Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the next European Commission, is preparing a wholesale review of legislative proposals that remain incomplete at the end of the current Commission’s term.
The review will give the new Commission an opportunity to disown work left over from the current Commission of José Manuel Barroso.
In previous transitions between Commission administrations, such reviews were largely a formality. Proposals that had been put forward by Romano Prodi’s administration – for instance the services directive – remained for consideration by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers.
But Juncker is now insisting that the Commission should review what still remains to be decided and withdraw proposals if it judges them no longer desirable.
In his mission statement to Frans Timmermans, his first vice-president for better regulation, Juncker wrote: “I will ask you to discuss, within the first three months of the mandate, with the European Parliament and the Council, the list of pending legislative proposals and to determine whether to pursue them or not, in accordance with the principle of ‘political discontinuity’.”
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The principle of ‘political discontinuity’, which is common practice in some but not all member states, provides that legislative proposals that have not been adopted lapse at the end of a legislature unless the institution that proposed them explicitly re-endorses them. The member states have always refused to accept that the principle should apply to the European Commission, arguing that it was not a proper government but merely an administrative body.
“In past practice, the Commission just confirmed everything,” said Jean-Claude Piris, former head of the legal service of the Council of Ministers. “The nomination of Timmermans and the mission letter and his task to turn the subsidiarity principle into reality and cut back proposals – this is new and welcome. It is welcome that the Commission is taking a tougher approach to law-making.”
Much will depend on whether the Commission is prepared to withdraw proposals that either the Parliament or the Council wants to remain under consideration.
Julian Priestley, a former secretary-general of the European Parliament who is writing a book about Juncker’s election, said that the incoming president was serious about the review. “What’s different this time is that [Juncker] is specifically asking to have a close look at this,” he said. “This will be an important moment that will show whether the Commission is determined to shorten the list of open proposals.”
Among the pending proposals that might fall victim to Juncker’s drive is a draft pensions directive proposed by Michel Barnier in March that would overhaul the current rules and step up the EU’s oversight of national pensions schemes. The controversial proposal has provoked opposition from some member states concerned about that oversight.
Timmermans, while a minister in the Dutch government, has been prominent in arguing that the EU should legislate less and should leave more policy areas to national governments.
Andrew Duff, a former MEP from the UK Liberal Democrats, said Timmermans had been a “pretty outspoken Eurosceptic foreign minister”. “Timmermans stimulated quite a lot of that prejudice [against EU regulation] and has now got to cope with it and manage it,” he said. “Should he fail, Juncker will be in a position to deny direct responsibility.”
Olivier Costa, a professor at the College of Europe, described Juncker’s mission letter as “a strong sign that in Juncker’s view the Commission is a political body” and accountable to voters. He said that Juncker, with his attempt to start from a clean slate, was responding to widespread scepticism about EU regulation among voters. “It sends the signal that the voters have spoken, that there is dissatisfaction, and that there cannot be business as usual after the Barroso Commission.”
Piris saw in Timmerman’s appointment as first vice-president for better regulation and in the launch of the continuity review a signal to the UK. “It’s a sign of goodwill toward the UK,” he said. “Juncker has shown in his organisation of the Commission that he has understood a lot of things, and the centrality of the UK to the European project is one of them.”