NEXT YEAR SEES the end of the current five year European political cycle and the beginning of the next one.
Apart from the election of 750 Members of the European Parliament, we will also see the replacement of the 28 European Commissioners, who serve in the Cabinet of President Jean-Claude Junker.
Junker’s position is also up for grabs, having announced that he will step down next year.
As happened in 2014 the next president will be chosen from the European political group which has the most members elected to the European Parliament. This Spitzenkandidat process was introduced as part of the Lisbon Treaty, and represents an attempt by the European institutions to provide more direct democracy to the Brussels system.
Prior to this process the president was chosen by the leaders of the members states. Now their role is reduced, with the intention being that they rubber-stamp the candidate that is put forward by the parliament.
One of the first tasks of the new president will be to choose their Cabinet. They must do this from the pool of Commissioners nominated by each member state, putting the candidates into the portfolio most suited to their talents.
In recent times, there has been more pressure on them to defend the individual Commissioners and the make-up of their Cabinet. Public scrutiny is likely to increase next time round. One result will be that the current gender imbalance of two male Commissioners for every female Commissioner is unlikely to continue.
In all there are 28 Commissioners, one from each member state. The role and position given to each Commissioner is linked to their experience and gravitas. The calibre, experience and ability of Ireland’s choice of Commissioner will be of huge importance.
It’s even more significant post-Brexit, when we will lose the UK, historically one of our key allies, from the meeting tables of Brussels.
In the past the position of Ireland’s Commissioner has often been given as a reward to an ally, or as a way to get a troublesome prince out of the realm. Other countries adopt a different attitude and send their elite. A third of the current crop of Commissioners are either ex-prime ministers or ex-deputy prime ministers.
Small countries should choose well
We need to consider what type of Commissioner is best suited to meet our needs for the coming five year term of office. Some small countries show the way in how to gain clout from choosing well.
Luxembourg’s past Commissioners include Gaston Thorn, Jacques Santer and Jean-Claude Junker. Like them, we must be strategic in how we choose the nominee, and while respecting that it’s ultimately the choice of the new president, we should choose them with an eye on which portfolio they should aim for. Portfolios of taxation, or budget, or regional development can have a significant impact on Ireland’s economic future.
I believe that the European Union Affairs Committee is the ideal channel to start an examination process. As a former Chair of the Committee I know that the members have a significant grasp of the issues that matter, and could be expected to identify the likely skillset for our next nomination. Our MEPs are also entitled to attend and often do.
We’ve a number of heavyweights
The Committee would be likely to consider issues such as forthcoming legislation, for instance on a common tax, or development in the governance of the eurozone, or changes to cohesion funding requirement, all of which could impact on a peripheral member state at the edge of the Union.
The outcome of their work would be a job specification for what the next nominee needs, which would then allow the Oireachtas to consider a range of names for the post. The nature of the role dictates that we should consider people who have worked at the highest political levels. Apart from the UK Commissioner, ex-Ambassador to Ireland Julian King, every other current Commissioner has run for public office.
We have a number of heavyweights such as Eamon Gilmore and Enda Kenny who possess much of the required skillset. At this stage we don’t need to be prescriptive. We need to instigate a process to identify the type of person we need as our next Commissioner.
The output of that will give us a clearer picture of who should step in to Phil Hogan’s shoes in 2019.
Dominic Hannigan is a former TD and Senator, and for four years was Chairman of the EU Affairs Committee in the Oireachtas. He currents heads up the International Affairs Unit of the Labour Party.
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