Smaller commission a done deal that may not last


Losing a permanent commissioner may be controversial but it has already been signed up to under the Nice Treaty, writes Jamie Smyth.

THE LISBON Treaty proposes to reduce the size of the European Commission so that every EU state can nominate a commissioner for only two out of every three terms from 2014.

Under an equal rotation system embedded in the treaty, Ireland would get the right to appoint a member to the EU executive for 10 of the subsequent 15 years - exactly the same length of time as Germany, France or any other state. The size of the commission would fall to 18 members, down from the 27 that currently sit on the legislative body.

No decision has been taken yet on which member states won't get the right to appoint a commissioner in 2014. This decision will be taken on a unanimous basis among the member states, probably in 2013.

This reform of the commission, which is the EU institution that initiates most legislation and takes states to court for wrongly implementing EU law, has proved to be one of the most contentious elements in the Lisbon Treaty.

No campaigners argue it unfairly weakens small states' influence in Europe while the Yes campaign says it is necessary to streamline a body that has grown unwieldy as the union enlarged to 27 member states. They also argue that EU states already signed up to a smaller commission by ratifying the 2001 Nice Treaty.

Article 213 of the existing EU treaties says commissioners must be "completely independent in the performance of their duties. In the performance of these duties, they shall neither seek nor take instructions from any government or from any other body."

If this were true, then the No campaign's argument that small states would suffer disproportionately from losing a commissioner would be negated. But in practice, up until now, commissioners have tended to play a vital role in defending national interests when key legislation is being debated and drawn up by the college of commissioners.

German commissioner Gunter Verheugen recently lobbied hard against EU proposals to curb car emissions to defend the German car industry, which continues to manufacture the type of gas guzzling cars ill-suited to combating global warming. Charlie McCreevy has also regularly donned "the green jersey" - as former EU commissioner Pádraig Flynn described the practice - in defence of Irish interests around the commission table.

There is merit to the No campaign's argument that small member states lose more if they are not represented at the commission table. "Having a commissioner is a key link between the EU institutions and the people in a member state," says Hugo Brady of the Centre for European Reform, who argues that commissioners from smaller states such as Ireland tend to have more of an impact than commissioners from bigger states.

Big states also have more votes at the Council of Ministers and more MEPs working at the European Parliament than smaller states. This is why the commission has recently been seen by most EU analysts as the defender of the interests of smaller member states.

In Brussels there remain serious doubts about the proposed reform of the commission under the Lisbon Treaty. Commissioner Margot Wallstrom, who has consistently argued that every member state should have a commissioner, recently reopened the debate on the issue.

"Whatever we win in efficiency we might lose in democratic legitimacy because we need someone who can speak their own language and be acceptable to their people and stand up for them," said Ms Wallstrom, whose comments have been used in the campaign literature of some groups such as Libertas, which oppose the treaty.

Indeed some officials in Brussels believe that when it comes to the crunch, member states may shy away from reducing the size of the commission.

"I can foresee a situation that in 2013 EU states will come together and unanimously agree not to reduce the size of the commission," says one EU official. "The idea that a major state aid legal case involving Germany would go through the commission without a German commissioner is tricky."

But the No campaign has not reflected on the provisions of existing EU treaties, which already provide for the reform of the commission. The Nice Treaty, which was passed by Ireland in 2002, already requires a smaller commission.

It stipulates that when the union gets its 27th member the number of commissioners must be reduced by the start of the next commission, which would be 2009. Nice says member states must decide unanimously the exact number of commissioners but mandates that not all states will be able to nominate one.

Under the Lisbon Treaty, the reform of the commission won't come in until 2014. Therefore the Government is right to say that a vote for the Lisbon Treaty would delay a reform of the commission, and with it the reduced influence of the smaller states.

Whether EU states would agree to revisit the tricky question over the composition of the commission post-ratification of Lisbon remains unclear.