The European Commission as a Political Engine of European integration, in conversation with Martin Selmayr

The European Commission as a Political Engine of European integration, in conversation with Martin Selmayr


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The European Commission as a Political Engine of European integration, in conversation with Martin Selmayr

The political role of the European Commission is not new. It has been around as an idea, as a concept from the very early days of European integration. The founding father of European integration – Jean Monnet – was very clear about the need for the High Authority to be an explicitly political actor in order to have political accountability. He said: “Cooperation between nations, however important it may be, does not solve anything. What one has to seek is a fusion of the interests of the European people, not merely to preserve a balance among those interests.” So how does one achieve such a fusion of interests and political accountability in practice? Those of us interested in the role of organizations and institutions in political life know that ideas and implementation processes often get decoupled in organizational structures. The European Commission eventually was deliberately designed as a technocratic body to avoid high public exposure and thereby be more efficient in achieving the fusion of interests. This, however, led to widespread criticisms in relation to its lack of political accountability and democratic legitimacy. Indeed, Monnet’s original ideas have not lost relevance. If anything, their importance has increased in a Union reaching virtually every aspect of life in Europe. So, what exactly does the emerging and increasing political role of the European Commission mean today? Why do you think the Commission is political?*

Frédéric Mérand 1 : A “Political Commission” evokes the Juncker Commission. The Juncker Commission was an experiment amid a larger phenomenon: the politicization of the EU. To understand what a political Commission is, there are many elements to take into account, but the overarching idea was that the Commission should behave like an executive, responsive to public opinion and accountable to Parliament. In other words, it should behave much like a government. During Jean-Claude Juncker’s mandate, there were two key factors that made that experiment possible. First was the Spitzenkandidaten process that gave the Commission president and his College a democratic legitimacy, acquired in the polls. Second – equally important – was the grand coalition in the European Parliament (EP), the fact that the centre-left and the centre-right together had the majority of the seats and were able to support a programme conducted by Jean-Claude Juncker and his Commission. There was a winning coalition. To me, that was the Juncker experiment. 

The broader picture was a context of growing interests and opposition, sharp cleavages across European public opinion and among political parties about European policies and politics. This politicization has been tracked by political scientists over the past twenty years. It comes from the realisation that European integration creates winners and losers. Citizens are aware of that and they tend to vote accordingly. In my book, I am interested in how people in the Juncker Commission systematically tried to push the boundaries of political agency: how they tried to carve out a space in which it would be possible to make political choices between conflicting values. 

Enlarging the space of politics is what I call political work. Doing so in the EU is not easy because the EU is characterized – like all other international organisations – by very strong constraints: legal-institutional constraints (with the treaties), diplomatic constraints (with intergovernmental dynamics in the Council) … What Jean-Claude Junker and Pierre Moscovici tried to do was to expand the space in which it would be possible to make the kind of choices that are made at the national level, for example between left and right. It did not work all the time and many people criticized this politicization of the Commission but that’s their legacy.

Martin Selmayr 2 : The Commission has always been a body between technocracy and politics. Since the beginning, there were the federalists who wanted the Commission to turn into a European government and the sovereignists, who wanted to keep the Commission as a technocratic organisation. Many of the debates today go back to this tension. According to the treaties, the European Parliament elects the Commission’s president, but commissioners are not called ministers to make them appear less democratically legitimate than the ministers of national governments even though they go through a much tougher process of democratic scrutiny.

My experience after almost twenty years in the Commission is that the Commission is always floating between these different poles of its nature. Sometimes – and that depends a lot on the historical circumstances – it goes more toward its technocratic pole and sometimes it moves toward its political pole. Jean-Claude Juncker, when he became president of the Commission, wanted his Commission to be “a political, a very political Commission.” There were three reasons for that in 2014: 

