TCS Daily

Meet the New Boss

By Craig Winneker - August 19, 2004 12:00 AM

At the spring summit held by EU heads of state and government to name a new president of the European Commission, José Barroso was not anybody's first choice. Come to think of it, the former Portuguese prime minister wasn't even a consensus second or third pick. He was a last-minute, default candidate about whom no one knew enough to raise any strong objection.

It's not exactly the most confidence-inspiring way to choose the highest profile EU official. But in the weeks since he agreed to accept the assignment (yes, one must often be convinced to do it) and was confirmed by the European Parliament, one thing about Barroso has become clear: there may be no stronger job recommendation than the fact that Europe's leaders don't want you.

The president-in-waiting (he takes over from the hapless Romano Prodi in November) has just announced the way he will structure the EU's executive body, which is made up of himself and 24 other commissioners - one from each member state. Perhaps more important than the way he's distributed the key EU dossiers is the overall emphasis he's giving to his entire administration. He wants to boost growth and create jobs. It's the economy, estúpido. "Only by creating new jobs can we build on our successful European social model," he said in announcing the incoming Commission line-up last week.

In some ways the new roster is typically European in its Rube Goldbergian bureaucratic complexity (five vice presidents?!). But Barroso has done some reshuffling of portfolios and some streamlining of issue areas. More importantly, there is good news for supporters of the free market: several of the most important Commission jobs have gone to center-right politicians with experience in - gasp! - the private sector.

The most crucial assignment - and arguably a more important job than the presidency itself - is that of competition commissioner. The current occupant, Italian Mario Monti, is perhaps most famous for thwarting a couple of high-profile US mergers (WorldCom-Sprint and GE-Honeywell) and for relentlessly pursuing an antitrust case against Microsoft. Monti was successful early on in his tenure at breaking up state monopolies and forcing governments to stop subsidizing anemic business sectors. But lately he has racked up a pathetic record of blocking innovation and letting countries such as France prop up ailing industries.

Replacing him in the new Commission line-up will be a Dutch woman, Neelie Kroes. She's not only a member of the Netherlands' pro-free-market liberal party (VVD), she's also got significant private sector experience, including service on the boards of Lucent Technologies and Volvo. It's too early to tell whether she'll make a real difference in EU antitrust policy (which has grown increasingly ham-fisted of late), but at least she figures to have more sensitivity to the competitive business environment than did the bookish Monti.

More good news on the trade negotiation front. Britain's Peter Mandelson may be best known as the man who invented New Labour and Tony Blair's so-called Third Way, but he's also a strong proponent of free trade. As the UK's new representative on the Commission (in the new, enlarged Union, the big member states countries no longer have two commissioners - everybody gets just the one), he has been given the trade portfolio previously held by France's unflappable Pascal Lamy.

Even more promising is the decision to give Ireland's Charlie McCreevy the internal market and financial services dossier. As Irish finance minister for the last seven years and a leader in the country's free-market movement, he's largely responsible for the "Celtic Tiger" status. Cutting taxes and increasing labor mobility are not foreign concepts to him.

Finally, Latvian Ingrida Udre has been named commission for taxation policy. Her country is one of several in Eastern Europe that is in the vanguard of low corporate tax rates.

Barroso himself will oversee the economic stimulus effort, rather than leaving it to the various Commission departments, which often work at cross purposes. He will chair a group of commissioners working on the so-called Lisbon Agenda - the EU's goal of making itself into the most dynamic economy in the world by 2010. This won't happen, of course, and there is a long tradition in the EU of tackling a problem by forming committees chaired by eminences who produce reports headed for the trash can. But at least Barroso sees it as a priority and is trying to consolidate the workload.

Who loses? France, mainly. There had been talk of the French demanding the competition portfolio. Giving state-aid happy Paris some say over who got this important Commission directorate would have been about as absurd as giving the economic policy job to a German. And, indeed, there was even some consideration of that. Fortunately wiser heads prevailed and France and Germany did not get these key jobs. (Indeed, by giving France the transport portfolio Barroso may have found the one thing even the French can't screw up. Say what you want about France or French politics, they do know about trains and roads.)

In short, the whole thing fairly reeks of efficiency. Since being named to the Commission presidency, Barroso has performed well. At his confirmation hearings before the various party groups in the European Parliaments - it's quaintly termed an audition in the EU parlance - Barroso flicked away griping questions from left-wing MEPs about his tacit support for the US invasion of Iraq like a bull nonchalantly swatting fleas with his tail. He gave them just enough muted criticism of US "unilateralism" to keep them happy, but in the end maintained that good relations with Washington are important.

He hasn't even started his presidency yet, and in Romano Prodi he has an easy act to follow. So Brussels may only be suffering a summertime swoon over a Commission president who looks like he walk and chew gum (and speak about five languages fluently) at the same time. But so far Barroso, the last choice for the job, looks first rate.


TCS Daily Archives