Choosing the Commission’s President

by Henry Farrell on June 21, 2004

It’s looking “increasingly likely”: that Bertie Ahern, the Taoiseach (i.e. Prime Minister) of Ireland will become the next Commission President. This is a mixed bag. On the one hand, Ahern is a very skilled politician and dealmaker. He played a blinder on the negotiations of the EU’s draft constitution, managing to build a real consensus on top of some very shaky foundations. The contrast with his immediate predecessor, Silvio Berlusconi, is substantial – Berlusconi seemed to be more interested in reviving his career as a piano-bar crooner than in actually negotiating (more on this soon). On the other, nobody has ever accused Ahern of having much in the way of a political vision. Arguably, he’s the wrong man for the job – the Commission is supposed to deliver on policy implementation, while driving the EU’s legislative agenda. Ahern is neither an administrator nor a visionary – his very real political skills aren’t the skills that a Commissioner needs to have. My preference would have been either Chris Patten (who Maria also likes – a decent right-winger, who knows how to call a spade a spade) if the member states had wanted someone to galvanize the Commission’s political activities, or Antonio Vittorino if they’d wanted a technocrat to run it well. If Ahern does get the job, I suspect that he’s going to be another in an increasingly long line of mediocre Commission Presidents.



Kieran Healy 06.21.04 at 5:39 am

I basically agree with this analysis, but on the other hand Bertie’s political career has been partly built around people underestimating how sharp he is.


Vance Maverick 06.21.04 at 8:10 am

Piano-bar crooner? I believe you are confusing Prodi with Berlusconi.


schwa 06.21.04 at 10:21 am

No he isn’t; the Presidency of the Council of Ministers (the twenty-five governments, as opposed to the Commission) rotates six-monthly, and Italy preceded Ireland,* so Berlusconi proceeded Ahearn.

* Although I don’t quite get that; I thought the order of rotation was based on alphabetical order of state names in native language, so Ireland would be alphabetised under Eire… damn you, MT, stop stripping my accented characters.)


schwa 06.21.04 at 10:26 am

Wait, now I’m hideously confused. The first time I read this entry it said “Berlusconi” where now it says “Prodi”. I’m going to go sit in the corner for a while.


Bob 06.21.04 at 12:30 pm

“Former Tory Party chairman Chris Patten has announced he will not now stand for the presidency of the EU’s executive Commission.” – from:


Eimear Ní Mhéalóid 06.21.04 at 12:31 pm

According to the Irish Constitution, “The name of the State is Ireland, or in the Irish language, Eire”. This caused difficulties with the UK which would not accredit its ambassadors to The President of Ireland. So the UK developed a convention of referring to the Irish State as Eire. As part of the Belfast Agreement, the UK agreed to refer to “Ireland” in future but this is unlikely to change the established habit of the BBC and UK citizens in general.

The recent drubbing of his party at the local and European elections is thought to make Bertie less, not more, inclined to take up the Presidency of the Commission.

I’m confused too. Berlusconi preceded Bertie Ahern as President of the Council of Ministers. If Bertie accepts the Presidency of the Commission then Prodi will be (will have been? need new tenses) his predecessor. No idea which of them croons but I understand the Irish in EU circles in general are usually keen on a singsong.


Georg 06.21.04 at 1:56 pm

I agree with the post. There’s also the problem that most of the remaining candidates are virtually unknown to most Europeans. For example, although I’m a relatively political person, I know hardly anything about Ahern (living in Austria), while I do have some nice memories of Patten shedding tears at the handover of Hongkong. So I’d prefer a prominent visionary who has the guts for the details. Guenter Verheugen might qualify, but it’s the conservatives turn. Are there ANY politicians around that would make convincing candidates? Just for fun: what about Kenneth Clarke or Wolfgang Schaeuble?


Henry 06.21.04 at 3:05 pm

Eimear, Schwa

Sorry for the confusion – I originally had Berlusconi, but one of my CT colleagues thought that I’d confused him with Prodi (not an unlikely hypothesis) and corrected my post for me. I’ve just corrected it back.


Frank Quist 06.21.04 at 3:50 pm

I still think you’re confusing things.

Your post is about who will become the new Commission president (“will become the next Commission President”, “I suspect that he’s going to be another in an increasingly long line of mediocre Commission Presidents”). You’re talking about Berlusconi. He did not serve the commission, that was Prodi. See wikipedia.orgEuropean_Commission


Henry 06.21.04 at 4:11 pm

Nope – my post was a little ambiguous (hence the previous effort by another CTite to correct etc). What I was referring to was Ahern’s direct predecessor as holder of the Presidency of the European Council, which rotates among the member states. Berlusconi was Ahern’s immediate predecessor in this position, and didn’t do a very good job of it.


Tano 06.21.04 at 5:24 pm

With all due respect, you really have screwed this up.
If you mean Berlusconi followed by Ahern as the presidency of the council, then there is no sense in talking about a preference for Chris Patten – who is a Brit, not Irish, and not a head of governemtn, and would not therefore be eligible to assume the presidency of the council in a rotation.

The job you are clearly referring to is the Commission president – who can be chosen from any country. That was Prodi. His term is up. A replacement is now being sought. Ahern is a possibility.


