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Europe, France, Germany, Politics

The European Commission, the autopilot for neo-liberal policies 

By Bernard Cassen

The first concern of any institution is to perpetuate its existence and expand its areas of intervention. In the latter case, such an ambition usually encounters forces and structures that do not intend to be deprived of all or part of their territory and their prerogatives. When these forces and structures do not exist, it is already a godsend for the new institution. But when it can, moreover, be locked in a legal framework giving full play to its expansionist logic, it has good reason to be euphoric. Such is the dream situation in which the European Commission finds itself.

The central decision-making system of the European Union (EU) – of which Jean-Claude Juncker has just been elected president, replacing José Manuel Barroso – has accumulated very favourable conditions. It does not have to worry about its survival, as it is enshrined in treaties that can only be modified by unanimous vote by EU member states. Once appointed, the 28 commissioners are totally independent, with multiple tools of which the most important are: the monopoly of the initiative of legislation submitted to the Council and the European Parliament; exclusive responsibility for the conduct of international trade negotiations [1] and independent decision-making powers on competition [2]. To this were added in 2012 and 2013 prior control of national budgets (the “European semester”) and the right to impose financial penalties on deviant states. Not to mention the participation (with the IMF and the European Central Bank) in the Troika of fatal reputation.

When we see the extent and the steady growth of the powers of the Commission, we understand that the most obscure of its members is far more powerful than a minister or the prime minister of a member state of the EU – except, of course, the German Chancellor … You may wonder why governments and national parliaments have deliberately arranged their own servitude, in turn reducing to next to nothing the capacity to respond of universal suffrage.

Much of the answer lies in the rallying of European social democracy to the neo-liberal creed from the mid-1980s. This has gradually erased the political differences with the right, and one sees a highly symbolic illustration of this in the co-management of the European Parliament and the distribution of posts within the Commission between the conservatives and social democrats. With the zeal of converts, and to prevent ideological flashback, social democracy has helped to entrench neo-liberal policies by enshrining them in black and white in the European treaties.

Therefore, the Commission operates without restraint, acting as autopilot for these policies. If we do not fundamentally challenge these powers, and indeed its very existence, it is unrealistic to demand – as the French government pretends it is doing – a reorientation of the European project.

[1] A significant example is the secret negotiations for the grand transatlantic market with the United States.

[2] Through its discretionary powers on competition, the Commission may intervene in any field. It has been reported that the entourage of Jacques Delors, who was President from 1985 to 1995, compared him to the traveler, a railway timetable in hand, who dictates, among countless possibilities destination and schedules, based on the whim of the moment.

Memoires de luttes 

Translation by Revolting Europe

About revoltingeurope

Writer on Europe's Left, trade union and social movements @tomgilltweets or @revoltingeurope

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