Relaxing whilst doing Competition Law is not an Oxymoron

The New Faces of Europe

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The appointment of Herman Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton as the visible faces of the EU has come as a surprise both within and outside Europe. The public reaction –or rather the media reaction- following the announcement has criticized their appointment on the basis of their ‘low profile’ and lack of EU-related experience, has highlighted the fact that neither of them has ever been elected to public office, and has even focused –not very kindly- on their physical appearance (!).

Although this blog doesn’t deal primarily with European politics, this is an issue which surely deserves a comment. Moreover, it reveals an endemic problem which, amongst other implications, also affects the ability of DG Comp to perform its role adequately. I do not host any criticism towards Mr. Van Rompuy or Mrs. Ashton. In fact, the contrary would be odd, since so far I know very little about them, about their previous accomplishments or about the agendas they intend to pursue. No elements can so far rebut the presumption that these are able people who may defeat the low expectations which seem to have followed their appointment. We should hopefully recall that similar criticisms arouse when Delors was appointed, and he certainly prevailed over skeptics.

My first concern is purely political (and leaves aside the Belgian problem of having to wake up, again, without a Prime Minister). The rationale of many commendable policies and actions in the European field has been to reinforce the EU’s legitimacy, to enhance transparent and democratic decision-making and, in essence, to approach it to the citizen. This was also one of the reasons for deciding in the first place to name one visible permanent President of the European Council. However, even a passionate pro-European can’t help but wonder whether we are asking the citizens too much when we intend them to feel attached to a project whose new faces are unknown not only to them but also to many of the leaders who have appointed those people. This is no doubt a rather interesting way of reinforcing the link between the citizens and the European institutions.

My second and main concern is a different one, and relates to a worrying tendency that is by no means new in the European environment, but which seems to be getting more acute with time. It seems that in order to be promoted to any higher post subject to political approval a ‘flexible’ profile is often a pre-requisite (it should go without saying that there are also numerous exceptions to this rule). Many are conscious that a meteoric career at the institutions partly depends on one’s willingness not to step on anyone’s foot, to bend or accommodate to national political pressures, and to always consider the political implications (i.e. the interest of larger Member States) relating to any action or decision, sometimes at the expense of more important considerations.

Such dynamic also has an impact on the DG-Comp and on its ability to undertake cases in the light of their economic relevance or pursuant to the need of establishing precedents and providing guidance on technically complex matters. Many of our readers are probably familiar with the experience of presenting a reasonable problem to the Commission and being rejected because of the presumable lack of political support on the part of specific powerful Member States. Ironically such refusals may eventually be effected under the cover of an alleged ‘lack of Community interest’.

The problem is therefore much larger than this isolated appointment episode, which only evidences the prevailing attitude. It is certainly no easy task to achieve consensus between 27 national political interests, but this should be no excuse for implying that consensus requires converging on the minimal common denominator. That, I believe, is comfortable, irresponsible and short-sighted politics. The European project was grounded on the vision and will of true statesmen who held political views and aspirations much higher than those currently prevailing. At a time when Europe needs to define its future role in the world stage, when audacious politics are needed more than ever, that’s when we –by failing to demand our leaders to abandon self-complacency and to act boldly as needed- are screwing it all up.

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

23 November 2009 at 1:38 pm

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