A green European commissioner?

25 May 2019
A green European commissioner? - © Martin W. Angler

On 13 September 1999, the Prodi commission took office. The scandal and the resignation of the Santer commission a few months before overshadowed the first appointment of a new type of European commissioner: a green commissioner. At the time, Germany was allowed to appoint two commissioners and the German cabinet decided to present the candidacies of one social-democrat (Günter Verheugen) and one green (Michaele Schreyer). Over the last decades, the European commission has been exclusively dominated by three party families (the conservatives, social-democrats and liberals) and Michaele Schreyer remains – up to now – the only exception to that rule. The green commissioner was appointed to the important budget portfolio and she remained in power until 2004.

Even if most of the opinion polls suggest a (modest) victory of the green parties in the elections for the European parliament, it will probably not be enough so that they are included in the coalition that will rule the European institutions in the next legislative period. It is very unlikely that the negotiations will lead to the appointment of a green president of the commission, of the European parliament and/or of the European council. The green party representatives in the new European Parliament could instead hope to have access to key committee positions and to have an important impact in the process of approval of the new European Commissioners.

Nominating the Belgian commissioner

If European commissioners are formally approved by the European parliament after a process of public hearings, they are still nominated by their member state, in consultation with the newly-appointed commission president. Member-states, i.e. the party or the coalition of parties in the national cabinet at the time of the nomination, are rather free to appoint the person that they see fit to occupy one of the 28 seats in the college of commissioners commission. The tradition is to appoint a commissioner with national ministerial experience (especially if the member-state aims at an important portfolio) but other types of profiles have also been observed in recent past commissions. Yet, the most relevant characteristic for a future commissioner is that he or she is supported by his or her member-state. Very often, the commissioner is from the same party as the prime minister or as the dominant party in the national cabinet.

The process of nomination of the Belgian commissioner is probably one of the most complex among the 28 member-states. Given that the European elections occur on the same day as the federal and regional elections, this nomination has to be understood as a minor step in the overall calendar of the Belgian government formation. Government formation in Belgium is a long process and it took no less than 541 days to form the 2011 national cabinet. At the end of the summer 2014, while all other member-states had already appointed their candidate for the European commission, Belgian parties were still struggling to form the federal cabinet and negotiate the coalition agreement. After repeated demands from Jean-Claude Juncker, Belgium finally nominated Marianne Thyssen (a Flemish christian-democrat) on the 4 September 2014. The Belgian federal cabinet took oath more than one month later.

In 2019, it is very likely that the same story will repeat. During the summer, Belgian political actors will be busy forming the federal cabinet as well as the five regional and community cabinets. However, the partners included in the negotiation for the federal cabinet will be keeping an eye on the European commissioner nomination who will seat just at the other side of the Rue de la loi.

Will Belgium (and Europe) go green ?

Belgian green parties (Groen and Ecolo) are currently surfing on a positive wave, both in the streets – see for instance the recent protests for the protection of the environment – and in the opinion polls. Some media even announce that the green party family might become the largest political force of the Kingdom and therefore would lead some of the talks for the formation of the new federal cabinet. If the Green parties are included in these talks, they certainly might try to obtain certain key positions in one cabinet or another. The position of European commissioner will be on the negotiation table and will be part of the overall deal for the next five years. In 2014, the Flemish christian-democrat obtained the position of European commissioner at the expense of the position of prime minister.

Of course, everything is possible in Belgian politics, starting with a not-so-large victory of the green parties. But if the right conditions are met, Belgian green parties will be part of the group of political parties that will distribute key positions and portfolios for the period 2019-2024. Nominating the second green European commissioner – maybe the second green and female European commissioner – in the whole history of the European institutions will undoubtedly be a milestone in the history of the Belgian and European green parties…

Régis Dandoy EUreka! European Parliament election Eurac research blogs Régis Dandoy is researcher at the Center for Local Politics at Ghent University and guest lecturer at the University of Louvain (Belgium). His main research interests deal with Belgian politics, comparative federalism, local and regional elections and party manifestos. Besides traveling around the world, he also likes to digress about Belgian politics, Belgian beers and typical Belgian dishes.


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Dandoy, R. A green European commissioner?

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