a) The first reason is because he was Jean-Claude Juncker. Jean-Claude Juncker had been in politics his whole life. He started as minister in the government of Luxembourg before he turned 30, and he was prime minister of his country for almost 19 years. Therefore, it was clear that when he had an organisation called the European Commission under his lead, it had to be a political institution and not a technocratic one. It came a lot from his personality: Juncker leading a technocratic institution would have been a paradox in itself. Jean-Claude Juncker was, and still is, a political animal who gets up in the morning and starts by reading a tremendous amount of newspapers from all over the world to understand what is going on in the real politics of his time. Juncker was and still is consuming information all the time. He saw the Commission as he saw a government, without ever calling it one. Manfred Weber (the leader of the EPP group in the European Parliament) once told him that he should call the Commission a European government, but Juncker answered that he was too political for that. He knew perfectly well what kind of provocations that would have created for the sovereignists. His experience as Prime Minister also reveals a lot on his style of governance. Indeed, Jean-Claude Juncker was somebody who was very involved on specific topics. He had to be in control, and everything had to go over his desk. As a politician, he was far too political to ever leave key decision to technocrats. He always insisted on taking all such decisions himself.  

b) The second reason was the fact that Juncker was Spitzenkandidat: you cannot lead a Europe-wide campaign saying that you would make the European Union more democratic and then turn technocratic. It would have been illogical and not in line with his thinking and mandate. 

c) The third reason, is again, very much circumstantial: Jean-Claude Juncker became president after the years of the financial crisis, and he was a president who knew already when he was campaigning that he would have Brexit – or at least the negotiations to prevent Brexit – on his desk. In 2014, the biggest argument of all those who were criticizing the European Union for its actions in the financial crisis were that unelected technocrats had dictated austerity. On the British side, Prime Minister Cameron said that he did not want to be governed by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. Therefore, for Juncker, it was very important to insist that he was the lead candidate, that he had formed a majority both in the European Parliament and in the European Council and that he came to office in a manner that was at least as democratic as that of all his fellow leaders in the European Council. He insisted that he was the elected leader of the Commission and that he had earned democratic legitimacy. That was extremely important for his own interpretation of his role as a highly political president of the Commission. 

What are empirical illustrations of the Commission’s political role? 

Frédéric Mérand: My book is built as an ethnographic narrative of the Moscovici cabinet. The “Moscos”, as I call them, had an identity: They were not all French, but they all knew France and French politics quite well. They were all more or less left leaning like the commissioner himself. Let me give two illustrations of how they did politics.

One example is the Greek crisis. We know the Varoufakis version of the story but there were several dynamics at play. There was the institutional logic of the memorandums and the role of the IMF and the ECB (the troika). There was also the diplomatic logic of the Eurogroup, which weighed heavily in the negotiations. Both led to imposing what could be considered as a harsh austerity program on Greece. On the other hand, there was also Greek politics, Greek democracy and a fairly dysfunctional system in Athens. While there was a lot of tension between the Commission and Athens, what they had in common was a willingness to make room for politics. For the Moscos, it was about respecting the institutions while finding room for manoeuver for the Greek government to be able to implement its own policy preferences (based on the fact that it was elected as a democratic government). The result of this political work is a mixed bag, but without the Commission’s political work, it would have been a very different result in the end. 

The second example that I give in my book is taxation. The Juncker Commission started quite inauspiciously in 2014 with the Lux Leaks’ scandal which had a connection with President Juncker. But this scandal proved to be a blessing for political work, because it mobilized public opinion, galvanized the European Parliament and forced the Commission to act. It was, in my analysis, a window of opportunity which allowed the Moscos to go a lot further than anyone would have thought on tax evasion. For a while, the Council seemed to be paralyzed, unable to block the proposals coming from the Berlaymont. This situation did not last forever, however. The Moscos had higher ambitions for tax reforms in Europe, for a common corporate tax base, for digital taxation (some Member States such as France were also pushing for it), but they were in the end vetoed in the Council by some Member States and they lost the game to the OECD, which is where most of the action seems to be currently taking place on that file.

Martin Selmayr: There could be many illustrations but, as an example, I would give a specific moment during the Greece negotiations of 2015. It was the year when the toughest negotiations with Greece took place (because at the beginning Alexis Tsipras and the new government did not want to do anything until we reached a situation where Grexit almost happened). Juncker believed that Grexit should be avoided at all cost, because it would have been, according to him (and I fully shared his view), the end of the single currency and the end of the most integrated project of the European Union. He and I fought against Grexit with all his might. In his first six months in office, we did nothing else other than prevent it from happening. In fact, Juncker knew Greece and therefore he always advocated for moderate policies, against excessive cuts in the fiscal and social fabric of Greece and tried to bring realism into the negotiations. 

