EU gets new Commission, but little to cheer yet

February 9, 2010

There was more a sense of relief than joy when the European Union finally got its new executive on Tuesday. These are difficult times for the EU and there is little to celebrate.

The new European Commission is taking office in a tough economic climate, with the 16-country euro zone facing its hardest test since the single currency came into being 11 years ago.

The EU’s image has taken a battering in the past few months, first as the 27-country bloc struggled to secure the approval of the Czech Republic to complete ratification of the Lisbon treaty, a charter intended to reform its institutions and make decision-making easier, and then after it chose two low-key leaders as its first full-time president and foreign policy chief.

U.S. President Barack Obama caused EU leaders further embarrassment by deciding not to attend an EU-US summit in Madrid in May, and the EU failed to force through its more radical ideas at the Copenhagen climate talks in December. An additional problem is media criticism of foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who has been under fire over the EU’s perceived slow response to the Haiti earthquake.

The European Parliament’s approval of the new Commission is just one piece in the jigsaw for rebuilding the EU’s image, but nevertheless an important one.

Its strong policy-making, regulatory and legislative powers mean it could quickly give impetus to new initiatives such as the 2020 strategy, a new 10-year plan for boosting economic growth and making the EU more competitive. EU leaders will discuss the programme on Thursday.

The Commission’s promises to reinforce the bloc’s single market are widely seen as vital to its credibility. It has long been at the vanguard of efforts to combat global climate change and it should continue to be so, despite the disappointment of Copenhagen.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, who won EU leaders’ backing for a second five-year term way back in June last year but has had to wait until now to get his Commission line-up in place, will try to show his authority quickly. Ashton will have to prove her critics wrong as soon as possible  and the new commissioners, such as Olli Rehn (economic affairs),  Joaquin Almunia (competition) and Michel Barnier (internal market), will want to make their mark immediately. That would boost the  credibility of the Commission and the whole EU.

Much will depend on whether  the European Parliament chooses to flex its new muscles under the Lisbon treaty to challenge the Commission by blocking important legislation, and whether Barroso can find a way to work smoothly with Herman Van Rompuy, the  president of the Council of EU heads of state and government. Van Rompuy has said little in public since his appointment, but this has not prevented talk of rumours of rivalry between him and Barroso.

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