TCS Daily

Commission Impossible

By Craig Winneker - June 22, 2004 12:00 AM

Here's a handy way to gauge the esteem in which the European Commission presidency is held: The man who is almost universally wanted for the job - and not without good reason - cannot be tempted to leave his current post as prime minister of...Luxembourg.

In fact, Jean-Claude Juncker apparently can't even be bullied into taking the job by some of Europe's most powerful leaders, though they are still trying. Why would a man prefer to run a country -it is actually more of a drive-thru bank for tax-dodging Germans and Belgians - of some 400,000 people rather than the cornerstone institution of a bloc of 25 countries and 450 million people? Well, it may be that Juncker, a chain-smoking, 49-year-old, center-right politician, simply wants to extend his record as Europe's longest-serving current head of government. And, yes, he promised his constituents that he would not decamp for Brussels if he was re-elected this year. They handed him an overwhelming victory, making one of the very few European leaders this year to not be repudiated by his own electorate. But more likely, he sees the job as an impossible one: trying to make the EU understandable to Europeans, trying to corral the desires of 25 (and the list is growing) nation-states, many of whom are not so keen on increased integration, trying to run a supranational institution that seems to produce as many laughable initiatives as it does laudable ones.

No thanks. One man who did want the job, very very much, was Belgium's prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt. When last week's two-day confab began, he seemed a shoo-in. Britain's Tony Blair had long opposed Verhofstadt's candidacy but seemed to be relenting in the face of heavy lobbying from the Belgian's key backers, French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. It didn't take long, however, before the summit quickly broke down into bitter bickering. Britain and Italy stood surprisingly firm against Verhofstadt - and since the EU requires the choice to be made by consensus they were able to block him.

Meanwhile, the centre-right parties in the European Parliament were demanding that one of their own be named Commission chief, and since the assembly must approve the nomination, that opinion matters. Center-right politicians hold a sort of plurality in the European Parliament, and they have ruled out socialist candidates. However, the chief Christian Democrat candidate was Juncker. Absent him it was thought that perhaps a Liberal candidate such as Verhofstadt would be acceptable.

On paper, and also in person, Verhofstadt is a good man for the job: he's young, energetic, has revolutionary ideas like cutting taxes and reducing the size of government, and he speaks several languages fluently. When first elected to the Belgian premiership, his nickname was "Baby Thatcher". But he also was a driving force - even if not as visible as his French and German counterparts - behind the European opposition to the US-led military action in Iraq. He angered NATO allies by organizing a rump group of European countries hoping to set up their own military apparatus, which he envisioned as a French-Belgian-German counterbalance to the US with its own planning nexus in a leafy Brussels suburb (but not the leafy Brussels suburb where NATO is now headquartered).

The "chocolate-makers" summit (the term deliciously coined by US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher) he hosted left a very bitter transatlantic aftertaste. It was cited frequently during the two-day summit as the reason the Belgian prime minister was being denied the Commission presidency. However, even though most commentators here complained that Verhofstadt was being unfairly punished for his "anti-American" stance on Iraq, that doesn't tell the whole story.

One observer of the closed-door summit meeting told me that Chirac did more damage to the cause by trying to bully smaller EU countries into accepting his candidate. When Malta, a new EU entrant, abstained from a round of voting on Verhofstadt (probably because they'd never heard of him), Chirac accused the leaders of the tiny country of being "morally deficient". This, besides being rude, was a replay of Chirac's earlier taunt to the incoming new members who signed a letter supporting US policy in Iraq that they had a "missed a good opportunity to shut up".

And it had the same effect: it steeled the smaller countries' resolve. New to the EU they may be, but let themselves be pushed around they seemingly will not. Even Poland apparently wasn't impressed with Chirac's whispered offer to let God into the constitution if they would support his candidate for the Commission presidency - an offer that revealed the French president's level of commitment to both religion and politics. In short, it wasn't some twisted desire to kiss up to the George W. Bush that led some EU countries to block Verhofstadt's elevation to the presidency; it was opposition to having the Belgian leader shoved down their throat by Paris and Berlin.

Meanwhile, the presidency is about to be vacant - and as of this writing no one knows who will get the job. Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahearn, who chaired last week's summit talks, has said he wants to name a Commission president before his country hands over the rotating EU presidency to the Dutch on July 1 (and no, he doesn't want the job himself). That would give the incoming European Parliament time to ratify the choice in July before it disappears until September.

Other, lesser candidates have now come to the fore. One possibility is Jean-Luc Dehaene, a Christian Democrat former prime minister of Belgium. In the twisted logic that governs these sorts of negotiations, the strongest thing Dehaene has going for him is that he was vetoed for the job by the Brits in 1999, and manners dictate that they won't nix him again - especially after this year's Verhofstadt standoff. This would have the tragic effect of perhaps ruining Belgo-British relations forever.

Dehaene is smart but something of a political dinosaur; plus, he's not the most telegenic guy around, unless you're holding a Jabba the Hut look-alike contest. A more TV-friendly choice for the Commission job might be outgoing European Parliament President Pat Cox. A former broadcaster, he knows how to craft a soundbite. He is multi-lingual (especially if you count Gaelic). He doesn't have much political experience other than a couple of terms in the European Parliament, but this shouldn't really matter for what is supposed to be an apolitical post. He's a Liberal, so that should please both the centre-left and centre-right. He has a reputation for being a lightweight, but again, it's all relative. At the summit, he at least had the good sense to lament the way the Commission presidency is chosen. "If you're asking me as a democrat would I like something more transparent than the Sistine Chapel without the Holy Ghost," he smirked, "the answer is yes."

(Rejected by Juncker, center-right leaders had resorted to putting forward as their last-ditch candidate the EU's external relations commissioner, Chris Patten. Formerly a top aide to UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and then the last British governor of Hong Kong, Patten is widely respected, a brilliant strategist and eloquent orator. But he was a non-starter as a Commission presidency candidate, and not just because he doesn't speak French. He also comes from Britain, which is outside the euro-zone, is likely to overwhelmingly reject the EU constitution, and may bloody well decide to leave the bloc altogether. Other worthy candidates, including Denmark Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, have been ruled out for similar reasons.)

Which brings us to the real reason for last week's summit. the agreement hashed out on the EU's new "constitution", which is really more of an update of the Union's existing treaties than any sort of simple document aimed at delineating governmental powers. EU leaders spent two days haggling over voting weight ratios critical to deciding future policy decisions. What they came up with, a double majority system that requires blocking minorities to comprise 55 percent of the member states of the Union equaling 65 percent of the total population of the EU, requires a slide rule to calculate.

Perhaps they should nominate Albert Einstein as Commission president.


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