Commissioners as Competitors – Competition and Policy Coherence in the Juncker’s Commission

by David Rinaldi – 12/09/2014

Spreading similar responsibilities across portfolios has been a clear strategy of President Juncker, we try to understand why that can be a good thing.  

4 Commissioners in Economic MattersPresident Juncker announced the portfolios of the new European Commission. As choosing the team of 28 commissioners is not in the hands of the Commission’s President, Mr Juncker could only express his creativity in the definition of the portfolios and in the allocation of the seats. We can conclude that he has been quite creative.

Despite the EurActiv leak, which already allowed to get a taste of the new set-up, the final allocation of portfolios left room for a certain fuss. In particular, Mr President has generated debate by breaking up certain portfolios – those dealing with economic and environmental matters for instance – and by merging others – climate change and energy for example.

The table below offers a view on the possible and unexpected overlap in competences. Now, as these decisions by President Juncker are definitely not casual, there must be a strategy. Several analysts have pointed out that the unclear and overlapping definition of competences among commissioners can result detrimental for the effectiveness of EU policy-making. Other prominent commentators have observed that key seats are in the hands of German allies. (i.e. firm rigor supporters). [see the FT, and EurActive]

This short article is meant to provide ideas that may contradict these views and is attempt to find a rationale in President Juncker’s strategy. Our reasoning is based on two key arguments: 1) policy coherence and 2) competition.


Overlapping competences may lead to greater coordination

Policy coherence was an issue for the Barroso’s Commission as well; it was the Deputy Head of Cabinet of the Commissioner for Environment that, intervening at a conference organized earlier this year at the College of Europe by the CoE Dev Group, pointed out the lack of coherence as one of the major challenges to be faced to enhance EU policy-making. She commented that the activities carried out on Energy and Industry agendas where too often undermining environmental actions. A lack of coordination in specific issues such as energy and green growth was denounced.

In 2013, the European Commission also published an interesting report on Policy Coherence for Development, which identifies several areas of criticism, i.e. energy, security, migration, environment, where the development agenda carried out by the Commission ends up clashing with other EU policies.

Now, it cannot be argued with certainty that an overlap of competences entails more coordination, but it is certainly a possibility. In the declaration of President Juncker, the aim of generating a ‘new collaborative way of working’ has been actually emphasized and ‘stronger cooperation across areas of responsibility’ is expected. (See EC Press Release)

On economic matters, at times, there might be a discussion among four commissioners; likewise, once defining policy objectives on the internal market for energy, Vice President Bratušek, who oversees the Energy Union, may have to sit together with Vice President Timmermans, in charge of Better Regulation, and with Commissioner Bieńkowska, who will follow general internal market issues. This system of overlapping competences may lead to a more shared definition of policy objectives. Interestingly enough, commentators have already assumed that the line which will come out of concerted action will be the one put forward by the allies of Germany. Commentators do not give too much credit to Commissioner Moscovici, who coming from the PES family and from France may have the chance to influence economic policy towards directions other than strict rigor.


To be highlighted that in the previous commission the unique Commissioner with great power over the economy was Vice President Olli Rehn, in charge of Economic and Monetary Affairs and the Euro, whilst the role of Commissioner Šemeta for Taxation and Customs Union, Audit and Anti-Fraud was much more limited than the scope assigned to Pierre Moscovici. In other words, we moved from a commission with economic matters in the hand of two commissioners linked to ALDE and PPE, to a situation where four portfolios may have a say, one of which is likely to urge for the petitions of the Europe south. It is hard to conclude that economic policy will be now more aligned with German positions than it was before; in the end, the PES did not win this last elections and there was hardly room for more than two Vice Presidents and one Commissioner on economic matters.

Merging conflicting issues in a single portfolio and Super Commissioners

On the other side, merging in a single portfolio two policy areas that have been deploying critical interdependence in recent years can also be a strategy to enforce coherence in EU policies.

That can be the case of Commissioner Dombrovskis, who will have to deal with Euro and Social Dialogue, or of Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete, who will oversee the linkages between Climate Action and Energy. By merging energy and climate change issues in one agenda, the possibility of having policy coherence gets certainly higher, but we doubt that this coherence will favor climate change actions.

A third point that supports the expectation of increasing policy coherence is the emphasis given to the Vice Presidencies. Although President Juncker has rejected the idea of Super Commissioners, he has given ample power and relevance to his seven Vice Presidents. They have not been given charge of a cluster of key portfolios but they have room to act as coordinators and leaders in their macro-area of reference. According to the President’s statement, the Vice Presidents will lead project teams’, ‘ensure a dynamic interaction’, and act as filters.

Bottom line, we cannot conclude that this allocation of portfolios will certainly lead to enhanced policy coherence, but:

  • assuming that overlapping responsibilities will convey greater coordination, the probability of experiencing policy coherence gets higher;
  • by merging conflicting issues in a single portfolio, incoherent and opposing policies should be minimized;
  • By reserving a prominent role to the seven Vice Presidencies, there could be room for a de facto super commissioner.


Overlapping responsibilities, besides inducing greater coordination in the definition of priorities and policy objectives, can have an additional effect on Commissioners’ performance. Economics 1.0 says competition enhances efficiency. Let’s see how this can happen.

Public choice theory stresses that politicians act according to their self-interest, in particular it is often assumed that politicians are looking for re-election. It is a matter of facts that the electoral system that is behind EU appointments reward big names and doers; in this context, Commissioners are expected to deploy extraordinary motivation and are likely to be willing to engage in deep reforms and legislations, so that their name can have a place in history books and public policy syllabi.

This should be true for every Commissioner in every Commission; what happens with the Juncker’s Commission is that the presence of a Commissioner that holds a portfolio with similar responsibilities is likely to induce public opinion and the electorate to run comparisons. Comparing work and merits of two politicians working on similar subjects is certainly easier than comparing those working on different areas, as different circumstances cannot be adduced as excuses for poor results. It is highly likely that none of the Commissioners in charge is willing to be regarded as the one who performed feebly, so that motivations for great actions should be higher.

Take for instance the digital agenda, both Commissioner Oettinger, responsible for Digital Economy and Society, and Vice President Andrus Ansip, in charge of the Digital Single Market have their reputation at steak. What should we expect? Either they work closely together so that their initiative will carry a lot of weight and will be influential and they both benefit from it, or they compete on promoting actions to improve on the digital single market and digital economy. In either way, a boost to the digital internal market and modernization of the European economy is expected.


2 thoughts on “Commissioners as Competitors – Competition and Policy Coherence in the Juncker’s Commission

  1. Pingback: The Juncker Commission: On the way to a smaller European Commission? | Polscieu

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