Juncker's Revenge?

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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

    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.
  • Audio

    Audio

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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.”

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