When Juncker became president and faced this crisis, he found out that negotiations in such circumstances under the predecessor Commission were mainly led by technocrats. Juncker ended this situation on the very first day. He demanded daily morning and evening reports from the officials in charge of the negotiations in Greece, first in writing before calling them personally. While he met some resistance at the beginning, civil servants followed what they were told afterwards. Juncker, with a lot of patience, explained to the civil servants time and again that it was not an innocent technical decision whether to ask Greece to cut spending in the field of health policies while one could also cut the overblown Greek defense budget – a decision however that he as Commission president wanted to take himself. “This is not for you, this is for me”, he used to tell his officials. Not everybody liked this political approach. A very important finance minister once called Juncker rather aggressively to tell him to stay out of these negotiations. But Juncker told them that the treaties themselves, including the Treaty on the European Stability Mechanism, explicitly mention that it is the role of the Commission to conduct the negotiations. The important finance minister sighed and said: “But Jean-Claude, this refers to the Commission experts and not to you.” But Juncker firmly responded: “But I am the boss of these experts, and I am politically accountable for what they are doing, to the European Parliament, and to the public at large. This is why I have to be involved, very much so.” What is so telling in this episode is that many people conceived the Commission like that: “when you like the decision, let the technocracy take care of it”. But, in reality, decisions need to go to the College of Commissioners, and to the President, as a mixture of legal expertise-based decisions but also of policy discretion, the exercise of which is legally framed, but in the end is the responsibility of the politicians at the helm of the Commission. 

To draw the conclusions of my remarks, I think one moment where we saw that the political Commission was for the first time accepted by all member states was in July 2018, amid the trade war with the United States that Donald Trump had started. Suddenly, all Member states gave their trust to President Juncker when he conducted the negotiations with Trump in Washington and in the end very successfully achieved a truce in a historic meeting with Trump in the White House. It was the first time that a President of the Commission was negotiating eye-to-eye with a President of the United States. It succeeded, and it was a moment where the president of the Commission alone faced the leader of the United States, with the support of all member states to this very political role of the Commission president. Of course, Juncker said “they only gave me a mandate because they believed it was mission impossible and I would fail. But I did not”. This is what matters for a political Commission. Not to fail in the crucial rendez-vous with history as it happened in July 2018.

Has the Commission’s political role evolved? If so, in what way? 

Frédéric Mérand: In my book, I argue that they are three forces behind political work: (1) the will to do politics, (2) the ability to find friends/allies/networks that will support your action and (3) being able to use communication efficiently. When the Moscos were able to do politics, it was because they were able to mobilize these three factors. This is also what allowed Jean-Claude Juncker to act politically. To me, the current situation is interesting, because it reveals two things. First, that there is a missing element in the analysis that I propose in the book: the force of an external shock. If we take eurozone reform, it was, in terms of political work, a failure under Jean-Claude Juncker and Pierre Moscovici. But then, Covid-19 struck, Angela Merkel changed her position, a paradigm shift happened, and many of the debates that I observed between the Moscos and DC ECFIN’s officials found their way in what is now Next Generation EU

To give another example: when Ursula von der Leyen came into office, she did not say she did not want to lead a political Commission, but she insisted that she would be leading a geopolitical Commission. One could argue that it was a way of saying that she did not think that the Juncker formula could work. She was not elected according to the Spitzenkandidaten process, she had no clear majority in the Parliament (which was a lot more fragmented after the 2019 elections), so maybe that was the end of politics or the end of a political Commission. But once again, the pandemic brought her back to deeply political issues (like vaccination or Next Generation EU). These issues are crucial because the public cares, because these situations create winners and losers, and as long as it is that way, there will be room for political work.

