Power in the EU Is Shifting Eastward
Under President Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission -- Europe's de-facto government -- will ostensibly be run by representatives of the bloc's newest, post-Communist members, but there will no longer be an EU expansion portfolio. Europe needs time to heal, consolidate and reorient itself politically and economically. The reorientation appears to be along unfashionably conservative lines.
Euractiv, a website dedicated to EU policy, has obtained a document dated September 2 and detailing portfolio distribution among the 28 commissioners, each representing a member country. It's probably not the final version -- the final line-up is expected next week -- but it shows the direction of Juncker's thinking.
According to the document, four of the commission's six powerful vice presidents will be from Eastern Europe, compared with two out of five in the previous line-up. Poland's Elzbieta Bienkowska will be responsible for budget and financial control, Estonia's Andrus Ansip for growth and the monetary union, Latvia's Valdis Dombrovskis for the energy union, and Slovenia's Alenka Bratusek for digital and innovation. "Old Europe" is only getting two major portfolios, a new one -- "better regulation" -- for the Netherlands' Frans Timmermans and foreign affairs for Federica Mogherini. Besides, Ireland's Phil Hogan takes change of agriculture, an important purview because of the importance of agricultural subsidies to the EU budget.
France asked for the economic affairs portfolio, but it went to Finland, and former French finance minister Pierre Moscovici is only getting the competition one. The U.K., whose Prime Minister David Cameron vehemently opposed Juncker's appointment, appears to be in for a deliberate humiliation. Brussels gossip has it that Juncker had never heard of Cameron's candidate for commissioner, Jonathan Hill, and even had to google him. Hill ended up with responsibility for energy and climate change, and he will be working under Dombrovskis.
Germany, whose Chancellor Angela Merkel backed Juncker, is getting exactly what it asked for -- the trade portfolio.
Putting aside symbolic gestures, like the kick at the U.K., the nod to Germany and the equal gender distribution of the vice presidents, the picture is a somewhat surprising one. Amid calls for a looser monetary policy, which the European Central Bank has just backed with an unexpected rate cut and asset-purchasing plans, the economic portfolios are going to politicians representing countries that have embraced financial austerity.
In addition to the ones mentioned above, Hungary got customs and Bulgaria drew taxation. The East European countries, Finland and Germany, which dominate the economic part of the line-up, have gone through painful structural reforms rather than complain about their social cost. Some of them, like Latvia, lost much of their population to richer countries in the process, but their economies are more sound in the traditional, fiscally prudent sense than, say, Italy's or France's. Of all the countries that ended up with economic portfolios, only Poland has a deficit above the EU's statutory limit of 3 percent gross domestic product, and, unlike France and Italy, it isn't loudly demanding the right to spend as much as it wants to and its government spending is below the European average.
The East Europeans may be the EU's newer and weaker members, but they are survivors, used to jumping intimidatingly high fences and facing dangers that "Old Europe" hasn't faced since the decade after World War II. Their growing influence on the bloc's running is as much a tribute to their experience as recognition that Europe's core needs some of the same medicine: Restraint and the willingness to take pain to achieve goals.
It also matters that, in the next five years, Europe will not accept any new members. Though there are countries, from Albania to Ukraine, that would like to join, the absence of an enlargement portfolio in Juncker's commission tells them that the EU is big enough for now. The previous expansion commissioner, Czech politician Stefan Fule, helped get Europe into enough trouble by pushing for an association deal with Ukraine that forced it to choose between the EU and Russia. The current clash between President Vladimir Putin's Russia and the West is, at last in part, a direct result of this policy.
The EU needs to feel more comfortable, and more cohesive, in its current borders before it can think of taking in more countries. To achieve that, Germany, the union's true leader and itself partly a post-Communist country, is gradually shifting the balance of power eastward.
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Leonid Bershidsky at firstname.lastname@example.org