Commissioners and their Cabinets
Though put forward by their national government, members of the Commission (or “Commissioners” as they are informally referred to) are supposed to act in the interest of the EU as a whole, and not be influenced by their national governments.
From a human perspective, their culture, the fact that most of them are former national politicians and likely to go back to their home country’s national politics is likely to have some influence on their action.
Commissioners are appointed every 5 years, within 6 months of the European Parliament elections.
First, the President of the Commission is designated jointly by the Member States and approved by Parliament. Then, Member States put forward their candidate Commissioner in discussion with the President of the Commission, the Council adopts that list by qualified majority and submit the candidates to the questions and vote of Parliament. Under the Lisbon Treaty, the European Parliament’s approval occurs in two phases: first, the Parliament must approve the President of the Commission, then it gets to approve the Commission as a body. This procedure is preceded by public hearings, where each Commissioner-designate has to answer to a series of questions during a three-hour public hearing with the parliamentary committee(s) responsible for the relevant portfolio.
Council enacts this vote, again by qualified majority.
In terms of portfolio of each Commissioner, quite a bit of horse trading occurs but, on paper, the President of the Commission allocates responsibilities, and can reshuffle them when appropriate. The President can also force a Commissioner to resign, provided all the other Commissioners approve. The entire Commission can also be dismissed by the European Parliament, through the adoption of a motion of censure.
The High Representative (also referred to inaccurately as the “Foreign Affairs Minister”) has existed for some time now but his/her status has been considerably expanded by the Lisbon Treaty in several ways:
• The High Representative is now a Vice-President of the Commission
• He / She chairs the Council of Foreign Affairs Ministers and acts as a spokesperson on foreign policy in those areas where the EU is able to reach an agreement.
• He / She has the support of a “diplomacy corps” called the European External Action Service (EEAS) and is in charge of both the Common foreign and security policy and External Relations (which was previously a separate portfolio).
• He / She takes part in the work of the European Council.
The High Representative is appointed by the European Council, with the agreement of the President of the Commission and by a qualified majority vote.
In terms of logistics, the Commissioners meet normally every week on Wednesday in Brussels (except the week where Parliament meets in Strasbourg: then the Commissioners meet in Strasbourg on Tuesday), on the 13th floor of the Berlaymont building. Each commissioner presents the dossiers relevant to its portfolio and all the others decided jointly on it, in “collegial” manner. The agenda is prepared by the secretariat-general and is circulated to the Commissioners the day before the meeting. The agenda and minutes of these meetings can be accessed at the Register of Commission Documents (For the agenda, often only available in French, you can search here and in “Type” of document, select “Agenda”. For the minutes of the most recent meeting, click here ).
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Cabinets are extremely powerful and are there to give political guidance to their Commissioner (as opposed to the technical guidance given by the Directorates General).
The composition of Cabinets is restricted by a number of rules:
- There can only be 6 cabinet members
- Two cabinet members at least must be women
- Only three members maximum can be of the same nationality than the Commissioner
- The composition must reflect the European Union’s regional diversity
The Head of Cabinet is called under his French denomination, “Chef de Cabinet”.
Cabinets of all the Commissioners interact in various types of meetings to prepare the weekly meetings of their Commissioners. The most important configurations are:
- The “Hebdo”: this is a set weekly meeting of all the heads of cabinet that ensure the day-to-day dossiers are discussed and properly prepared prior to the Commissioners’ meetings.
- The “Special Chef’s”: these are ad hoc meetings set up between the relevant member of each cabinet for a specific area, the legal service and the secretariat general, to discuss last minute compromises to draft legislation before it gets discussed at the College of Commissioners. A lot of the preparation happens in corridors, with deals being struck between cabinets, the cabinet of the President sometimes playing a “broker’s” role. One of the most important “special chef’s” is the group for inter-institutional relations, which analyses the European Parliament’s views on a Commission proposed legislation in order to prepare the Commission for an eventual rejection.