We need a cull in Europe

The new President must have more say over who his colleagues are and authority to reshuffle
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The Independent Culture
BERLIN IS today for the first time the seat of a European council. It is the city's most important international conference since 1878. It has an unusually heavy agenda, and its handling will be a great test of the leadership of Gerhard Schroder. But its first task is to produce a convincing nomination for the presidency of the European Commission, to be put to the European Parliament.

This of crucial importance. It was the Parliament which brought down the Santer Commission. By doing so it showed that it was not just a tiger with paper claws. And that, unfortunate though the circumstances were out of which the crunch arose, was an advance for democracy in Europe, a reduction of the so-called "democratic deficit".

But it is essential that the new president should command the parliamentary confidence which the old one had lost. Parliaments do not nominate executives. No large body can produce a name by a process of spontaneous combustion. The House of Commons needs to have a name or names put before it even when it is performing so domestic a function as electing a Speaker. But, particularly in present circumstances, a Parliament worthy of the name must have the right freely to accept or reject.

A few voices have been raised in Britain - not, I think, anywhere else - suggesting that the present crisis should be used to get rid of the whole idea of a Commission, or at least so drastically to reduce its function as to turn it into nothing more than a subordinate secretariat to the Council of Ministers.

This is nonsense, but it is motivated nonsense, inspired by those who wish not to democratise the institutions of Europe, but to destroy them. If a national government is judged to have failed and is forced into resignation, you do not decide to do without a government altogether.

I am not in favour of a Commission trying to do too much. It should be austerely selective about what it undertakes. But, apart from purely management roles, it has certain essential functions which only it can perform. The first is to inject into any important debate the interests of Europe as a whole. The member states are only too liable to squabble over their individual national interests. They have ambassadors in Brussels to do that. But commissioners, even though obviously coming from member states and being nominated by them, have a wider duty and indeed take an oath to act only in the wider interest. They do not all always discharge it, but a lot do, and they tend to be the ones who carry the greatest influence.

Second, the small states, of whom there are 10 in the Union, with another half-dozen in the queue for entry, see the Commission as an essential protector of their interests. They have a natural fear of too much being settled over their heads by the big five (or the big two of France and Germany, as has often recently been the case). They would resolutely resist any attempt to reduce the Commission to a purely subordinate and non-political role. And in a community of big and small states with great disparities of power, it is essential that the view of the small be respected.

A more difficult issue is whether, following the harsh report of the "wise men", the whole previous Commission should be regarded as ineligible for reappointment.

On the one hand it is essential that the "resignation" does not come to seem just a farcical going out of one door and back in through another. On the other hand, a clean sweep would involve the loss of a lot of talent, and largely innocent talent. Van Miert, the Belgian in charge of competition policy, and Silguey, the Frenchman in charge of monetary union, have been very good commissioners. The two Britons, Leon Brittan and Neil Kinnock, have also been thoroughly up to the job. Yet it would clearly be unacceptably smug for the British Government to say: "Everybody must go except for our two boys."

On the whole I incline to the view that it should be for the Parliament to decide who they think should continue to be eligible. This would have one considerable side advantage. It would necessarily mean that MEPs would have to differentiate between commissioners, and not, as has previously been the case, be unable to censure one without censuring all. Thus, out of necessity a change which many have long seen as desirable might be brought about. If commissioners on the margin of culpability do not feel that they want to submit themselves to the risks of a vote, they have the obvious option of not seeking reappointment.

Would such a selective cull, done by a democratically elected body, be sufficient to restore confidence? Some (including many who are most loath to see the Commission behave like a government) would agree that when a government is forced out, then it goes wholesale.

The analogy is not wholly valid, for the Commission does not and cannot operate like a one-party government. Furthermore, if we look for a practical example of when in this century a change of government in Britain produced the greatest and most necessary resurgence of confidence, it would be very difficult not to choose May 1940, when the Churchill grand coalition replaced the Chamberlain administration. Yet the cull that was carried out then was far more selective than anything that is likely to take place in Brussels.

The current state of flux should also be used at least to set in train a number of other desirable changes. The Commission is too large - not its staff, which is surprisingly small (fewer than Wandsworth Borough Council, is the favourite comparison), but the number of commissioners themselves. In my day there were 13, including the President. That was two too many, in the sense that there were only 11 real jobs, and the remainder had to be mocked up. There are now 20 commissioners. That is nine too many. With enlargement, unless the system is reformed, there will be nearly 30. That will reduce quality and will mean the end of collegiality.

Grasping this nettle means that big countries must be prepared to give up their second commissioner and that smaller countries must take turns.

The new President must also be given more say over who his colleagues are to be (there is already some genuine consultation, with some countries being more forthcoming than others) and authority to enforce reshuffles when he thinks they are necessary. Without this he is very much in the position of a man with more responsibility than power.

The last thing the Commission needs is a weak President. Jacques Santer is an amiable man, and he has done some things well, notably presiding over the introduction of the single currency, but it cannot be said that he has been a strong President, or that he has avoided complacency. However, he was not put in to be strong, rather the reverse. And let it not be forgotten that he was the single-handed choice of the British prime minister of the time, John Major. Without his ill-starred veto, which he appears to have thought would impress the Tory Eurosceptics, the Belgian Jean Dehaene, a much tougher figure, would have been appointed. Let the lesson be learnt.

Jacques Delors, by contrast, was a very strong president, who gave the Commission a brilliant profile and was particularly good at working with the key governments of France and Germany. Internally he was imperious, got rid of too many directors-general who did not agree with him, and may in consequence have left the staff of the Commission less good than he found it. In my day I thought it was on the whole good and hard-working, comparable with, although not the same as, the British civil service, which I admired. The maintenance, maybe the restoration, of quality in directors-general, needs attention.

The Commission has had a great jolt. Probably it was necessary. But it should not be forgotten how successful has been the Europe of which it has been the motor. The Europe of the Community has been an area of great prosperity, and we in Britain, because we have had a few relatively good years, should not forget that in France and Germany and in several other countries too, both productivity and income per head are still substantially higher than they are here. Western Europe has also been an area of stable peace, instead of the war plague-spot of the world. No country has ever wanted to leave (the Eurosceptics, if they have their way, will blaze a unique trail) and too many want to join. These are major achievements to be set against current upheavals.

Lord Jenkins was President of the European Commission from 1977 to 1981