Fatter EU, thinner portfolios

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Romania and Bulgaria are almost certain to join the European Union early next year, though few in Brussels are enthusiastic about the new intake. Many governments, as well as the European Commission, worry that the two countries are not ready to join; there are widespread concerns about their records on internal security and the prospect of mass economic migration to the west.

But a small group of top Commission officials has a very special reason to dread the arrival of Romania and Bulgaria. The two countries, after all, will be able to send two new commissioners to join the current 25-strong body, which in turn means creating two new portfolios.

José Manuel Barroso, the Commission president, wants to reveal the precise nature of the new posts in the next month or so. This week, during an FT-sponsored debate with business leaders, he damped speculation that he would pull off a major reshuffle, hinting that he would make only minor changes to his line-up. All the same, the present crop of commissioners knows that Mr Barroso cannot create jobs out of thin air, but will have to tear away responsibilities from the current 25 commissioners.

Already, some of the dossiers given to smaller member states two years ago look embarrassingly thin. Jan Figel, the man in charge of Education, Training, Culture and Multilingualism, can hardly complain of having too high a profile, and neither can Joe Borg, Malta’s commissioner for fisheries and maritime affairs.

And yet, somehow and somewhere Mr Barroso must find tasks to keep two new commissioners sufficiently occupied. This in turn means taking away powers from other commissioners, and – quite understandably – no-one is keen to be on the receiving end of such a public emasculation.

So who are the candidates? One name that crops up frequently is Franco Frattini, the Italian commissioner for justice, freedom and security. It is a big job that straddles issues such as immigration, the fight against terrorism and many technical legal dossiers such as data privacy. This means one or more tasks may be easily split off to create a new post. Moreover, Mr Frattini cannot count on the unwavering support of his home country, since he was appointed by the previous government of Silvio Berlusconi.

Then there is the bevy of “and”-commissioners, the men and women in charge of two distinct portfolios. They include the Cypriot Markos Kyprianou, who is in charge of health and consumer affairs, the Czech Vladimir Spidla, the commissioner for employment and social affairs, and Louis Michel, the Belgian commissioner for development and humanitarian aid.

Mr Michel may well be particularly vulnerable because the EU has for some time been pondering how to improve its response to natural disasters, such as the tsunami that struck south-east Asia in December 2004. Mr Barroso may well feel that a dedicated commissioner for humanitarian aid and disaster response would raise Europe’s profile and allow more forceful action. Such a commissioner could also be handed some responsibilities from Stavros Dimas, the Greek environment commissioner, who also oversees the Commission’s response to natural disasters.

None of these rumours, however, has yet been linked directly to Mr Barroso or his closest advisers, who insist that the president has not yet made up his mind. For a commissioner likely to be targeted, these are uncomfortable times.

Tobias Buck

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