BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The incoming head of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, unveiled an EU executive team on Wednesday that handed key economic responsibilities to French and British politicians but overseen by others in a new-look hierarchy.
Naming Britain’s Jonathan Hill to a brief including banks and the integration of EU capital markets was widely seen as a gesture to British Prime Minister David Cameron, a vocal critic of Juncker and his support for a powerful Brussels that Cameron says could push Britons to vote to quit the European Union.
Pierre Moscovici, the nominee of French President Francois Hollande and a proponent of government spending to boost euro zone growth, will run economic and monetary affairs.
But in a mark of the balance among the competing interests of the 28 EU member states, both economy and finance portfolios will be overseen by two vice-presidents, former prime ministers Jyrki Katainen of Finland and Latvia’s Valdis Dombrovskis, both northern euro zone allies of Germany and partisans of austerity.
Moscovici said it would be “out of the question” for France to get special treatment from the Commission and avoid penalties if, as Paris said it would, it misses EU targets for cutting its public deficits. But he also said it was not in other countries’ interests to “demand the impossible” of the French.
The conservative Katainen, 42, will take charge of ensuring several commissioners all deliver measures to fulfil Juncker’s promise to promote jobs, growth, investment and competitiveness.
Dombrovskis slashed budgets in his ex-Soviet state in order to qualify to use the euro but still managed to get re-elected. He will now coordinate all policy affecting the single currency.
Germany, as economic powerhouse of the Union, is sure of a major say in its affairs. Berlin’s representative, the outgoing EU energy commissioner Guenther Oettinger, will be responsible for the “digital economy”, notably the telecoms industry.
The introduction of an upper layer of seven vice-presidents without their own direct portfolios makes them gatekeepers of what other commissioners can put on the agenda for action by the executive as a whole. Juncker said that, and his appointment of a powerful first vice-president, Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans, was intended to streamline the Commission’s work.
Giving each member state a seat on the executive has made it increasingly unwieldy as the EU has expanded greatly.
EU officials dismissed concerns that the two-tier structure broke rules on commissioners’ equality. Each will retain one vote in the “college” - though most decisions are made by consensus. And what gets voted on will be determined, ultimately, by Juncker.
They also played down concerns that overlapping roles could create confusion and fuel rivalries. The key, Juncker said, was for the group to operate as a team. Commissioners will enact policy, coordinated by the vice presidents - who will lack the power that comes with direct control of executive departments.
Featuring a higher quotient of senior political figures such as former prime ministers than previous commissions, the group must win confirmation en bloc by the European Parliament before taking up its five-year mandate, in principle on Nov. 1.
They will have their first opportunity to meet as a team on Thursday at a secret location “near Brussels”, officials said.
Juncker, a former prime minister of Luxembourg whose appointment by EU leaders in June was fiercely opposed by Cameron, said his goal was to provide the European Union’s half a billion people with better prospects after tough years of unemployment and stagnation that fuelled a surge in support for anti-EU parties in May’s election to the European Parliament.
“In these unprecedented times, Europe’s citizens expect us to deliver,” Juncker told a news conference. “After years of economic hardship and often painful reforms, Europeans expect a performing economy, sustainable jobs, more social protection, safer borders, energy security and digital opportunities.
“Today I am presenting the team that will put Europe back on the path to jobs and growth.”
In a surprise move, Cameron’s Conservative ally Hill, a former public relations consultant and leader of the upper house of parliament who is little known even in London, was given a revamped portfolio entitled Financial Stability, Financial Services and Capital Markets Union.
One analyst described Hill’s job as “a major peace offering” by Juncker to Cameron, who welcomed the appointment as showing that efforts to create a banking union were not the sole preserve of countries using the euro currency. Britain has feared that euro zone efforts to regulate financial markets to guard against new crises could hurt London’s dominance as a banking centre.
Keeping Britain in the bloc is a major goal for EU leaders in the face of Cameron’s demands for Brussels to devolve powers and plan for a 2017 referendum on continued British membership.
The nomination of Nordic allies of free-trading Britain to key roles in global trade negotiations and anti-trust policy may also offer London comfort.
Danish liberal Margrethe Vestager will be in charge of the competition portfolio that gives her a big say in the expansion or merger plans of the world’s biggest companies. Sweden’s Cecilia Malmstrom will have the task of negotiating the world’s biggest trade agreement, between the United States and Europe.
Miguel Arias Caneta of Spain will be energy and climate change commissioner. Former Slovenian premier Alenka Bratusek is vice-president overseeing development of an energy union.
The twinning of the climate change and energy industry briefs drew some concern from environmental activists.
Juncker noted that he had nine women on his commission, the same number as in the outgoing team led by Jose Manuel Barroso - something that members of the European Parliament had said would be important to their confirmation of the Commission in office.
Of the seven vice-presidents, three are women, including 41-year-old Federica Mogherini of Italy, who was chosen directly by EU leaders as the Union’s foreign affairs chief.
Major problems for her include the confrontation with Russia over Ukraine, an issue also likely to involve Caneta at energy and Austria’s Johannes Hahn, the new commissioner for the European Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations.
Actual enlargement of the bloc is not on the cards in the five years of Juncker’s mandate following its rapid expansion.
In another key area for the EU, Dimitris Avramopoulos of Greece will run migration, which includes efforts to stem the flow of poor, illegal migrants from across the Mediterranean.
Dutchman Timmermans will become, in the president’s own words, Juncker’s “right hand”. The Luxemburger’s critics had questioned his willingness to heed those like Cameron resistant to the continual expansion of the powers of Brussels, as well as his ability to cope with such a heavy managerial workload.
Hugo Brady, an expert on the European Union at the London School of Economics, said it was “very clever” to have appointed as deputy Timmermans, a leading veteran of European diplomacy from a country often sceptical of EU centralisation.
“Juncker has done a very good job of marshalling quite an array of big beasts,” he said. “Hill for financial affairs is a major peace offering to Cameron. It is clever, it is political and it is generous. The Commission is also well stacked up with fiscal hawks, in a gesture to Germany.”
Additional reporting by Martin Santa, Alastair Macdonald, Julia Fioretti and Yun Chee Foo; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt and Hugh Lawson