The euro crisis is transforming the balance of power in Europe. Germany is emerging, for the first time in the European Union’s history, as the unquestioned leader. France is having to adjust to a subordinate role. The euro countries are likely to integrate more closely, leading to a two-speed Europe. Britain is moving to the margins. One other key shift has attracted less attention but is just as significant: the European commission is becoming weaker vis-à-vis the member-states.
In the 1950s and 1960s, two great Frenchmen, Jean Monnet and Charles de Gaulle, had rival visions for Europe. Jean Monnet understood that national governments, left to their own devices, would never agree to significant steps of political or economic integration. He wanted effective institutions to cajole them and the rule of law to constrain them. The commission incarnates Monnet’s philosophy and can take much of the credit for achievements such as the single market and the enlargement of the union.
But Charles de Gaulle wanted a Europe des Patries, with national governments - and especially those from big countries - calling the shots. On returning to power in 1958 he almost scrapped the just created European Economic Community, only keeping it in the hope that it could act as a counterweight to the United States. But he blocked the extension of majority voting and treated the commission with disdain.
The European Union has always been a compromise between supranationalism - represented by the EU’s commission, court of justice and parliament - and intergovernmentalism. The commission’s influence peaked when Jacques Delors was its president, from 1985 to 1995: the period when the EU extended majority-voting and laid plans for the euro. But the larger member-states have been trying to shackle the commission ever since.
Both the financial crisis and the euro crisis have accelerated the commission’s decline. The commission has failed to lead Europe’s response to these problems, something that suits the big member-states very well. They provide the money for eurozone bailouts and will not let the commission tell them what to do. Moreover, public opinion has become more nationalist in much of the union, weakening those - like the commission - who favour European solutions.
The key decisions on the euro crisis have been taken by Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy - with Germany's chancellor primus inter pares - and then endorsed by other leaders. The commission has been sidelined in the euro bailout mechanisms, which are intergovernmental (though it does play an important role in some of the new eurozone governance procedures).
The German insistence on treaty change could further weaken the commission. The new treaty may cover only eurozone members, or current members and others that plan to join the euro, in which case it will establish new institutions. But even if the treaty is for all twenty-seven member-states, France and Germany seem determined for the eurozone to have its own institutions. Either way, the commission’s role in the management of the eurozone seems likely to be fairly modest.
France and Germany make no secret of wanting less Monnet and more de Gaulle. In November 2010, Angela Merkel’s speech in Bruges criticised the "community method" (which gives both the European commission and the European parliament a key role in decision-making), and praised what she called the "union method", with leaders in the European council setting the agenda. Merkel’s CDU recently adopted a programme calling for the commission to lose one of its key powers, the sole right of legislative initiative.
The commission bears some responsibility for these attacks. It has sometimes lacked focus and been insensitive to the needs of the leading member-states. It is too concerned to safeguard its own prerogatives. It feels the need to follow the agenda of the European parliament - increasingly powerful but of questionable legitimacy. The quality of the commissioners has declined, though that is the fault of the governments that appoint them. But when the commission takes initiatives, defends the single market or enforces a tough competition policy, it is merely doing its job - even if that job annoys Paris and Berlin.
The centre: weak or holding?
An obvious question arises. At a time when citizens are increasingly disillusioned with the European Union, does it not make sense for national governments, directly accountable to voters, to seize control of the EU’s machinery? The answer is less obvious: it does not, because Europe - and that means its citizens too - will suffer from a weak commission.
First, commissioners do not stand for election and are at one remove from national politics. This makes the commission well-suited to consider long-term issues affecting Europe, and the wider EU interest. Thus in recent years it has persuaded the member-states that the EU should be active in areas such as climate change and energy security.
Second, the commission is committed to the single market which it polices, together with the European court of justice. It is trying to extend the market into new areas such as services, energy and the digital economy. It has a good record of enforcing the merger regulation and of breaking up cartels.
Third, the commission is committed to a global order built on strong, multilateral rules and institutions. It supports free trade, the United Nations, and global solutions to challenges such as climate change, financial instability, economic imbalances and organised crime.
Fourth, the commission is the friend and protector of the small member-states. One consequence of the euro crisis is that small and poor member-states are now much less equal than large and rich ones. That inequality, though to some degree inevitable, subverts the original principles of the EU and erodes the basic solidarity and mutual respect on which its governance depends.
So a weaker commission will be less able to focus attention on long-term issues, deepen the single market, promote multilateralism, and prevent rich and large countries dominating the union.
The alternative? The commission itself and EU governments should engage in a fundamental rethink of the way it operates. The commission needs to find ways of restoring its credibility in Paris, Berlin and other capitals that have turned against it. Even a reformed commission is not going to regain the kind of prestige and power that it enjoyed in the early 1990s. Gaullism is too strong. But in the coming negotiations over new treaties, the commission’s role and prerogatives must be protected.