Will new EC rise to the challenge?

The new European Commission does not formally start work before November 1, 2004. Nevertheless, Commission President-elect Jose Manuel Durao Barroso and his team of 24 are already preparing for what lies ahead. A number of European issues appear to have already been singled out as priorities for the new Commission, namely, its constitution, its citizens and its business. The new Commission will be faced with the task of successfully following through with the ratification of the Constitutional Treaty agreed upon at the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) last June. The next two years will see all member states’ national parliaments discussing the proposed constitution and at least 11 member states will hold referenda. With this in mind, Mr Barroso has identified the EU-awareness campaign «Communicating Europe» as a top priority and has conferred the responsibility of improving the Commission’s relations with the national parliaments, the media and the public to Margot Wallstroem, who has been nominated vice president of the new Commission. The communication strategy that the Commission will draw up is probably one of its most challenging tasks since it is up against euro-apathy and euro-skepticism. It will have to energize a political debate on the EU Constitution and on the type of Europe that EU25 or 27 aims for – something that neither the convention, nor the IGC, nor the June European Parliament (EP) elections managed to trigger. It will have to make the Constitutional Treaty relevant to the EU citizen, who will be called to vote for Europe’s future, and not see this as an opportunity to express support or dissatisfaction with his or her national government (as was the case in the June EP elections). It will also have to strengthen the voice of pro-EU parties. For this, the role of the media is critical in presenting counterarguments to the traditional euro-skeptic concerns of declining sovereignty and national influence in an ever-enlarging Union. This is particularly pertinent given that no backup plan has yet been envisaged in the event that one or more member states do not ratify the Constitution for Europe. The apparent lack of alternative solutions makes it highly likely that much of the media debate will center on «what-if» scenarios. We must not, however, fall into the trap of presenting the successful ratification of the EU Constitution as a «necessary evil» in order to avoid potential political crises. The communication strategy ought to dynamically focus on the EU’s successes and on the advantages of a stronger and larger union of democracies. These advantages must be made obvious to 450 million citizens across the 25 member states. Equally «political» is the challenge of meeting the objectives set in the Lisbon agenda and boosting the stability of the euro, while improving economic coordination in the EU25. Mr Barroso’s team includes commissioners with experience in the private sector, such as Neelie Kroes and Charlie McCreevy, and it can be expected that incentives to stimulate and support the competitiveness of European industries will be a priority. Deregulation, reduction of red tape, economic reform and freer trade with the other side of the Atlantic are anticipated from this new Commission, as are the much-awaited structural reforms of pension systems across the EU. With the Stability and Growth Pact recently watered down even further, more relaxed budgetary rules and greater flexibility in addressing country-specific economic circumstances are, inevitably, formally accepted. It is now up to the new Commission to effectively coordinate the enlarged EU, while leading the European economy out of its sluggish growth. Mr Barroso has called for a high Commission profile and he has stressed that he intends to be more political than technocratic. It would appear that this is exactly what is needed for such a tall order. (1) Dr Ruby Gropas is research fellow with the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).

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