Chris Bertram 06.21.04 at 6:17 pm

Mea culpa. I read Henry’s post as referring to the outgoing Commission President and assumed he’d mistyped Berlusconi for Prodi. But in that sentence he was referring to Aherne’s predecessor as President of the Council of Ministers (though he didn’t spell it out) so my “helpful correction” really screwed things up. Sorry Henry.


Henry 06.21.04 at 7:41 pm

Tano – what I said is

bq. On the one hand, Ahern is a very skilled politician and dealmaker. He played a blinder on the negotiations of the EU’s draft constitution, managing to build a real consensus on top of some very shaky foundations. The contrast with his immediate predecessor, Silvio Berlusconi, is substantial – Berlusconi seemed to be more interested in reviving his career as a piano-bar crooner than in actually negotiating (more on this soon).

What I’m saying here is that Berlusconi was Ahern’s immediate predecessor as _President of the Council_ (and more particularly, acting as primus inter pares in the negotiations over the EU constitution). Ahern did a pretty good job of this – Berlusconi didn’t. I then go back afterwards to discussing Ahern’s prospects for the very different job of President of the Commission. But clearly, I should have done more to signal the jump from the one to the other – it has generated a lot of confusion.


Vance Maverick 06.21.04 at 8:43 pm

Glad to have this straightened out. Berlusconi did start out as a crooner–though usually people mention that he sang on a cruise ship, which sounds even more absurd than a piano bar.

Prodi started as a professor of economics, then did well in a technocratic administrative post (head of one of the Italian state industries) before moving into electoral politics. Many regard him as the only man capable of holding together a coalition of the Italian left. Every time I read an interview with him he comes off as sympathetic, intelligent, focused — admittedly I tend to read them in La Repubblica, which is in his corner.

All that said, though, I gather his EU presidency has not been a great success. I’d welcome comments from the sages of CT.


eirepol 06.21.04 at 10:15 pm

Ahern is not a credible Commission president. He has neither political vision nor technocratic competence. He is essentially a backroom dealmaker and political broker and his core belief seems to be the avoidance of getting locked into positions where somone might be offended or alienated. He is so cautious that he didn’t carry out a badly needed cabinet reshuffle, after being re-elected in 2002, for fear of upsetting some jaded old colleague. Instead he made only the the most minimal changes. Such an approach has been suitable for persuading the social partners to sign up for another wage agreement or even to secure agreement for a draft European constitution. But I would expect no clarity of vision or any persuasive elucidation of the European project that might thwart euroscepticism. Ahern’s party, Fianna Fáil, is a populist, nationalist, right of centre party that exists only to exercise power. It has always been relentlessly pragmatic and has always put office ahead of policy. So if the requirement is for a president who won’t offend anyone and who is highly risk-averse, then Bertie’s your only man.


schwa 06.22.04 at 12:51 am

Yes, because God knows the EU isn’t run out of its back rooms, and avoiding conflict among twenty-five giant-economy-size egos isn’t a valuable skill for the head of the EU bureaucracy to have…


schwa 06.22.04 at 1:01 am

Dialing back the snark a little: Ahern is not my favourite candidate, but this is in the nature of compromise candidates. All the Europhile visionaries have made one or more enemies who can keep them out of the job. Unless the UK suddenly plunges into Europhilia, or Chirac and Schroeder just roll over and wag their tails, the only people who can get the job (I keep wanting to say “can make it through the Senate”) will necessarily be conflict-avoiders in the Ahern mould.


Aidan Kehoe 06.22.04 at 12:28 pm

This is weird; Wikipedia lists six occasions when both Ireland and Italy were eligible for presidency of the council of ministers. Up until 1990, Ireland came before Italy; after that, Italy came first. Saying it’s a matter of Repubblica Italiana vs. Republic of Ireland doesn’t work either, because neither country’s name changed in that time.


Andrew Boucher 06.23.04 at 6:08 am

This is a late comment, but I doubt Ahern is going to make it. Ahern: (1) apparently doesn’t speak French; and (2) doesn’t come from core Europe (Ireland’s not in the passport-free zone).


Greg 06.23.04 at 1:08 pm

I think the fact that Ireland’s outside the Schengen zone won’t hurt Bertie half as much as that fact that Fianna Fail are in the wrong Parliamentary grouping.

I guess this is why Peter Sutherland is being hinted at as a possible compromise candidate. He was Ireland’s best ever attorney general (supposedly), a successful EU commissioner, and chaired the GATT and WTO talks. His old party, Fine Gael, are in the largest grouping in the EU parliament, which would help him, and language skills wouldn’t be a problem.

I don’t think the Schengen issue is likely to hurt him, since everyone knows that Ireland is outside the zone for purely practical reasons, based on the UK not playing ball. As for Ireland’s defence policy? Well, Fine Gael have long tended to argue that we should be in a common defence arrangement…

I still think it’s a shame that Patten’s not a possibility. I reckon having him as President of the Commission could have been very useful in getting the UK to play ball. Ah well…

For what it’s worth, I thought the original post was quite lucid. I didn’t have any problems with it at all.

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