debated changes is the merge of the Climate and Energy portfolios which makes green organizations worried. The fact that the Spanish Miguel Arias Cañete, who will hold this portfolio, has interests in the oil industry makes this choice an even more interesting one.

Some new portfolios have also been created, for example: the post dealing with the Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs or the one dedicated to Justice, Consumers & Gender Equality. The former will be headed by the Polish Elžbieta Bieńkowska, and the latter by the Czech Věra Jourová. The Greek Dimitris Avramopoulos received the newly created Migration & Home Affairs portfolio about which he expressed his satisfaction. Perhaps the most important new portfolio is the one held by the Dutch Frans Timmermans. He will be the Commissioner for Better Regulation, Inter-Institutional Relations, Rule of Law & Charter of Fudamental Rights. This is an especially important portfolio, which resembles Viviane Reding’s post in the second Barroso Commission (Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship), but its name implies that the biggest emphasis of Timmermans’s duty will be on the rule of law and the Charter. These areas were dealt with previously as well, but they have never appeared in the name of a portfolio, which indicates that this will be an issue of crucial importance for the Juncker Commission. According to the President this post will be essential in restoring the confidence of the European people in the EU, which will not be an easy task. Timmermans, who will also serve as vice president, will be Juncker’s right hand together with the new ‘Mrs CFSP’, the Italian Federica Mogherini. Mogherini’s nomination can raise doubts, given that she has little experience in foreign affairs and security, which comes as a surprise at times when what the EU needs is someone who can direct this portfolio firmly and effectively.

Juncker will have seven vice presidents whose roles have been boosted compared to the vice presidents of the Barroso Commission: they will serve as filters between the President and the Commissioners. This new type of hierarchy within the new Commission is demonstrated by the fact that each vice president will lead a project team centred on one policy area, which will allow them to work closely with other Commissioners with related portfolios. Besides the already mentioned Timmermans, Mogherini and Ansip, the Bulgarian Kristalina Georgieva (Budget & Human Resources), the Slovenian Alenka Bratušek (Energy Union), the Finnish Jyrki Katainen (Jobs, Growth, Investment & Competitiveness) and the Latvian Valdis Dombrovskis (the Euro & Social Dialogue) will hold these distinguished positions. Some experts say that this will be a very effective structure for the Commission and the project teams will facilitate policy-making, while others say that the overlap between some portfolios (e.g. Energy Union and Climate Action & Energy) might actually hinder the working processes.

Besides giving a brief outline of the composition and the novelties of the Juncker Commission, the purpose of this blogpost is to evaluate which countries can be happy and which might be dissatisfied with the positions their candidates have received. It is especially interesting to look at the situation from the point of view of the large-small Member State division, which is an evergreen aspect of examining EU politics. Taking related academic literature into account I consider those states small that have fewer votes in the Council than the EU-average. Based on this categorization, currently there are 20 small countries in the EU. At a first glimpse we can immediately notice that small Member States are doing quite well in terms of important portfolios, especially the smallest ones, because five out of the seven vice presidents come from small countries: Bulgaria, Slovenia, Finland, Latvia and Estonia have politicians on these posts. Among these, perhaps the nomination of an Estonian and a Latvian politician to such significant posts is the most salient, compared to the practices of the previous years. The Belgian Marianne Thyssen will be the Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills & Labour Mobility, the Swedish Cecilia Malström will be responsible for Trade, the Portuguese Carlos Moedas will guide Research Science & Innovation, while Ireland’s Phil Hogan will be leading the Agriculture & Rural Development portfolio. These are all quite significant portfolios with which Juncker entrusted politicians coming from small Member States. Maltese Karmenu Vella will hold the position of Environment, Maritime Affairs & Fisheries, which might not be that important for all EU countries, but is certainly a crucial policy area for Malta and states having a coastline. However, other small countries did not get what they wanted. Slovakia’s current Commission vice president and Commissioner for Inter-institutional Relations & Administration, Maroš Šefčovič, is obviously downgraded to Commissioner for Transport & Space given the fact that these areas are not priorities for the EU currently. Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs, who desired the Neighborhood & Enlargement portfolio, cannot be happy either because he will be Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth & Citizenship. This might be a surprising nomination, given that Hungarian reforms about education, especially higher-education are not always seen to follow European trends. Navracsics will have to work closely together with many vice presidents, but most importantly Katainen in the Jobs, Growth & Investment area, Dombrovskis about the Euro & Social Dialogue related questions and Ansip in the field of the Digital Single Market. However, his portfolio has been upgraded to a certain extent because it will also involve citizenship, which previously belonged together with Justice and Fundamental Rights. This might give some consolation to Mr Navracsics for not getting what he initially wanted.

To sum up, we can state that most Commissioners appointed from small states are experienced politicians. Some of them have been serving as Commissioners before (e.g. Malström, Georgieva or Šefčovič), while others held important positions in their home countries (e.g. Ansip, Katainen and Bratušek were all prime ministers, although the latter one only served for a very short time). What they have now in common is that they will all have to live up to the expectations of Juncker. Those countries who did not get what they wanted could have just been the losers of the chess-game through which the President has to come up with a coherent structure of Commissioners taking into account the politicians’ profiles, their countries’ conditions and the number of women in the group as well. Or perhaps it is less naïve to say that these countries are strategically not that important for the time being, or Juncker is trying to put them aside to a certain extent. If we look at the picture described above, we can confidently say that most small states benefited from the new structure of the European Commission. This indicates that stereotypes of the small-big dichotomy (that small Member States are less important than the large ones) should be forgotten already and perhaps the EU arrived to an era when states are evaluated based on their merits and achievements, not their size. However, despite all these observations, we should not forget about the fact that the Commissioners after taking office do not represent their country, but the policy area they are responsible for, so they cannot exert their country’s national interest. Therefore, what we currently evaluate as the ‘success’ or ‘failure’ of a Member State concerning the portfolios it received, will lose its relevance very soon.

About the Juncker Commission, in general, it seems obvious that this renewed structure is not the result of ad-hoc bargains: we could already read his concrete and detailed plans about the creation of the new portfolios and the restructuring of others (e.g. better regulation, migration, rule of law etc.) in his Political Guidelines published in the middle of July. The composition of the new Commission is clearly the manifestation of Juncker’s vision about effective governance, which can either succeed or fail easily. The European Parliament will hold hearings of commissioners-designate between 29 September – 3 October and they will vote on the confirmation of the college on 21 October. If they approve Juncker’s choices and the European Council also says yes, then the new Commission can take office on 1 November and we will see how the new structure of the European Commission works out.


 The views expressed above belong to the author and do not in any way represent the views of the HAS Centre for Social Sciences.