Apart from the spanking new flagpoles their national ensigns will occupy in Brussels after January 1, Romania and Bulgaria are seeking to make their mark as the twenty-sixth and twenty-seventh members of the European Union.
In the run-up to accession, each has dispatched an eminent citizen as a candidate for the post at the European Commission that is the entitlement of each member state.
On Tuesday the committees of the European Parliament that oversee the policy areas to which the new commissioners will be assigned gave their blessing to Meglena Kuneva, Bulgaria’s minister for Europe, and Leonard Orban, who led Romania’s membership negotiations. The approval will come as a particular relief to Bucharest, which hastily selected Mr Orban after its initial nominee withdrew in a flurry of corruption allegations.
The commissioners designate spent much of Monday explaining why the portfolios with which Commission President José Manuel Barroso has entrusted them - consumer protection for Ms Kuneva and multilingualism for Mr Orban - are of monumental importance to the future of the Union.
Mr Orban - who reached for his headset as legislators probed his grasp of his brief in Hungarian, Finnish, Dutch, English, French, German and Portuguese - proclaimed (in Romanian) that multilingualism is “essential to the functioning of Europe”. Only by churning out polyglots would the bloc compete with China, the US and Japan, where a single tongue dominates. Then there were minority language rights, the vast translation operation of a bloc with 23 official languages, and the fraught territory of communicating in a “gender neutral” vocabulary.
His Bulgarian counterpart, who underwent a similar grilling on her plans for enhancing consumer protection, told the Financial Times that her strategy will be inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. She intends “to put the citizen, the consumer, at the centre of the universe”.
“At first glance there could be a contradiction between business and consumer affairs,” Ms Kuneva said. “Really it’s about the ying and the yang, to make a perfect circle. Consumer protection is really about market failures; the market exists for the consumers, not for the market itself.”
That parliament has acquiesced to the two new appointment does not, however, mean that the pair are poised to implement their respective visions.
Because the Commission is bound to grant each new member a post, it has to come with something for for the commissioner from each new accession state to do. Thus both Ms Kuneva’s and Mr Obran’s jobs have been carved out from broader portfolios held by existing commissioners.
For Ms Kuneva, this may not prove too great an obstacle. She makes a clear case for the importance of evolving consumer protection regulation to befit an age of cross-border transactions and international service providers. If she treads on the toes of the environment and internal market commissioners occasionally, it will be to ensure that the voice of the little man is heard amid the clamour of business lobbyists.
By contrast, legislators who witnessed Mr Orban’s hearing suspect he is already hamstrung. Asked to enumerate specific actions he could take to hasten Brussels’ goal of making every European comfortable in three languages, he repeatedly conceded that his mandate would be limited because the power to set education policy and to make additions to the list of official languages remained in the hands of member states. Parliament has asked the Commission to clarify “the relative vagueness” of his post.
Mr Orban will have 3,400 staff – 15 per cent of the EU’s total employees – at his disposal, principally translators. He will also marshal 1 per cent of the bloc’s €122bn budget. But he may struggle to play anything more than a managerial role.
“In terms of legal measures, his portfolio is very limited,” says Ignasi Guardans, a Liberal legislator for the Catalonia in Spain, who offers Mr Orban a taste of struggles to come when he demands that the Commission do more to talk the language of the 7 million Europeans who speak Catalan. “He will raise expectations that the EU will be able to change things then he won’t be able to deliver.”