Martin Selmayr: Some lessons for the future: I firmly believe that “political Commission” does not, cannot and must not mean “party-politics Commission.” While Frederic Mérand argued that, in the Moscovici cabinet, all people were somewhat leaning in one political direction, I would tell you that neither Jean-Claude Juncker nor me knew what was the political orientation of President Juncker’s cabinet members. There were 14 members, but we did not care about their political orientation because they were experienced Commission officials, they were the best of the best, and they served very competently Juncker as their political master but were not asked to have their own political orientation in their work. They gave advice, they made proposals and suggestions, but the policy came from Juncker and from no one else. That is and should be the difference between commissioners and the people who serve the commissioners. A political Commission means that the political level – those who are elected by the Parliament and appointed by the President of the Commission and the Council – has to be political, has to be chosen on political grounds but this doesn’t apply to the president’s collaborators or to the collaborators of Commissioners. The Commission is excellent and works well only because civil servants cannot and must not be chosen on grounds of political orientation or nationality. This is very important because if we go into the direction of party politics in the Commission and the work of the Commission, then we discredit its work and the excellence of the European public service. 

The Commission has to function in the interest of the EU as a whole and as a team. Therefore, there cannot be “one political commissioner” in the Commission, as Mr. Mérand claims, from his perspective as an embedded writer; there have to be 27 political commissioners who function as a political team if the Commission wants to be successful. What is interesting to see is that those members of the Commission who have worked in this way, as true and committed team players, have been reappointed for the von der Leyen Commission, and this regardless of their political affiliation. Take Margrethe Vestager, Frans Timmermans, Valdis Dombrovskis. They were all acclaimed for their ability to work in bigger teams and build bridges across all political families and nationalities. The strength of a successful political Commission is not partisan behavior, but political teamwork beyond the boundaries of nationalities and political affiliation. And this is a process which has to be comprehensively organized from communication to policy decision to day-to-day operation of the College of Commissioners which, as a result, can indeed be able to work as a government. And it is the role of a Commission president to organize the Commission as such a political team – if he or she wants to be successful over time.

Recently, commissioner Dubravka Suica said that it was not the role of the Commission to propose changes with regards to the Conference on the Future of Europe and beyond. If the Commission aims to be the main engine of European integration, why such reluctancy?

Frédéric Mérand: It is important to see that European politics has gained in complexity over the last 20-30 years. Not so long ago, public opinion was roughly divided between “for” and “against” European integration. Today, the situation is a lot more complicated because you have cleavages at the European level which, to some extent, reproduce cleavages at the national level. For instance, you have people pushing for European integration IF it goes in a more conservative direction or, on the contrary, IF it goes in a more social-democratic direction. It means that the Commission is no longer a place where everyone is a federalist and has the same understanding of what more Europe means. Saying that parties and politics play a role in the Commission does not mean that the Commission behaves like a majority government in a system like France or the UK. It is very much a consensus-based system, but it is one in which partisan affiliation matters.

Martin Selmayr: I think Mrs. Suica said something that is obvious: there is no push toward treaty change at the moment that has any chance of materialising in the next 5 to 10 years. Treaty change is certainly not excluded, but this is not what is currently envisioned by the 27 Member States. In the mandate given to the Conference on the Future of Europe, Member States have explicitly (and the Parliament has agreed to that) excluded the prospect of treaty change. It does not mean that it will never happen. Some people tend to forget that we had treaty changes in the past years, even during the financial crisis – just think of the new Article 136(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU or of the new recovery fund that requires ratification in all 27 member states – but setting up a constitutional convention is a whole different story. If as Commission, you want to be the engine of European integration, then treaty change may not always be the best instrument to achieve that. The cumbersome process of treaty change may even paralyze the EU for a decade, as it happened last time with the Constitutional Treaty. Let’s therefore better consolidate and reform from the inside before amending. Furthermore, there are many instruments and clauses in today’s treaties that are not yet used. We are only at the beginning of using the potential of the Lisbon treaty so we must stop saying that progress can only happen with treaty change because there will be no swift progress at all with this mindset. We can achieve a lot by changing the perspective, increasing openness and willingness to work together and pull resources more effectively. In a nutshell, Mrs. Suica said something which is realistic.  

You mentioned why the Juncker Commission was a successful political Commission. How much continuity do you see with today’s Commission led by Ursula von der Leyen ? 

Frédéric Mérand: My view is that there is a return to politics but through a different channel. Circumstances matter. I do not know what Ursula von der Leyen wanted to do but what is certain is that the pandemic, the economic crisis, vaccination bring politics back into European integration and you cannot avoid it.  

