Juncker's Revenge?

E.U. Commission President to Germany: It's Payback Time

Merkel, Juncker, not so happy reuters
Chilly times for European Commission president Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Germany’s new minor role in the European Commission could hinder it from shaping legislation in Brussels, negatively affecting its economy.

  • Facts


    • Jean-Claude Juncker has shaken up the European Commission, giving seven vice presidents new powers over their peers.
    • Günther Oettinger, Germany’s commissioner, was given a smaller post for the digital economy in the new cabinet.
    • The new vice presidents — which do not include Germany — are predominantly from smaller countries in eastern Europe.
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The new leader of the European Union’s executive arm spoke of a “revolution” when he presented a new cabinet to the world on Wednesday. Germany, despite being Europe’s largest economy, received only a minor role in his movement.

In Germany, Mr. Juncker’s decision to give the German representative, Günther Oettinger, the role of commissioner for the digital economy and society — which will overlap with a similar post awarded to tiny Estonia — elicited a storm of protest.

Some see the appointment as retribution for German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s initially half-hearted support of Mr. Juncker’s candidacy for the E.U. presidency.

Although Ms. Merkel eventually changed course and backed Mr. Juncker, the damage appears to be lasting.

Not only did France and Great Britain get more important briefs, covering E.U. economics and finance, and banking, respectively, but Mr. Oettinger and Germany did not win one of seven vice commission president roles.

But Latvia, Estonia and Slovenia did. Among big E.U. nations, only Italy and the Netherlands won a vice president’s post.

Ms. Merkel had wanted Germany to receive the E.U. trade commssioner job, which in the end went to Sweden’s Cecilia Malmström. Berlin unsuccessfully tried to prevent the French candidate, Pierre Moscovici, from receiving the economics post, fearing it would send a signal that Brussels had gone soft on fiscal austerity.

The other big economics job, commissioner for competition, went to a Dane, Margrethe Vestager.

Welcome to the new Europe, where Mr. Juncker has claimed to have put national interests aside. He has promised to call to account any commissioner who puts domestic priorities ahead of European interests.

For political observers, the appointments reflect the new attitude, and governments including in Berlin should get with the program.

The focus on “what portfolio our candidate gets” misses the reality of Europe, Josef Janning, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, said.

“What matters much more for Germany is whether the commission does what it is supposed to do and is good at doing what it is supposed to do. And in that sense, Juncker’s approach is an innovation and the question now is: Will it work?”

For Germany’s opposition, however, the move is a slap in the face of their nemesis, Ms. Merkel, revenge for her lukewarm backing of Mr. Juncker’s appointment, and a sign of Germany’s waning influence in Brussels.

The German government put on a brave face. Ms. Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters it was “very good from our viewpoint” and the digital agenda is a portfolio that Germany cares deeply about. He would not comment on France’s Mr. Moscovici’s appointment as commissioner for economic and monetary affairs.

Lawmakers, even within Chancellor Merkel’s own Christian Democratic Party, were less restrained, especially about the appointment of Mr. Moscovici to the economics post.

“I don’t think that naming Pierre Moscovici as economic and monetary affairs commissioner was a smart personnel move,” said Norbert Barthle, the budgetary spokesman of the CDU in the German parliament.

Mr. Barthle said it will be critical to see how Mr. Moscovici deals with France, which has said it is unlikely to meet the European Union’s budget deficit rules next year.

The question is whether Mr. Moscovici is prepared to take steps against his own country for failing to meet the rules, even though he himself was until very recently finance minister there.

The Germans fear that he will go easy on his countrymen.

However, Germany’s commissioner, Mr. Oettinger defended the appointment. “Moscovici is now being watched very carefully in Germany,” he told reporters. “He knows that he cannot live up to the prejudices there.”

Oettinger afp
Is his star falling? Many hoped Günther Oettinger would win a better post. Source: AFP


It is also likely the Mr. Juncker will be keeping a sharp eye on the French commissioner. On Wednesday the new president said that he would not hesitate to give any commissioner a new job if “anybody confuses national and European politics.”

Mr. Moscovici will take on not only economics and finance, but also tax policy.

The new British commissioner, Jonathan Hill, will be in charge of financial stability, financial services and capital markets. As such he will be responsible for financial market regulation, something that the British view as vital to their interests, considering the importance of the City of London to the economy there.

The role could be an olive branch to Britain in the hope of helping the government fend off the euro-skeptic UKIP party and keep the country in the European Union. Prime Minister David Cameron has promised a referendum in 2017 on membership if his party in reelected next year.

Opposition parties in Germany slammed the appointments as a triple-defeat for Ms. Merkel. “Like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse” was a phrase used by both the left-leaning Green Party and right-leaning Freedom Party (FDP) representatives to describe the French and British nominees.

“No country has tried harder than the United Kingdom to shield the financial sector from reform,” Alexander Lambsdorf, who leads the FDP in the European Parliament, told Handelsblatt.

Bernd Lucke, the head of Germany’s new euro-skeptic party, the Alternative for Germany, which entered the European Parliament for the first time in May, spoke of a “demotion” for Germany’s commissioner.

Under Mr. Juncker, the Brussels executive is being completely restructured.

The 28 commissioners, each representing one member state, will now be overseen by seven vice presidents. Mr. Juncker is giving them much broader powers than the outgoing president, José Manuel Barroso, gave to his deputies. Each commissioner will in future have to answer to an assigned vice president.

That means, for example, that Mr. Moscovici will have to come to an agreement with the Latvian vice president, Valdis Bombrovskis, who has responsibility for the euro and social dialogue.

The German commissioner, Mr. Oettinger, will have to make sure he is on the same page as Estonia’s former prime minister, Andrus Ansip, who is to be vice president with responsibility for the digital single market.

It it is not so important what the commissioner from Germany actually does in the commission. It’s far more important to have a strong role in guiding the Commission’s agenda.

It remains to be seen if the new-look commission can reassert the commission’s influence in the European Union.

In recent years the European Council, which represents the member states in the upper house of European parliament, has gained in influence. And Germany has played a dominant role there.

Mr. Juncker may be looking to create a “counterweight” to Germany’s influence on the European Council, said Sabine von Oppeln, political science professor at the Berlin-based Freie Universität’s Center for European Integration.

While Mr. Juncker has generally been supportive of Germany’s approach to the European crisis, Ms. von Oppeln said relegating Germany’s role in the commission could mollify countries that have opposed German policies.

Berlin knows that, argued Mr. Janning of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“It it is not so important what the commissioner from Germany actually does in the commission, it’s far more important to have a strong role in guiding the Commission’s agenda,” he said. “So for the chancellor this is not a life and death question what the commissioner does in Brussels.”


Dietmar Neurer and Ruth Berschens also contributed to this story. The authors are editors at Handelsblatt Global Edition in Berlin. To contact them: cermak@handelsblatt.com, dowling@handelsblatt.com

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