The European Commission is a strange animal - a massive maze of overlaping departments, constituencies and nationalities. Given that it can be difficult to wrap your head around, I often feel that the perception of "democratic deficit" in the EU has a lot to do with the public's lack of understanding of what the European Commission - the EU's executive branch - is. So I thought this weekend's news from Germany might make a good anecdote for explaining some of its idiosyncrasies.
News is emerging this weekend that German chancellor Angela Merkel will replace Germany's Social Democrat commissioner Günter Verheugen with Conservative Guenther Oettinger. This is a natural consequence of the election result last month, when Merkel's Conservatives got enough votes to kick the Social Democrats out of her coalition government. As they say, elections have consequences. The voters of Germany cast their lot with the Conservatives, and so they will now have a Conservative German commissioner in the EC, hand-selected by Merkel.
Though the commissioners aren't directly elected, they are nominated by the national governments which people elected - so contrary to common belief they are, indirectly, accountable to voters. If (or when) Labour is voted out of power in the UK next year, the Tories will remove the current British commissioner (Baroness Ashton) and replace her with a Tory when the next commission ends after its five-year term.
Another recent election which changed the governing party was in Greece, where the Socialists ousted the Conservative government. For this reason Greece's commissioner, Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas, will likely be exiting stage left very shortly.
So there's your Democracy. However, there's another aspect of this Germany news which highlights a not-so-reaffirming aspect of the Commission.
Guenther Oettinger is the premier of the southern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, and has been mired in some controversy in the past. In April of 2007 he gave a eulogy for one of the previous premiers of Baden-Wuerttemberg named Hans Filbinger. Filbinger served in the legal department of the Nazi regime and his involvement with them was an ever-present source of controversy throughout his career after the war (thought he contends he was made to cooperate with the Nazis against his will). In his eulogy, Oettinger played down Filberger's Nazi past and for this he was widely criticised. He even received a public scolding from Angela Merkel for it.
So immediately after news emerged of this pick there were rumblings of discontent - not so much for the fact that Merkel was putting someone with this controversial background into the position, but for the fact that it appeared like Merkel was trying to quickly shuffle a high-ranking CDU politician who had "misbehaved" out of sight. The Social Democrats came out with a statement today accusing Merkel of "withdrawing a beleaguered premier from circulation," according to M&C.
Now, failing to mention someone's decades-old loose Nazi connections in a euology may not seem like a big transgression, but in Germany it was a notable affair. So it seems as if this could be yet another instance of a national government 'sweeping problems under the rug' by sending problematic politicians to Brussels where they remain out of sight, and yet still relatively powerful.
It reminds me of what happened to Peter Mandelson in the UK four years ago. Mandelson is a hugely powerful politician who was intrumental in the rise of Tony Blair, but a series of scandals eventually made it untenable for Blair to keep him in the British cabinet, and he was shuffled off to a political exile in Brussels in 2004. Now during that time as Trade Commissioner Mandelson was hugely influential, but in the British press it was as if he had disapeared. Finally last year, when Gordon Brown's troubles were growing especially daunting, Brown made a shock move by bringing Mandelson back from Brussels and putting him in his cabinet. Speaking at this year's Labour Party Conference, Mandelson made it sound like he had been locked in a dungeon in Brussels for four years, and had at last been let out to see the light of day again.
That's the rather bizarre thing about commissioners. They are very powerful and they set the policy for Europe, yet once they are in Brussels they often disapear from the front pages of their nation's newspapers. It's a bizarre form of modern political exile in Europe, a way for governments to quickly push someone out of the spotlight who is much needed and talented, but also controversial. From some early political reaction in Germany, it appears that the appointment of Oettinger may be that kind of move.
For some people, like Mandelson, they could never be satisfied with power without prestige. For others, it may suit them fine. I don't know anything abotu Oettinger to say into which camp he falls.
But I do think that this practice of trying to 'hide' ministers in Brussels does a disservice to helping people understand how the EU works and who the people are that are running it. In the end I think what many in Europe call a "democratic defecit" is actually an attention defecit. The commissioners feel unelected and unaccountable because nobody ever hears about them. But in reality, the decisions people make at the ballot box do have an impact on the composition of the European Commission, even if it is a few steps removed down the line.