Martin Selmayr: I would say that every Commission has his own moment. I see some differences, but also a lot of continuity between Juncker and von der Leyen from political to geopolitical. The Commission has become more political and more organized under Juncker, which allows it now to work with the rest of the world and better define its external priorities. Among other things, the Commission will have to define a new arrangement with the US under President Biden, and it will also have to find a way how to work with Russia, with Erdogan, with China, even though it is difficult. This is high politics. It was under Juncker and it is now under von der Leyen.

There is also a lot of continuity regarding the tendency for centralization within the Commission. I remember the handover between Barroso and Juncker: the main advice from Barroso was to always know what was happening inside the Commission, to be truly in charge of the whole Commission machinery. I think Ursula von der Leyen has maintained this mindset that Juncker initiated on Barroso’s advice, to make sure that the political level of the Commission is really in charge. Before Juncker, not all decisions that were taken by the Commission always went to the College of Commissioners. In particular, delegated and implementing acts were not politically decided – even though they can be hugely political as we saw with the implementing act concerning the herbicide Glyphosate. Jean-Claude Juncker changed things because he followed every political debate going on across Europe very closely via the media and via the political networks he had built up during his long political career. Juncker changed the system inside the Commission, insisting that all politically relevant matters were brought to the attention of the Secretary General and of the president’s cabinet so that he as President could put them on the agenda of the weekly meetings of the College of Commissioners. Jean-Claude Juncker also invented an instrument of politicization that is still there today in the von der Leyen Commission, namely the so-called Vice-Presidents who enjoy delegated powers from the President and act on the President’s behalf. He wanted them to lead projects on major files (for example on the Digital or Climate and Energy or Migration agendas), which meant that there was a team of commissioners, with their cabinets, who were working on an issue without intervention in the process from the president until the last moment when it came to the agenda of the College. Teamwork and leadership are not contradictory to one another, they go together in a well-organized political Commission.

Executive Vice-Presidents are different beasts than Vice-Presidents. For instance, Dombrovskis or Vestager are in charge of very powerful DGs that have a tendency to act more or less autonomously. This may result in them only seeing what is happening in Europe through their own lens which creates problems in the Commission. Why is the role of Vice-Presidents a good thing nowadays? 

Martin Semayr: Many years ago, we had only one Vice-President, then we had an unlimited number of Vice-Presidents. Juncker picked a limited number of Vice-Presidents to delegate some of his agenda setting and coordinating political powers to them. He had some Vice-Presidents who were mainly coordinating portfolio Commissioners, but he had also others – like we have them today in the von der Leyen Commission – who were Vice-Presidents but had their own Directorate-General (DG). If you think, for example, about the Vice-President in charge of the budget who had 6000 officials directly working under his orders. The vice-president HR/VP had of course the external action service, and last but not least Valdis Dombrovskis is probably the best case of somebody who evolved during the Juncker Commission from a Vice-President with a merely coordinating role, to an executive Vice-President with an own DG. Indeed, after the departure of the British commissioner in 2016, he took over the portfolio of the Financial Services and Capital Markets Union:  henceforth, he was not only Vice-President with a coordinating role for economic and monetary affairs, but he also benefited from his own service, DG FISMA. Hence, we have had both types of Vice-Presidents in the Juncker Commission. Ursula von der Leyen is now shaping the Commission with three executive Vice-Presidents, also following the intervention of the European Council in the internal organization of the Commission, which probably does not belong to the most glorious chapters in the history of the EU institutions. But we can see from these examples that the organization of the Commission is a strategic management issue that evolves from one Commission to the next, depending on the political circumstances of the time and, primarily, of the managerial preferences of the respective President of the Commission. 

Frédéric Mérand: First, the centralisation that has been going on inside the Commission is not unique to the EU. That is taking place in every government around the world. There is a centralisation of power in the hands of the leadership for all kinds of reasons. The EU is no different from these governments, but it is understandable that it triggers reactions from the people who are losing authority. 

