The collectif antilibÃ©rale makes the excellent point that there is no problem with the appointments to the new jobs created by the Lisbon treaty. Two things will control their in-trays, after all – the first is the job of getting a major new institution, the EU external action service, operating and building up its credibility and budget-attracting power, and the second is the eternal one of seeking consensus between the major powers, institutions, and interest groups in a diverse confederation with a small central government.
If the EU has an effective diplomatic service and at least a rough consensus on policy, it can’t help but be listened to – it’s too important for this not to be the case. But if the member states, the institutions, and the interests that underly them don’t have a minimum degree of consensus, or the administrative machine doesn’t work, it won’t be – and it won’t matter who gets the job. And, of course, a major reason for the top level changes in the Lisbon treaty is to make it easier to achieve political consensus within the Union.
The most common way in which individuals influence history is through incompetence. We had to listen to George Bush as much as we have to listen to Barack Obama; the realities of US power explain that. By contrast, it’s very rare that individual brilliance can win anything against the tidal forces of strategy. It does seem, though, that anyone can change things for the worse by their bungling; you can argue that the Bush presidency demonstrates that this is true, despite everything the instititutions and the power of the US could do, or that it demonstrates that the institutions were strong enough to survive misgovernment that would have finished a lesser state.
So, in principle, we shouldn’t worry about the jobs except to the extent that some people shouldn’t be let anywhere near them.
And there’s a positive side. Hermann van Rompuy’s last job was as prime minister of Belgium, or to put it another way, he has made a life of doing nothing else but seeking consensus in a diverse confederation with a weak central government. Catherine Ashton’s chief achievement in government was setting up and launching Sure Start, a new, large, and complex institution that both created new structures and integrated bits of older ones – however, as this was an integrated social service for the children of the poor, this doesn’t count as institution-building. It’s women’s work.
Meanwhile, it’s been suggested that this is a policy of weakening European institutions in order to strengthen the intergovernmental side of the union. But there is nothing intrinsically beneficial about putting more stuff into the Commission. In fact, there’s been a very significant expansion in European integration that happens intergovernmentally, but for some reason this again does not count. The “community method” isn’t a religion, or rather, for some people it is. But if you must think in these terms, I reckon there is a case that we’ve had quite a bit of the famous “spillover” – in fact, working together through the core institutions has created a culture of institutional cooperation that has helped to create more cooperation.
Perhaps more could have gone through the Commission, but there has to be a better explanation as to why it should than “Monnet would have liked it”.
Meanwhile, I’d be delighted if we could start thinking about the EU without using the supranational/intergovernmental divide at all. Over time – as the original integration theories suggested – the distinction has progressively lost its explanatory power and its specificity (which one is the Eurogroup in? is Catherine Ashton obliged to divide her office into two halves?), and it may prevent us from thinking about it in other ways. After all, nobody would suggest that studying political institutions purely in the terms they themselves provide is a rigorous approach anywhere else.
(There’s a good ticktock on the appointments from Jean Quatremer, which makes clear that it was indeed Angela Merkel who selected out Blair.)