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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cutting Back The European Commission

Reflect for a moment on the fate of Thorvald Stoltenberg, one of Norway's most prominent politicians. A devoted servant to his country and to worthy international causes, he has been defense minister, foreign minister, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and a mediator charged with the task of ending the Yugoslav wars.


Now he has been nominated as Norway's candidate for the European Commission, and the field of policy allocated to him is -- wait for it -- fish.


He may not even get that job, because Norwegians are quite likely to vote against joining the European Union in their Nov. 28 referendum.


Politicians all over the EU fight fiercely for the privilege of serving on the commission. They recognize it for what it is: a mighty international institution capable of stamping indelible marks on the lives of more than 300 million Europeans. The problem with the commission is that it is rather secretive, a little bit smug and wholly unelected.


For those unversed in the workings of the EU, the commission is the union's executive authority, a body that both proposes legislation and is responsible for implementing it. Enthusiasts for full European political and economic unity would call it an embryonic government for Europe. Critics would call it a club for politicians who like nothing better than well-paid, influential jobs without too much accountability.


The new commission, whose composition was made public last weekend at a castle in Luxembourg, contains 21 members. It is headed by Jacques Santer, a Luxembourger, and contains two members each from Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Spain and one each from the smaller EU countries. But the question must be asked: Does the EU really need 21 commissioners?


It is with no disrespect to Marcelino Oreja of Spain or to Emma Bonino of Italy to suggest that the EU may not actually need commissioners dealing with "EU institutions and culture" and "consumer policy and humanitarian aid," the areas for which Santer has given them responsibility.


If the EU expands in the next 10 years to take in countries such as Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, one can easily imagine new jobs being invented such as "commissioner for tadpole-breeding" and "commissioner of shoelaces."


The fact is that the commission must come down in size, and the European Parliament -- the only EU institution that has a genuine direct mandate from voters -- must have greater powers to assess the suitability of nominated commissioners for their jobs. At the moment, the parliament votes on the commission as a whole, rather than on individual appointees, and the result is that it cannot realistically throw the whole lot of them out because that would create too serious a crisis.


One possible reform is for each EU country to have only one commissioner. But even that would leave the commission too bloated when the EU expands. Another option is to have a system of senior and junior commissioners and to accept that every country will sometimes be unrepresented in the senior ranks. This proposal will doubtless meet with strong opposition from countries which, for all their Euro-idealism, still want their own man or woman in there at the top.


In the end, though, everyone will have to accept change. Reforming the commission, and making the EU more democratic, is the priority of the day.