The official dismissal bell is still 10 months away, but members of the Juncker Commission are already eyeing the exits.
Vice President Maroš Šefčovič is on unpaid leave to run for president of Slovakia. Other members of the College are juggling official duties with campaigning for European Parliament or, in the case of First Vice President Frans Timmermans, for the EU’s top job as the presumptive nominee to be Spitzenkandidat or “lead candidate” of the Party of European Socialists (PES).
Still other commissioners are laying the groundwork for jobs outside of Brussels.
Pierre Moscovici, the commissioner for economic and financial affairs, is widely reported to be angling for a position that could soon become open on the French Court of Auditors. Budget Commissioner Günther Oettinger is looking for opportunities in the private sector. Federica Mogherini, the high representative for foreign affairs, has told associates she wants to continue working in foreign policy — but at a news conference this week with visiting leaders of the Arab League, she also hinted at broadening her language skills.
“I might be studying a bit of Arabic in the future,” she told the League’s secretary-general, Ahmed Aboul Gheit. “Once I get my life back.”
While President Jean-Claude Juncker has decided not to seek a second five-year mandate, many outgoing commissioners are not yet ready to contemplate retirement. On the contrary, most are very much still in the game.
Juncker, who served 19 years as prime minister of Luxembourg before taking up the executive suite on the 13th floor of the Berlaymont, also made a point of assembling a highly “political Commission” — filling its ranks with ambitious politicians who aspire to further positions of power, and actually don’t want their lives back anytime soon.
The result is that even as Juncker and his closest adviser, Commission Secretary-General Martin Selmayr, push to close dozens of legislative files and cement their legacies, other members of the College are more preoccupied with what comes next in their own lives — a preoccupation that has begun to filter down through their Cabinets and even into the ranks of the civil service.
“Colleagues are already involved in the ‘what’s next’ phase, by trying to find out who will stay as commissioner and who’s leaving, to get a good position in Cabinets,” one Commission official said. “Juncker is at the end of the road. He’s very weakened by illness.”
While the Commission disputes that assessment of the president’s powers, the fact that other members of his College are already making plans for life after Juncker is plain to see.
Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis of Latvia, Vice President Andrus Ansip of Estonia, and Commissioner Corina Creţu of Romania have announced their candidacies for European Parliament seats in the May election. Other commissioners are expected to announce their candidacies in coming days or weeks.
According to conduct rules, commissioners running for EU jobs can remain in their posts, though they are prohibited from using official resources for their campaigns. Those running for national office, like Šefčovič, have to take unpaid leave.
‘Attendance is required’
Bowing to the reality of the campaign calendar, the Commission on Wednesday published detailed new guidelines for commissioners who will be candidates in the 2019 European election. The guidelines are a follow-up to a revised code of conduct for commissioners adopted last year.
Officials said that Juncker’s decision in adjusting the code of conduct to allow commissioners to remain in their posts while campaigning in European elections was based on national politics in EU countries, in which government ministers are not required to step down or take leave to run for office.
In a statement announcing the new guidelines, Juncker said the rules fulfill his goal of a more political, less technocratic Commission.
“From the very beginning, I wanted this Commission to be a political one,” he said. “Commissioners take full political ownership and responsibility for all decisions of this Commission. At the same time, I expect them to engage fully and personally with citizens. Actively participating in the upcoming European Parliament elections is part and parcel of this engagement.”
The guidelines make clear that commissioners running for office must inform Juncker, who in turn will inform the European Parliament. The guidelines also seem designed to keep the Commission functioning by stating that commissioners hitting the campaign trail “must ensure institutional continuity and arrange for the continued performance of their duties” and in particular underscoring that “regular attendance of the weekly College meeting” is required, as is participation in official proceedings, especially legislative trilogues with the Parliament and Council.
“This is of particular importance at this very moment when many important legislative files are being finalized,” the new guidelines state, an implicit acknowledgment that Juncker’s own personal goals — completing his mandate with distinction, avoiding a disastrous outcome from Brexit, cementing his overall legacy as an avowed pro-European — may not benefit from a Commission that is operating at substantially less than 100 percent capacity.
The next gig
The commissioners who without doubt are still working at full speed are those who have made clear they hope to remain in Brussels as part of the new Commission that will take office in November.
These include Commissioner for Agriculture Phil Hogan of Ireland, who is keen to take on the trade portfolio, the Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy Commissioner Johannes Hahn of Austria, who is aiming for a position overseeing economic policy, and the competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager of Denmark, who by all accounts would be content to continue in the EU’s most powerful regulatory post.
Others who could potentially stay in a new Commission are the Czech commissioner, Věra Jourová, and the Bulgarian commissioner, Mariya Gabriel. Jourová has been mentioned as a potential member of a liberal slate of candidates for a top EU job but she has also told Czech media that she was told she can stay in Brussels if she wants and will make a decision in June or July.
For most commissioners, the decision on whether they get to stay in Brussels will lie back in the national capitals, where shifting electoral fortunes stand to thwart some of the aspirations. “You have these people who, after the Commission, knowing the political constellation is not favorable to them, will quickly slide into other jobs,” one official who is tracking the movements said.
Mogherini, the foreign policy chief, is a perfect example. As a member of Italy’s Democratic Party, it is virtually unthinkable that she would be supported to continue in the Commission by the current populist government led by the League’s Matteo Salvini and the 5Stars’ Luigi Di Maio. Hence Mogherini’s scouting around for a think tank to run, and perhaps an Arabic tutor.
Timmermans, who will shortly become the official nominee for Commission president of the center-left PES, is widely believed to covet Mogherini’s job. (The Socialists are not expected to win enough seats to lay claim to the Commission presidency). But for Timmermans to remain as the Dutch commissioner hinges on the continued cross-party support of Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who is a member of the rival Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe.
Luxembourg, Spain and Portugal are among the countries expected to send new faces to Brussels as a result of shifts in power in their national governments.
The current situation is perhaps most stressful for commissioners who have yet to settle on their political plans.
Among these are the Commissioner for Health Vytenis Andriukaitis, who has been nominated to run for president of his home country by the Lithuanian Social Democratic Party, but is not sure he wants to make a bid, given polls show the party has little chance of success. Joining the race would require Andriukaitis to take leave ahead of the May 12 election, effectively sidelining him throughout the last, big push to complete EU legislation.
Moscovici’s potential soft-landing in the French Court of Auditors hinges on whether the current president of the court, Didier Migaud, moves to the Constitutional Court, as expected. However the job search plays out, Moscovici has also noted his future includes more focus on his new son, Joseph, who will turn 1 on June 6.
Several commissioners are clearly headed home for more tranquil lives. Vice President Jyrki Katainen, for example, will return to Finland, where his wife is expected to win a seat in parliament in a general election in April.
Miguel Arias Cañete, the Spanish commissioner, has told associates he is looking forward to spending time with his grandchildren, and engaging in his hobby of racing electric vehicles.
Juncker, for his part, is expected, at least initially, to head home to Luxembourg. He and his wife recently adopted a new dog, named Caruso, who undoubtedly is waiting for his attention.