With Brexit bickering on hold at this week’s EU summit as leaders prepare for a second phase of talks, the drama will be provided instead by national capitals’ efforts to rein in what some see as a brazen attempt at overreach by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
European leaders worry that Juncker and his powerful chief of staff Martin Selmayr are trying to turn the Commission into a political “deep state,” according to officials in Brussels and national capitals.
A push by the Commission to steer EU policy, using Juncker’s State of the Union speech in September as a roadmap, has led to a power struggle in recent weeks between the Commission and the Council, but it is now fueling a backlash from EU capitals intent on reasserting their control.
“It wants to be, but we are not going to allow them to be the deep state,” a senior EU diplomat said, pointing to the Commission’s ambitious package of eurozone proposals rolled out on December 6 as the most vivid example of overreach. “He is far out there, and they made a miscalculation at the State of the Union.”
From the start of his term in 2014, Juncker declared he would lead a more “political Commission” with a top-down command structure. And in recent months he has portrayed the Commission as bolder and more proactive in policymaking than the heads of state and government on the European Council, including at a digital summit in Tallinn, where the power struggle was clearly visible.
“Clearly the Commission is partly motivated by its own institutional interests” — National official
One national official said Juncker now faced a dual challenge: an unwillingness by some countries to go along with his agenda, and a separate push by French President Emmanuel Macron to pursue an ambitious program focused more on cooperation between capitals than communal action in Brussels.
“Clearly the Commission is partly motivated by its own institutional interests — that’s not abnormal,” one national official said. “A lot of member states are not as ambitious as the Commission and are not ready to follow the Commission all the way. Secondly, the main ambitious force among member states, France, wants to go down the intergovernmental path, not the communitarian. That would marginalize the Commission.”
While national leaders instinctively side with the European Council, which is where they exert their decision-making authority, they are also not inclined to cede any ground to Council President Donald Tusk. Several capitals reacted furiously to a controversial note Tusk prepared on migration policy, viewing it as a clumsy effort to frame a necessary and important debate.
But leaders were even more angry at the reaction to Tusk’s note from Commissioner Dimitris Avramopolous, who lashed out, calling Tusk’s paper “anti-European” — perhaps the worst slur possible in the Brussels Bubble.
The message to the Commission will be delivered most clearly on the issue of migration, which will be the main topic of discussion at a leaders’ dinner and has emerged as the most contentious issue at this summit.
Thursday’s dinner is shaping up as the first real test of Tusk’s “leaders’ agenda,” which the Council has developed this fall partly in competition with Juncker’s agenda laid out in the State of the Union speech. According to the leaders’ agenda, the heads of state and government on the European Council are expected to take a more proactive role in some of the EU’s most divisive policy debates.
At issue is the future of the Dublin regulation that forces countries of arrivals to take responsibility for asylum seekers — a rule considered unfair by frontline countries like Italy and Greece. But the Dublin reform is like a Russian nesting doll, involving a series of different policies problems and solutions — connected and yet distinct.
The main point of debate is if a future asylum regulation will also contain a mechanism for permanent mandatory relocation, as proposed by Juncker in his State of the Union speech in September 2015, at the peak of the migration crisis.
The Council had originally supported the mandatory relocation policy, voting to approve the Commission proposal in summer 2015 to launch a mandatory relocation scheme for 120,000 refugees, and to implement a voluntary mechanism for another 40,000. “Tusk is undoing the work of the Council,” one EU diplomat complained.
“You cannot want debate and then once there is debate, say oh well there’s warfare between two sides of the street” — EU diplomat
Tusk’s note, which declared the EU’s involuntary migrant relocation system to be divisive and ineffective and reflected the views of many EU countries especially in Central Europe, was clearly aiming to set off debate on migration. But the effort exploded in his face, infuriating the Commission, and many member countries, particularly frontier nations like Italy, but also countries that risked substantial political capital to back the relocation system.
One EU diplomat expressed sympathy, saying leaders could not shy away from debate because of any inter-institutional fight in Brussels. “We want a debate, there you have it,” the diplomat said. “You cannot want debate and then once there is debate, say oh well there’s warfare between two sides of the street.”
In any event, the diplomat said the Commission would need to take its cue from leaders, not the other way around. “How can we come to an agreement between heads of state and government, which will then be carried out by the Commission, put into a legislative file and decided by Council?” the diplomat asked. “The Commission is not a member state. The Commission is there as assisting members states in achieving their goals. Let’s listen to the heads of state and government first.”
A senior EU official said that while some leaders were critical of Tusk’s framing of the debate, they did not disagree. “Quite a few are saying, ‘We would maybe not have put it so bluntly, but everybody of course knows that Tusk is right.’ Others are saying: ‘We should not shy away from the difficult issues.”
But there were clear, if subtle, signs of tension between the Commission and the capitals. At a meeting Thursday morning of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel chastized Selmayr for seemingly getting ahead of the Council by declaring a done deal on “sufficient progress” in the Brexit talks.
Noting Selmayr’s tweet, which showed white smoke coming from a chimney, Bettel said: “The chimney is not on yet … We are going to set it on fire tonight, and meet tomorrow morning.”
The Commission’s chief spokesman, Margaritis Schinas, said that Juncker did not feel any pushback from capitals and was confident in pursuing his agenda. “It’s quite normal that as you come closer to a European Council, the institutions would like to reiterate their positions, their intentions. At the end of the day, it always works out and the Juncker Commission feels very well-supported both in Council and in Parliament. Everything that matters to us is progressing well.”
Schinas said that the Five Presidents’ Report issued early in Juncker’s presidency, and his White Paper on Europe’s future issued this year, continued to set the pace for policymaking in the EU. “All this points to a very strong Commission doing things on behalf of the member states, in favor of the member states,” Schinas said. “I don’t sense any negativity around us.”