Friday, August 13, 2004

A sense of humour

The best thing one can say about Senor Jose Manuel Durao Barroso's new commission is that it proves our new president has a sense of humour.

What else could explain his decision to put a Greek in charge of the environment, a Dane in charge of rural development (anybody looked at the Danish rural scene?) and a Maltese, Joe Borg, in charge of fishing? At least, as Star Trek fans will confirm, he has the right name for a commissioner.

Then, to put the humourless, tight-lipped zealot Margot Wallström in charge of communications strategy, to say nothing of appointing Luxemburgois, Viviane Reding, to "Information society and media", has to be a major work of comedy. One cannot wait to hear the dulcet tones of this duo on the Today programme, extolling the virtues of the European Union. With those two on board, how could we not love "mother Europe"?

But Barroso's comic talents clearly do not stop there. To give an Italian, Rocco Buttiglione, the justice, freedom and security portfolio is also a major work of comedy and, given Germany’s recent record for (non) industry, its growing unemployment, sclerotic economy and persistent inability to reform, putting German, Guenter Verheugen, in charge of industry and enterprise has a touch a comic genius about it.

And of all the countries with probably the worst colonial record (not least the Congo), and which cannot even keep its own pitiful country together, what better choice could there be than to give development and humanitarian aid to a Belgian, in the form of Louis Michel.

France, may of course, have a reputation for having good public transport – when the services are not on strike, that is – but only at the costs of huge and totally unsustainable subsidies, which seems to make the Frenchman, Jacques Barrot, the least suitable candidate for running the EU transport policy, which is undoubtedly why Barroso must have chosen him.

Even then, however, Barroso's comic skills are far from exhausted. To put Siim Kallas - a totally inexperienced Estonian – from one of the smallest and weakest countries in the enlarged EU, with bugger-all political clout, into the hottest seat in the commission - administrative affairs, audit and anti-fraud - has to be a joke of immense proportions.

It must have been the same comic strain that moved Barroso to put Ingrida Udre, from Latvia, in charge of taxation and customs union. Yet another player from a dwarf country, she is supposed to stand up to the might of Germany which is the player pushing hardest for tax "harmonisation" – this being code for the accession countries putting up their corporation taxes to stop them being too competitive with er… Germany.

And to complete the comedy trio, asking Dalia Grybauskaite, a Lithuanian, to take charge of financial programming and budget is rather like wanting a two-year-old to run the family finances. Nice to have a fresh face, but a tad short on competence.

Giving corporatist Neelie "nickel" Kroes, queen of the boards, the competition portfolio is also a huge joke. A Dutch person she may be, but her insider view of, and clear love for multi-national corporations makes her about as well equipped to deal with competition as the Borgia family would have been to run a geriatric unit.

Economic and monetary affairs in the hands of the Spanish, I suppose, is better than them having fish, but giving regional policy to Danuta Huebner, the Pole, might be like putting Billy Bunter in charge of the tuck shop. God knows what Slovenia can bring to science and research, in the shape of Janez Potocnik, but Jan Figel in charge of education, training, culture and multilinguism is perhaps better than putting a British commissioner in charge.

But a Cypriot taking care of health and consumer protection just has to be a joke… although not as good a joke as Byrne, the Irishman whom Markos Kyprianou replaces. Then, having Finn Olli Rehn "doing" enlargement is going to be great fun. At least it will tax the skills of the interpreters as they have to find someone who can convert Finnish into Romanian and Turkish, and vice versa. Perhaps the joke is on the translation services.

Charlie McCreevy of Ireland should also be a hoot doing the "internal market and services" – we look to the spread of Irish theme pubs throughout Europe - and Laszlo Kovacs from landlocked Hungary can enjoy all his trips to learn about North Sea oil, as he gets to grips with the EU's energy policy.

One is not too sure what to make of Benita Ferrero-Waldner from Austria being in charge of external relations and the European neighbourhood policy, except perhaps to say that at least Austria has had plenty of external relations in the past, and is not short of neighbours. Equally, it will be fun watching Vladimir Spidla from the Czech Republic tell France and German how to deal with (un)employment, social affairs and equal opportunities.

Just, when you thought that the joke could not last, though, along comes Peter Mandelson, doing trade. This is going to be hilarious. The one exception to the rule – in terms of the dominance of the commission over the council - is trade, where the council, and especially France, rules the roost.

As we saw with the recent Doha Round WTO talks in Geneva, Lamy was kept on such a tight leash that he was effectively emasculated. Now Mandelson, the great Europhile, is going to have his faith sorely taxed as he gets the "full frontal" treatment from the French and learns what the EU is really all about.

To watch our Mandy wriggle and squirm, explaining how the latest stitch-up of trade policy by the French really, truly, sincerely, does actually benefit Britain – to say nothing of world trade – is going to be the best comedy spot in town.

For all that, though, the biggest joke is probably on Barroso himself. Here is a man, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, who thinks he's in charge. But it is the grey little functionnaires behind the scenes who really run the show. In many cases, the commissioners are just the front men, delivering their pre-prepared speeches and swanning about in their chauffeur-driven limousines. As he finds that he has all the levers of power, but they are not connected to anything, Barroso is going to need his sense of humour.