The European Parliament votes on the new EU Commission on Tuesday. But for the replacement for the original Bulgarian Commissioner the vote is a minor hurdle compared to the tasks of the next five years
On Tuesday the European Parliament will vote on the second Barroso commission, two weeks late. The delay is thanks to the replacement of the troubled original Bulgarian candidate, Rumjana Jeleva. Her replacement, Kristalina Georgieva, now faces more than just her immediate duties as ‘Commissioner for Haiti'.
The Jeleva episode, and the concerns thrown up by her deeply unconvincing presentation before the parliament, exacerbated a widespread view of Bulgaria as a notoriously corrupt country. Among Georgieva's tasks are to convince the sceptics that Bulgaria is a competent European partner, while defining her own role in the EU foreign policy machinery.
The allegations of conflicts of interest prior to and after Jeleva's hearing were bad news for the new government in Sofia. It had arrived in office with the promise to crack down on crime and corruption, end the mismanagement of EU funds, and overcome the pervasive perception around Europe and elsewhere that Bulgaria produces only bad news. In this sense the successful candidacy of Kristalina Georgieva, the new Commissioner designate for international cooperation, humanitarian aid and crisis response, brought relief to the Bulgarian government - and, no doubt, to Commission President Barroso. But it is only one (even if a major) step on the way of turning Bulgaria into a ‘more equal' member of the Union. Georgieva's role here will be crucial.
For a start she will have to convince a Bulgarian public of the importance of her own job. Bulgarians seem sure that few other peoples on the planet are worse of than themselves, and that helping the global needy is a matter of duty for every citizen in the EU. A recent Eurobarometer survey on development aid showed that Bulgarians are the least inclined to see their country offer poor people help (0%), rather than the EU or the UN. Hence, the lack of a clear inter-agency system for releasing development aid to date. On the concrete issue of civil protection, which is at the heart of Georgieva's portfolio, Bulgarian respondents to another Eurobarometer poll perceive themselves as highly threatened by natural disasters and are least informed about prevention (9%). So although she has declared her priorities being in Asia or Latin America, the new aid Commissioner will have to spend a good amount of her time on opening the horizon of the domestic public debate as well as on overcoming the notion that the EU cares for others first, and its own citizens second. (While listening to the radio advertisement for a concert benefitting Haiti, one Sofia taxi driver exclaimed, "Why would we do a concert for that exotic island when we didn't have one after the drowning of 15 Bulgarians in the lake Ohrid last September?".)
On the question of what her first task in office would be, Georgieva answered instantly, "Haiti". Of course, the Haiti earthquake of 12 January radically changed the perceptions and the expectations of her portfolio. But looking mid- and long-term, she also mentioned the establishment of a European voluntary corps in 2011 and the improved coordination and effectiveness of providing aid, while integrating the efforts with reconstruction and long-term development. And it is here another bottle neck can be found: managing the trade-off between the necessary (immediate relief) and the politically viable (non-cooperation with unacceptable regimes) will be her daily struggle. Finding the right balance within the Commission (and accommodating the strategising of the member states) will be a hard exercise of political judgment and vision.
Although these goals seem to be quite a load already, an equally challenging part of Georgieva's job will be to position herself within the College. During her hearing, she relayed a simple message: that she will be open and serious, will work in a team with the High Representative for Foreign Policy and the Commissioner for Development, and at the same time will protect the independence of her portfolio. Georgieva made a credible pledge for innovation (the proposal of "disaster insurance" for risk countries and regions) and promised to be "the voice of the voiceless", even when European vested interests stood in her way.
In the context of the complex and often confusing powers of the main actors in European foreign policy (the President of the Council, the rotating president, the head of the European Parliament, the European Commission President, the High Representative for foreign policy plus three Commissioners with responsibilities in this area) Georgieva created a solid impression of a someone who clearly understands her duties and their limits.
But there is more to Kristalina Georgieva's task than simply negotiating the post-Lisbon European institutional minefield, and finding new ways to bring coherence and structure to the EU's foreign policy machinery (without being swallowed by it). At a time when European economies are themselves under strain, simply selling the importance of her job will be difficult enough in the rest of Europe, let alone Bulgaria. On the European stage she will also be faced with selling Bulgaria's credibility as a member state. And on the global stage her work will have a direct impact on the lives of many of the world's poorest. The European parliamentary vote will only be the first obstacle of a very challenging five years.
Read more on: Wider Europe
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.