Second, the Commission has always been an organisation in which the DGs have a lot of autonomy. Commissioners are part of a team, they were selected by the President, but above all they were selected by their government and will most likely return to their respective Member States afterwards. Their loyalty is always less obvious than it would be in a national government where ministers are truly selected by heads of government, especially in majority systems. The third element is that the combination of multiple national and party orientations was productive in the Commission. It was known that there was a testy relationship between commissioner Moscovici and VP Dombrovskis, but good things came out of this tension. Moscovici came from a Western, almost Mediterranean country and was a socialist while Dombrovskis came from a Baltic country and was a conservative. Obviously, this created tensions, but it was important to deal with these tensions inside the Berlaymont before they got out of the Commission. We have to keep in mind that there are also a lot of diverging points of view within the cabinet of one commissioner because each staffer has a different training, a different nationality, a different way of understanding political ideology – even when they’re all left-leaning with a good command of the French language, like the Moscos were. 

Martin Selmayr, you mentioned new competences of the European Commission that have not yet been used. Which competences and which new prerogatives could be useful in the coming years to respond to the challenges and show the political character of the Commission? 

Martin Selmayr: I would not say competences but rather issues to deal with under the current treaties. For instance, ten years ago, climate change was already an issue, but it was not at the top of the European Union’s agenda. Today, the European Commission is making proposals to legislate on energy efficiency, from your vacuum cleaner to your car and multiple CO2 emission sources, or proposals on the CO2 emissions of buildings. That has nothing to do with competences, this has to do with the political will to recognize that there are important issues that require a European solution.

I think that, ten years ago, we also would not have thought about regulating internet platforms. Today the European Commission has made two very important proposals on the Digital Services Act and the Digital Market Act, which are future-oriented, and which can be done under the current treaties because they are forged in a way that allows this to be done. 

Where I personally think we should further improve is on our financial framework, and that is why the current proposals on Next Generation EU are so important, they are not yet fully ratified because there is still some reluctance in some Member States. I also believe that crisis management is such a big issue that requires further work. We saw in the last crises – from the financial crisis to the migration crisis – that the European Union always evolves a lot during crises, it even makes quantum leaps bu t, at the onset, it is very messy because there are no crisis management instruments in place. This is because we in the EU generally believe that a decentralized solution should only be centralized when something is really necessary. Even federal Germany now centralizes Covid-19 policies which were left to its regions beforehand. Federal Austria, on the other hand, is decentralizing at the same moment. So that shows how diverse Europe is. But I think it would be useful to have in the EU a mechanism, ready to be activated in times of crisis that temporarily allow it to make decisions in a simpler and faster way to respond to crisis situations with determination. It was right for the EU to agree on the common purchase of vaccines. However, if the EU had taken all its decision on vaccine purchases and their complete financing as early as June 2020, I think we would be in a different situation today. Perhaps we should enable a temporary shift to the European Union level in crisis situations. Of course, the risk is that we can be right or wrong. But the world is moving too fast to make decisions too slow. I do not believe we should put all health competences to Brussels, I think whether to close the schools in Vienna or elsewhere is something that cannot be decided at the European level, but I think we should be able to temporarily centralize the financial elements and the purchase of medical equipment decisions, in times of crisis. If you want the legal basis for that, it is under Article 352 which could be a basis for establishing a European crisis mechanism, for all future crises, to be faster and more efficient when the next crisis comes. 

Regarding Brexit, the European Commission was able to maintain unity among Member States throughout the negotiations. How much of this political capital that has been built up will be needed to continue to speak with one voice when it comes to the future relationship with the UK? How long will this unity be able to maintain itself? How much political capital will be needed to manage this relationship? 

Fréderic Mérand: Brexit revealed to me that North Americans had no understanding whatsoever of the European Union and the Commission. When Brexit happened, or more exactly when the referendum took place on June 23rd, 2016, almost everybody in Canada – in business circles, in academia, in the media – was absolutely certain that the conclusion would be for the European Union to self-implode and for the UK to win the negotiations by a very wide margin. This was the dominant point of view. It changed over the next months, in part because Justin Trudeau took a firm stance in favor of the European Union, but still, the general idea remained that this unity would not last forever and that the UK would get the upper hand. Yet, it has been five years and from an external point of view, the EU has remained united against the UK and I do not expect it to change at this point. In Canada, we live next to the US, we know what an asymmetric relationship is, we know what economic dependence on your neighbour is, we know that the negotiations are never over – even when you have a trade agreement, you never know how long it is going to last. On this issue, I think the European Commission has been extremely effective. 

