When collegiality matters… or of Von der Leyen’s loneliness

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The European Commission’s handling of the coronavirus vaccine deployment has recently caused quite some turmoil. At the end of January, the Commission publicly displayed its frustration over AstraZeneca’s decision to unilaterally cut the supply of vaccines destined to the EU, thus contravening to the contract signed with the Commission earlier in 2020. AstraZeneca CEO’s declared that such contract merely obliged the company to make its “best effort” to supply the European Union (EU) with the agreed 400 million vaccines, but did not amount to a legal obligation.

In reaction, the Commission put forward a proposal for an export control mechanism allowing the EU to monitor vaccines exports and to block international shipments in case the EU’s orders were not duly met. In this context the Commission initially proposed to trigger Article 16 of the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, an emergency provision allowing unilateral override of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement (which had preserved the Good Friday Peace Agreement). The Commission thus effectively stood for the introduction of a customs border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, after years of negotiations to avoid precisely that.  Understandably, such a move spurred a wave of lively protests from Ireland, the UK and many other national capitals, and led to harsh questioning from MEPs. The reference to Article 16 was quickly taken back. The Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen publicly apologised and acknowledged the mistake. Yet, the damage was done.

Since then, one question hovers around Brussels and in the national capitals: How could such a huge diplomatic screw-up happen? Such a mistake would be bad enough for any governing coalition. For the Commission, which is a collegial institution, it is explosive. “If the Commission is collegiate, why didn’t the cabinets of the other Commissioners notice? Had they all taken an early weekend on Friday last?”, observes Senator Michael McDowell in an interview with the Irish Times (Irish Times, 3/2/2021). Apparently, and here lies the main problem, most cabinets, including the one of the Irish Commissioner, were neither informed of the decision nor involved in the decision-making process.

The misstep is not only a naïve and clumsy mishandle of a very delicate political issue. It points to the shortcomings of a whole system of governance which may become inadequate to come to terms with the current situation.  It let us glimpse behind the doors of the Commission’s decisions to observe that what used to be collegial decisions have become in fact exclusive prerogative of the Commission’s President.

In the eye of the storm

Let us take a step back. Since the outbreak of the pandemic – and thus almost since the Von der Leyen Commission has taken office, the Commission has been running in “emergency mode”. It has taken centre stage in the management of the crisis. It played an important role when the disease first spread to avoid protectionist measures being unilaterally enforced. It was then entrusted with the management of the EU Recovery Fund, thus becoming the central actor borrowing on the financial markets on behalf of the EU, allocating the financing and monitoring that the criteria for its disbursement are met. It is now the hub of the centralisation strategy for the supply of vaccines, fulfilling an extremely delicate role and carrying responsibility for the future health and economic survival of Europe. All the more so in an area in which the Commission has no prior experience.

In defence of the Commission commentators, EU officials and Von der Leyen herself pointed to the many difficulties and pressures that the Commission is facing in delivering such important results in an unprecedented situation. It is normal that in these exceptional circumstances decisions are made behind closed doors, in small committees and often kept within the presidential cabinet. This is understandable and is certainly common to all capitals, regardless of their political system. Governments around the world have acted rapidly, declared states-of-emergency, and adopted executive decisions with immediate effects. Normal decision-making procedures were side-lined everywhere. The difference is however that the Commission is no democratically elected government, but a supranational institution, whose members come from different member countries and together make decisions on behalf of the European interest.

More is better

This permanent state-of-emergency has arguably resulted in the dismissal of regular collective decision-making procedures, which were the shield of the Commission’s independence. This however comes at a cost.

Collegiality allowed the Commission to stand united behind carefully pondered decisions. Indeed, there are reasons why in the Commission, the decisions, also the emergency decisions, are to be taken collectively (all decisions are in fact adopted by the college). One of them is to avoid precisely what just happened. Had the Irish Commissioner been consulted in advance, had all the other Commissioners been consulted, such a mistake could have hardly materialised. Commissioner McGuinness would have made aware of the political consequences of such a step. This does not imply ceding to national influence but is rather a necessary component of the Commission’s work, which needs to look out for national sensitivities.  Together with McGuinness many other cabinets were allegedly left in the dark. Had the decision been truly collegially adopted or at least collegially tested, someone would have spotted the political firestorm that such a measure would have entailed.

The Commission’s dilemma and the loneliness of leadership

Arguably the COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the transformation of the Commission towards a more decisive policy management role and has strengthened its executive dimension. The stakes of the Commission have greatly risen. Its political leadership has become even more important. It has become so important to nearly make its technocratic nature fade away. However, in this process, the neutral function of the Commission as the Guardian of the Treaties has become even more essential. Only by fulfilling this role will member states trust and listen to the Commission. Only if it is trusted and listened to can the Commission centralise processes and financing while ensuring cohesion between the member states.

The Commission is thus facing a big dilemma. It has become a political leader and needs to act accordingly: efficiently, swiftly and incisively. To do that the complex and burdensome internal procedures of a collegial institution are not adapted. Indeed, by now the Commission has become used to a working method that, forged by the everlasting state-of-emergency, does not have anything to do with the collective approach to decision-making that characterises it. Von der Leyen decides and takes responsibility. “Whatever in the Commission is being done or decided, I have the full responsibility for,” she declared in a recent interview (Politico, 7/2/2021).

Yet Von der Leyen should be wary not to be left alone in this fight. To be credible and trusted the Commission should not lose its aura of the “impartial and neutral arbiter”, who is able to take decisions in the interest of Europe and of all its member states. Its collective roots are still very much needed. Loneliness can be a dangerous feeling. Even more so for the President of the Commission, who, according to the Treaties, should ensure that the Commission “acts consistently, efficiently and as a collegiate body” (Art 17.6 Treaty on the European Union).