The Juncker Class

by ofthewedge

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I told him I had been that morning at a meeting of the people called Quakers, where I had heard a woman preach. Johnson: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

Boswell, Life of Johnson

Sometimes the EU calls to mind my favourite 18th century sexist witticism.

Last week the president-apparent of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker unveiled his exciting new organogram. Full of deft little touches – vice presidencies to women, larger countries’ commissioners apparently subordinated to smaller ones, calling bluffs and doling out unwarranted favours.  To pursue the footballing analogy which he himself hinted at (sending his team on the field and all that), his chosen formation might be described as a shift from the predictably laboured 1-27 (the president plus 27 other commissioners) to one of 1-7-20: his nibs, seven lieutenants and the rest. (Or even 1-2-5-20 if you consider the high representative for foreign relations and the ‘first vice president’ to form a super, super cadre of commissioner, all under his nibs.) Clever.

The novelty and superficial elegance of this opening manoeuvre was greeted with generally polite applause, even from the corners of the auditorium still reverberating with heckles at Juncker’s appointment. From the gallery it looks sensible. Everyone recognises the absurdity of contriving European public policy into 27 segments simply because each member states must have its own commissioner, and everyone except national governments decries the craven abandonment last year of the Lisbon treaty’s (still modest) commitment to keep the number of commissioners down to two-thirds of a theoretically unlimited number of members. A reasonable reader of Juncker’s recipe might see this as a tentative but brave first attempt to institutionalise rational accountability within the EU’s executive.

Spectators are rarely afforded glimpses behind the curtain however. The commission backstage is populated by a few thousand dimly glowing automata, each encased in his/her own office, most plotting lonely trajectories, parabolae rising from euro-optimism, through disappointed cynicism, before coming to rest in comfortable early retirement berths. These solitary atoms are assigned in groups of 15-25 to ‘units’, the impenetrable basic agglomeration of the EU administration, where they report equally and severally to the head of the unit. Without any formal provision in the staffing rules for line management beneath him or her, the head of unit typically lacks any serious hands-on experience or even training in management and leadership prior to appointment. So the boss is deprived of support, and the underlings of advice and opportunities to further their careers.

The framework is impersonal and inviolable, a post-war, post-Napoleonic, quasi-ecclesiastical relic (staff always speak deferentially of ‘my hierarchy’ never of ‘senior management’), and the college of commissioners is merely the loftiest application of this template. Now Juncker is going to try to bend it into something slightly more reminiscent of a modern executive board overseeing projects delivered through what’s called in a parallel reality matrix management.

This surprising plat du jour bears the paw prints of Martin Selmayr, today firmly established as the eminence grise of choice for Luxembourg’s EU journeymen. The baby-faced chief of staff already commands awe and loathing in equal measure among the apparatchiks. As principal string-puller for Viviane Reding in the outgoing commission, Selmayr ran a hermetic, bloody-mindedly uncollaborative outfit which was remarkable even by the Bergmaneque standards of the Berlaymont building and its inhabitants. There is therefore a pleasing chutzpah, seemingly lost on most commentators, behind Juncker’s prescription for fostering a ‘new collaborative way of working’. Silos cease to be helpful when you are supposed to be in charge of them all. Joined-up policymaking suddenly becomes a good thing when you’re handed control of the un-joined-up bits.

Does Selmayer really expect this to work? He knows perhaps better than anyone else that the EU at each level performs a danse macabre of unit against unit, department versus department, department versus cabinet, cabinet versus cabinet, and so on. He will also know that a commissioner requires no licence from the president to block an initiative – they already can and flagrantly do so, often coincidentally reflecting the desires of their national capitals. Even officials can do it through the inter-departmental clearance procedure before it even reaches the college’s agenda.

If they really wanted to break down barriers, a first step would be to do so literally, by removing the walls between everyone’s offices. (Juncker’s predecessor Romano Prodi tried cohabitation between commissioners with their respective officials. It was judged an abject failure: they didn’t get on any better, and commissioners became even more estranged from one other.) A second step would be to link grading and reward to actual responsibility and capability.

Instead the supercommissioners look like adding a further layer of rivalry and resentment. What exactly is their status? ‘In the new Commission, there are no first or second-class Commissioners – there are team leaders and team players’ (Barroso used almost precisely these words on the eve of his first term in 2004). So, all commissioners are equal, but some will ‘steer and coordinate others’. This fuzzy functional elevation rests solely on the patronage of the president. The more confusion and infighting that ensue, the more power redounds to the centre. (Similar divide and rule tactics have been deployed, less impressively, by Barroso.)

Christopher Clark in his outstanding study of the origins of the First World War notes that policy in the doomed Austro-Hungarian Empire ‘did not emanate from a compact executive cell at the apex of the system. It emerged from interactions across an archipelago of power-centres whose relationships with each other were partly informal and in constant flux.’

Today the most powerful woman in Europe can maintain her studied supremacy amid the warring factions of her coalition precisely because she hovers serenely above the fray. And as for the commission, who will now be on hand, sparingly, to resolve the ambiguity and overlap? Go figure.