Blok: A less political European Commission is needed

Opinion editorial by Foreign Minister Blok regarding the future of the European Union. Published in the Financial Times (February 5 2019).

Greater transparency will debunk the myth of Brussels as a faceless bureaucracy

This will be a year of choices for the EU. The UK must decide what kind of Brexit it wants, citizens across Europe will elect their representatives to the European Parliament, and European leaders will set the agenda for the next five years. Rather than debating lofty ideals and wrapping them up in heartfelt declarations, we need to change the way Europe works.

As a founding member and staunch believer in the benefits of cooperation, the Netherlands is committed to strengthening the EU. We all want to make life for our citizens better inside the Union than it would be outside. After all, that is the EU’s core promise: to provide peace, prosperity and protection. So as we face climate change, tensions around trade, concerns about Europe’s competitiveness, ongoing migration flows, and a wide array of cyber, trafficking and terrorist threats, the question is: how can we ensure that Europe delivers for its citizens?

Let’s start with the EU’s day-to-day administration: the European Commission. After the elections in May, a new Commission will take office and work out new policies. The current Commission, led by Jean-Claude Juncker, prides itself on being political, and was the product of the “Spitzenkandidaten” process in 2014. This was nothing less than an institutional coup d’état in which the European Parliament succeeded in installing the candidate of its choice as Commission president. This year, if no clear majority emerges for one of the current candidates, the European Council may propose a candidate of its own.

Either way, the result should be a less political Commission. The body is, above all, the engine of the European legislative process. As guardian of the treaties, it must safeguard compliance with the rules. A Commission that prides itself on being political undermines its own objectivity. Take the verdict on the Italian budget, where it appears the rules of the stability and growth pact were bent for the sake of political expediency.Enforcement decisions must be separate from analysis, and should be based on independently evaluated data and forecasts, and the application of clear rules. In Europe, a deal must be a deal.

In its five years in office, the Juncker Commission has done commendable work and offered clarity on the EU’s objectives. And the vice-president, Frans Timmermans, has embedded crucial concepts like subsidiarity — avoiding unnecessary “Europeanisation” of policy — and better regulation at the heart of the Commission’s work.

But we can and should do more. We need greater concentration of policy portfolios in the hands of a limited number of Commission vice-presidents. The next high representative for foreign affairs needs to be able to lead on EU external policy as a whole, including foreign policy, defence, trade and development co-operation. The next migration commissioner should be able to mobilise all means necessary to deliver on the EU’s policy goals, whether this means bringing flows under control or co-ordinating our asylum policy. We also need a sustainability commissioner with authority over all climate-related policy areas to steer the transition to a climate-neutral, competitive economy.

To ensure results are achieved, these commissioners will need real authority over their policy clusters. We also need a flexible budget that allows us to effectively direct funding towards our policy policies.

Finally, we should modernise our approach to transparency in order to instil trust in European governance. Trust is the bedrock of any union, and is essential to the legitimacy of the EU. For governments, companies and the public at large to accept and implement common rules, they need clarity about how and why these rules were agreed. Deliberations and decisions in the Council should also be more transparent, as should negotiations with the European Parliament. Proactive publication of legislative documents will help debunk the myth of Brussels as a faceless bureaucracy. Greater overall transparency will make it easier to demonstrate the benefits that membership brings.

As we move into this election year, we must stay focused on what’s ahead. The EU has to be prepared to tackle urgent problems on its immediate horizon and crises just beyond. Reform should aim to achieve three goals: an objective and non-political Commission, a stronger organisational hierarchy, with responsibilities to match, and a more open and transparent Union. This will enable us to continue delivering on Europe’s original promise of prosperity, peace and protection.

Stef Blok is the minister of foreign affairs for the Netherlands