Martin Selmayr: This successful result was extremely hard work. It was an exceptional situation for the European Union and the unity of the 27 was essential because if we had argued the whole time only amongst ourselves, we would have self-destructed. It was an exceptional situation, which hopefully will not repeat itself. One of the key secrets to the success of these negotiations was Michel Barnier, who had been entrusted by Juncker to lead the Brexit negotiations – a decision that at the time was courageous because many Member States and many in the Commission were not happy about it. Several wanted a Commissioner to be in charge of Brexit, and many wanted to be in charge themselves, even some Council officials. But Juncker’s decision helped in making sure to keep the Brexit business separate and outside the normal agenda of the Commission. With the specialized Barnier Task Force on Brexit, Brexit was not able to infect the normal agenda of the EU, whether on energy, climate, digital, trade or on the new multiannual financial framework. It was also very important – and another sign of the political Commission at work – that Michel Barnier, a politician, not a technocrat took this over and centralized the work on behalf of the president, working hand in hand with the president’s cabinet. The further ingredient of the success was what some call the Juncker-Barnier method: the idea that for central existential matters, we have to be even more careful than normal, to pay attention to the different levels of legitimacy of the Commission’s work. The Commission is elected by the European Parliament but also needs the trust of the 27 Member States that have to confirm the Commission. The Commission has a double sourced legitimacy: the Parliament and the Member States. With the Brexit negotiations, we followed this by the book. Michel Barnier briefed the members of the European Parliament very regularly but also equally briefed the Member States, the COREPER ambassadors, etc. This engagement to speak to both sources of legitimacy helped to strengthen the European Commission. It brings us to the Spitzenkandidat. The Spitzenkandidat is wrongly understood as something that the European Parliament imposes on Member States but the Spitzenkandidat is only successful if the European Parliament gets its act together, agrees on one successful Spitzenkandidat after the elections, and then finds agreement with the European Council. Juncker was able to bring this about in 2014 and I very much hope that, in 2024, we will have such a situation again because it is a good thing for European democracy and for efficient political management at European Union level. The Spitzenkandidat, and an important element of parliamentary EU democracy with it, is asleep for the time being. Let’s make sure we wake it up again in time before the next European Parliament elections. We owe this to the citizens of the European Union.

* This is the transcript of a debate hosted by Jozef Bátora of the International Relations Department at Webster Vienna Private University in Vienna.


  1. Fréderic Mérand is the director of CÉRIUM, the Montréal Centre for International Studies, and Professor of Political Science at the University of Montréal. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of California, Berkeley. Between 2015 and 2019, he spent several periods of time with the European Commission in the Moscovici cabinet. His book, The Political Commissioner: A European Ethnography, will be published by Oxford University Press in June 2021.
  2. Martin Selmayr is the European Commission’s Ambassador to Austria. He has studied at the Universities of Geneva and Passau, at King’s College in London, and at the University of California, Berkeley. He has a PhD in Law from the University of Passau. Martin Selmayr, a Commission official since 2004, became Jean-Claude Juncker’s campaign director in 2014 and when Juncker was running as Spitzenkandidat for Commission President for the European People’s Party (EPP). He was first appointed head of Juncker’s transition team and then served as cabinet head from 2014 to 2018 before being appointed as Secretary General of the Commission by decision of the 27 members of the European Commission in 2018. Martin Selmayr has been described as one of the most influential figures within the European Union. For the past three decades, he has also been an academic; he is a very active professor of European Economic and Financial Law at the University of Sarrebruck, Director of the Centre for European Law at the University of Passau, and lecturer of EU Institutional Law as well as the Law of Economic and Monetary Union at Danube University in Krems (Austria). He is the author of numerous books on EU law and just published a first assessment of the political Commission led by President Juncker, edited by Robert Stüwe and Thomas Panayotopoulos (The Juncker Commission. Politicizing EU Politics, Nomos, Baden-Baden 2020). In this debate, Martin Selmayr speaks in a personal and academic capacity, without necessarily representing the official view of the Commission.
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Jozef Bátora, Frédéric Mérand, Martin Selmayr, The European Commission as a Political Engine of European integration, in conversation with Martin Selmayr, Apr 2021,

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