Opinion
Subscriber Only

Why we should stop sending politicians to Brussels

Takeover by politicians in recent decades has weakened European Commission

The “faceless bureaucrat” slur so beloved of the Brexiteer ultras who have just taken over the British government has always struggled to survive contact with two well-aired facts: of three key European Union institutions, two – the parliament and the council – are filled with elected politicians. That leaves the commission, the EU’s policy engine-room, as the supposed bastion of anonymous technocrats intent on malign subversion of Britain’s sovereign prerogative to, say, pollute its rivers or eat chlorinated chicken.

It's true that the commission is the least democratic of the Brussels power centres. Its 28 members are not elected; they are nominated by national governments. The same goes for its president; Ursula von der Leyen may have required the approval of the parliament (and just about received it) but EU leaders settled on her name only after a three-day row that consisted of winnowing the field until they landed on the individual who least offended the largest number of governments.

Yet one of the most striking trends of recent decades is that, as the commission has become more powerful, steadily accreting more influence within the EU system, its profile has become more overtly political. Look at the outgoing commission; there is not a bureaucrat among them. Instead, they are all former prime ministers, ministers or experienced high-level politicians.

Technocrats

It wasn't always this way. The early commissions were dominated by professional technocrats without a party affiliation or a domestic political profile. But as German academics Holger Döring and Arndt Wonka have shown, that changed gradually. Since 1985, the share of former ministers – most of them with ties to the ruling party at home – on the commission has increased from 50 to 80 per cent. The outgoing Juncker commission had the strongest political profile to date, with four former prime ministers and two deputy prime ministers sitting around the table. Smaller countries in particular send experienced former ministers to Brussels.

The reasons for this politicisation are obvious: as the EU has expanded its remit and the commission has gained new powers, governments are increasingly eager to shape how it works. True, commissioners are not there to represent their countries, but nor are they automatons – their knowledge and insights from home naturally inform their work in the Berlaymont. For any prime minister, a trusted political ally who owes his or her appointment to your benevolence will seem a safer bet than a disinterested civil servant whose chief allegiance is to the system itself (and if that political ally has become a domestic liability, all the better). This creates a ministerial arms race: the more states that send senior politicians to Brussels, the more others feel they have to follow suit, particularly given that the most high-ranking politicians tend to get the most important portfolios in the commission.

The result is that the commission has more political heft. But whether it’s actually better is an open question. I can think of several ways in which the total takeover by politicians weakens the organisation. If the role of commissioner were filled like a normal job, the requirements would include things such as foreign language proficiency or evidence of an established network in Brussels. Most Irish ministers don’t have either of those things. Lots of civil servants do – and several of them have far more experience of running large bureaucracies than the politicians who act as titular heads of department.

Gender imbalance

The increasingly political profile of the commission also compounds a much more serious problem: its chronic gender imbalance. Out of 28 members in the outgoing commission, just nine are women – a number that has not changed in a decade. Von der Leyen wants a 50:50 gender ratio in her commission and has asked member states to send her two names – a man and a woman – to choose from. The Irish Government said it supported von der Leyen's aim for gender equality but then ignored her request and sent her Phil Hogan.

If governments insist on restricting the pool of potential commissioners to ex-ministers, then the institution will reflect the member states' political systems. It's no accident that the country that has done more than any other to improve the gender balance around the commission table is Sweden (all of its nominees have been women), which is one of the world's most progressive on gender issues. In contrast, Ireland, where just 10 per cent of cabinet ministers have been women, has nominated only a single woman – Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, who served just one term, from 2009 to 2014.

Every five years, when a commission vacancy arises, the Government’s calculation is assumed to centre on the following questions. Who wants to go? Who do we need to get rid of? Whose seat can we retain? What we should be asking is this: who is the most qualified person for the job?