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The European Commission is becoming more powerful, quietly

Summary:
May 1st 2021BRUSSELS IS at its noisiest when things are at their worst. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, clangs from crisis to crisis. The year began with a botched ban on vaccine exports that triggered a row over Northern Ireland and scotched the EU’s free-trading reputation. Her office sent a bizarrely dismissive message to the president of Ukraine after he invited Mrs von der Leyen to an independence day celebration while Russian troops massed on the country’s border. Those with kind words about the president’s leadership keep quiet; those who think she is not up to the job are loud. Beneath the brouhaha, a change is afoot. Under the maligned Mrs von der Leyen, the commission is becoming more powerful.Listen to this storyYour browser does not support the

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BRUSSELS IS at its noisiest when things are at their worst. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, clangs from crisis to crisis. The year began with a botched ban on vaccine exports that triggered a row over Northern Ireland and scotched the EU’s free-trading reputation. Her office sent a bizarrely dismissive message to the president of Ukraine after he invited Mrs von der Leyen to an independence day celebration while Russian troops massed on the country’s border. Those with kind words about the president’s leadership keep quiet; those who think she is not up to the job are loud. Beneath the brouhaha, a change is afoot. Under the maligned Mrs von der Leyen, the commission is becoming more powerful.

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Some new powers stem from crisis. A plan to dish out cash to struggling governments has left the commission as a proto-treasury, signing off economic policy and handing out money. In exchange for a share of €750bn ($895bn) in grants and loans, EU governments must overhaul their economies in line with Brussels-approved plans. It is a familiar scheme. During the euro-zone crisis, the commission demanded wrenching reforms from stricken countries in exchange for bail-out cash. Except that now all countries are in the same boat. In a development that would make the psychological conditioners in “A Clockwork Orange” cheer, those countries that had experienced such a programme knew exactly what to do. Efforts from Spain and Greece, both bail-out veterans, were highly praised. Draft proposals suggested by the German government, which is more accustomed to prescribing economic medicine than taking it, were initially knocked back.

Brussels has long begged countries to reform. Yet outside a bail-out programme, it has never had the clout. Each year, the commission comes up with well-meaning suggestions for national governments, which are almost always ignored. Now the commission can in theory turn the cash taps off if planned reforms are not done. Although the €750bn recovery fund is a one-off, commissioners such as Paolo Gentiloni, the Italian overseeing the scheme, suggest that the mechanism could be used again. Temporary measures can easily become permanent, as anyone who pays income tax will appreciate. At that point, the proto-treasury becomes a real one.

Even where the commission messes up, it manages to emerge more powerful. The commission took the lead in ensuring that the supply of vaccines did not descend into an undignified brawl among EU countries. Although it avoided a fight, it was less successful in securing supplies. When vaccines did arrive, Europeans watched as America—whose health system is seen in Europe as barbaric—jabbed its citizens more quickly. Diplomats fault the execution, but not the idea of having the commission in charge of such a situation. Angela Merkel, still the most influential leader even as she leaves the stage, wants the EU and by proxy the commission to have a bigger role in health care. Health crises—by their nature, life-and-death issues—are now dealt with at the European level, in a shift that may well continue.

Longer-term plans will see more power handed to Brussels. It is easy to dismiss the EU’s “green deal” as a gimmick. In fact it is a three-decade project that will up-end the continent, in much the same way that the single market did from the 1980s. To make Europe climate-neutral by 2050, the commission will overhaul entire markets and industries. This shift is already happening. Decisions such as whether nuclear or gas technology will qualify as “green” will be taken by the commission, sometimes with only a supermajority of member states able to overrule it. Whether France can splash out on another generation of nuclear-power plants will be settled in Brussels as much as Paris. Environmental policy was shunted to the EU level in the 1970s and 1980s when it was a fringe issue; now it is an existential problem facing every government. But it is Brussels rather than the 27 national capitals that will lead the continent’s response for the next 30 years.

Slapstick integration

A powerful centre has emerged under ostensibly weak leadership before. When Jacques Delors was the commission’s president, he oversaw the introduction of the single market and set the path to the euro between 1985-95. Little was expected of the Frenchman when he took office. The then European Economic Community (EEC) was stuck in a rut. (A few years before, The Economist had published a front cover with a gravestone marked “EEC Born March 25th 1957/ Moribund March 25th 1982.”) Like Mrs von der Leyen, he had not run a government before. And like Mrs von der Leyen, Mr Delors was shunted to Brussels only after his domestic political career had been written off by a powerful ally: François Mitterrand in the case of Mr Delors and Mrs Merkel in the case of Mrs von der Leyen, who had once been tipped as a possible future chancellor. Mrs von der Leyen was chided for being too close to Paris; Mr Delors, to Berlin.

After ten years of Mr Delors, a radically different EU had emerged. Luck rather than leadership has always been more helpful in running the European Union. Mr Delors benefited from national leaders willing to cede power to the burgeoning centre. Likewise, circumstance rather than political skill has led to Mrs von der Leyen’s commission taking more power. National leaders are, once more, happy to hand over sovereignty to Brussels, if it means prosperity and health. Mr Delors was loud and proud about his plans for a deeper EU. Indeed, he was often too noisy, giving speeches about his dreams of a federal Europe that made Mitterrand splutter, never mind Margaret Thatcher. Today, EU leaders—whether in Brussels or in national capitals—are altogether more shy about the realities of European integration. Yet it is still happening, sotto voce. Integration by stealth is never healthy. Better, it seems, to shout about it.

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline "Shh! A silent centralisation"

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