EU commissioners get their just desserts

By bne IntelliNews September 15, 2014

Jan Cienski in Warsaw -


In life, you often get what's coming to you, is one of the aphorisms that the pricklier countries of Central Europe should probably take to heart when contemplating the varied fortunes of the region's nations when it came to getting plum assignments in the new European Commission. Those countries generally seen as enthusiastic members of the EU club and with a good track record of fiscal discipline  did very well.

Elzbieta Bienkowska, Poland's deputy prime minister in charge of a super ministry that combined transport and regional development, took the powerful internal market and services portfolio. That comes after Poland grabbed the EU's top job, with prime minister Donald Tusk becoming the new president of the European Council.

Bienkowska pronounced herself thrilled with the job, and there is little reason to doubt her. She said that Poland had been proposed a Commission vice presidency without portfolio, an idea that Warsaw resisted in order to get a job with real teeth. “Polish diplomacy was involved in several games, it was very complicated and precise work,” she said in a radio interview.

Poland has emerged as one of the EU's power players. It is the EU's sixth largest economy, and in recent years has been punching above its weight in part because many other large countries have gone missing. Spain is distracted by its ongoing economic mess, Italy's new government is again trying to reform the country, while David Cameron is distracted by the upcoming Scottish referendum and by the broader issue of whether the UK even wants to remain an EU member. Poland's close diplomatic relationship with Germany, helped along by Tusk's ties with chancellor Angela Merkel, also helped.

The three Baltic countries also did well. Former Latvian prime minister Valdis Dombrovskis is a Commission vice president, along with Estonia's Andrus Ansip, vice-president for digital single market. Dombrovskis will look after the euro and social dialogue. Lithuania's former health minister Vytenis Povilas Andriukaitis is commissioner for health and food safety affairs.

The big losers were the Czechs and the Hungarians.

Hungary has long been one of the EU's awkward squad, and prime minister Viktor Orban's inflammatory pronouncements on the future of the liberal state, his suspicion of sanctions against Russia and his increasingly tarnished democratic credentials have marginalised Hungary.

That ended ended up hurting foreign minister Tibor Navracsics, who got one of the lowliest jobs on the commission - education, culture, youth and citizenship. Education is almost exclusively within the purview of national states, giving him little to do. He had been hoping for a higher profile post in charge of enlargement or neighbourhood and transport policy. Bruxinfo, a Hungarian web site, noted that “the portfolio does not belong to the most heavyweight ones”.

One strike against him was that when he was justice minister he had helped draft Hungary's controversial media law which ran into a storm of criticism in Brussels for limiting press freedom.

While the Hungarians attempted to put a brave face on their post, there was no disguising the disappointment in Prague. Even the new commissioner Vera Jourova said she was upset she had not been given the regional development portfolio when she was told she would be getting justice, consumer policy and gender equality.

Petr Pesek, a columnist with Lidove noviny called the assignment a “cold shower from Brussels” and both the opposition and the president were scathing about the outcome of Czech lobbying in Brussels.

While the Czech are not as badly seen as the Hungarians, they are also not seen as EU team players. The Czechs have often allied with the UK in opposing initiatives supported by most other members, their disbursal of EU structural funds has been riddled with corruption (unlike Bienkowska's record in Poland) and they have also opposed  tougher sanctions against Russia for its actions in Ukraine.

To make matters even more irritating for the Czechs, the Slovaks and Romanians got better portfolios, particularly galling for a country which sees itself as the most advanced in the region.

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