Brussels notebook


Goodbye and hello – The long goodbye of Jose Manual Barroso and the even longer phasing-in of Jean-Claude Juncker masked something of a revolution in the EU’s institutions, not least the Commission.


First there is the thinly disguised introduction of a two-tier Commission with a politicallyacceptable number of vice-presidents from small countries having a supervising role over mere commissioners.

Then there is the edict that the commissioners must go home every weekend and assume a public role, promoting the EU.

In the Council the complex system of weighted votes between member states and their populations continues its complexity but with changes that favour smaller countries and those with larger populations. 

The Parliament continues to flex its muscles discovering new ways to increase its powers with a coalition between the centre-right EPP and the Socialists.

Every Commission president since Jacques Delors has modified his bureau of independent policy advisors meant to reflect the full spectrum of society. Jean Claude Juncker is no exception but abolition of the post of chief scientific advisor has created a significant stir. Anne Glover, a British scientist appointed by Barroso, had considerable support among much of the scientific community, but environmental lobby groups like Greenpeace were not fans, arguing the position gave one person too much power. Her support of GMOs would not have endeared her to them.

The bureau was replaced by the European Strategic Policy Centre with six clearly defined teams: Economic, Social Affairs, Sustainable Development, Foreign Affairs, Institutional, Outreach and Communication.

Many wonder if the change will downgrade the aim of science-based policy – with the rationale for many EU policies coming from the Commission’s in-house science service, the Joint Research Centre – and instead place greater emphasis on Juncker’s forte of politicking.


Your dues are due  – Agreement to change the rules on how member states pay their dues to the EU was so smoothly achieved that few would have noticed it. Especially as it was completely overshadowed by spin from London – always more entertaining than any boring EU institutional facts.

The master of spin, UK PM David Cameron, insisted he had no knowledge of the negotiations ongoing for at least 12 years on the details governing the amount of money member states pay into the EU budget. Changes to the way each country’s gross national income was calculated had to be agreed by the central statistics agencies of all member states with Eurostat. This coincided with the inclusion by some countries, including Ireland and Britain, of a sum for criminal activities including illegal drugs, tobacco and prostitution.

And in Britain’s case, London agreed to concede that they had not been including the full value to the economy of research, charities and NGOs among others. The back payments amounted to a cool €2 billion – enough to refund Germany and France among others that had been overpaying for nigh two decades.

Perhaps it was the page one Financial Times story that took Mr. Cameron by surprise on the day of the October summit, but he pleaded ignorance and accused the Commission of not being able to enlighten him.

But in between the obfuscation and statistics, a solution was arrived at that sees the previous code of how governments contribute to the EU changed to allow large adjustments be spread over time and with no penalty interest rate. This has resulted in a welcome flexibility for member states struggling to meet EU deficit rules as France will now receive its €1 billion back this year to help reduce its deficit while Italy will make its €340m repayment next year to delay the addition to its deficit.

No more sweetheart deals -While politicians generally may pay lip-service at every level from G20 to finance minister of the smallest member state to the evils of allowing multinationals to pay less than their fair share of tax, DG Competition is less phlegmatic and is setting the pace.

The role has been taken over by the Danish former Finance Minister and Liberal Party leader Margrethe Vestager. And anybody expecting a free pass may be disappointed. The role of the prime minister in the internationally known Danish TV drama, Borgen, is based on the lady, and she is threatening to take no hostages in such sensitive cases as Ireland’s sweetheart deal with Apple, the Dutch deal with Starbucks – and the Luxembourg cases that had the former prime minister of the Duchy, Juncker, treading water at the start of his Commission presidency.