Commissioner of Last Resort

Janez Lenačič, the (current?) Slovenian nominee for commissioner in the upcoming European Commission, had his first hearing in the Slovenian parliament yesterday. As the nomination process is wholly within the government purview, the parliamentary hearing is mostly a dog-and-pony show, intended to appease the grandstanding urges of MPs. Nevertheless, the non-binding vote finally brought to an end to the latest case study in how not to manage human resources.

Marjan Šarec (left) and Janez Lenarčič (source)

To say that the entire episode was a shitshow deluxe would be a bit of an understatement. It is incredibly ironic how PM Marjan Šarec was ever so vocal about the bizarre spectacle of shambolic commissioner nomination Muddy Hollows endured in 2014 and yet ended up pretty much in the same place Alenka Bratušek and later Miro Cerar ended up in five years ago.

In fact, one cannot escape the uncomfortable conclusion that Šarec was much more worried about the past than he is about the future.

This goes a long way in explaining why Slovenia, for all the talk about “things being different this time around” again ended up nominating someone who is “politically untainted” rather than “politically experienced”.

He basically said so himself in his Facebook post on the issue.[0]=68.ARC0twDfdAp9hUXXraS2O42ebrc0gXdOpwRhAUWuh8JL1BGeoRPXhHyl0nXr5VU76n7pRU0n9nHW5rJzeofucOru5bR0ROxV8nfuC52HFM5huN9rnoAjhOq45bEJAraGhHl50qhTV6gQOw-sze5hIXcoztIJY3eNcj82oqUJLOPgLYFHxRyiFKN_ulyBNZl7GHcUDtUfQW_4V4aG0wzLGsKbTuLC5A8pPpLxd_7uGIPhzn0vREgO721wPNQ5BAleesu3-dcvATjoWF9suuKaiLqbEimaiLbdXdkre1O5Kp2j_sI0BIKXwuZCwKwXB5OFEiEUSH3G6aRMTqWNvH4&__tn__=-R

That is not to say that Janez Lenarčič is unfit for the commissioner post. Quite the opposite, in fact. As the current head of the Slovenian permanent representation to the EU (basically, the person running the Slovenian show in Brussels on a daily basis), with a wide range of high-level postings in various international institutions and impressive mileage in shaping Slovenian EU policy in both left- and right-wing governments.

In short, Lenarčič is a top-tier Slovenian asset. That just got wasted on a five-year temp-job in Brussels.

While commissioners from members states always use their influence and portfolios to bring home a little bit of EU-flavoured bacon, their primary job description is protecting the interests of the EU and not those of individual member states.

Which is why it makes little sense for Slovenia to give up the person who knew their way around Brussels corridors of power best, two years before the country is due to take over the EU’s rotating presidency.

And yet, nominating an above-the-political-fray diplomat and technocrat was increasingly the only way out of the mess PM Šarec got himself into.

Consider the backdrop to all of this:

First, there is Šarec’s snub to the European Parliament which did not go over well, neither at home nor in Brussels. Then there was his party LMŠ going solo at the EU elections in May this year, despite calls from many quarters (including European liberals, ALDE, as they were known then), to negotiate a joint liberal ticket with SAB, LMŠ and potentially DeSUS.

Or, the near-faux pas when he was scheduled to travel back home during EU Top Jobs negotiations in June to attend several typically Slovenian evenements locaux, anniversaries of volunteer fire brigades and such, only to clear his schedule at the very last moment. Someone probably realised that the optics of leaving Brussels during crunch-time would not only be politically disastrous for the PM but would also relegate Slovenia to having to contend with leftovers when the rest of jobs will be divvied up and favours start getting called in.

Finally, there was the speed at which Šarec kept finding fault with every potential commissioner nominee whose name came up in the past month. Not that he was alone in this undertaking – the SD, for example, were quick to launch a blistering disinformation campaign against Miro Cerar when he appeared as a viable candidate – but still.

As if all of this did not already complicate things beyond reason, the PM kept obsessing over the Bratušek/Cerar/Bulc episode five years ago, apparently determined to nominate someone who will not get shot down in the process.

Which is a pretty low bar to clear, to be honest.

Still, in combination with all the other factors (the Mexican stand-off between other potential candidates, Šarec’s ambivalence towards the EU and LMŠ underachieving on the European stage), the task was apparently difficult enough that the PM had to resort to nominating a non-partisan technocrat to what is essentially a political gig.

And this is where Šarec’s reasoning is at its weakest and goes to show that he still doesn’t really understand how the EU works, much less that he internalised the need to engage politically on European level as well.

In fact, despite showing some slight improvement in this area, the EU in Šarec’s view still seems something that needs to be appeased and kept at bay, and not as a tool to amplify and expand Slovenian political reach. It is as if the only reason the EU exists in his mind is providing money for various local and regional development projects.

You can take a man out of Kamnik, but you can’t take Kamnik out of the man.

Which is why he might think that nominating Lenarčič is a really great idea when it is not.

To be frank, it is not a really bad idea either, but if her nomination speech is anything to go by, Ursula von der Leyen intends to run a commission that will be just as political than Jean-Claude Juncker’s was. If not more.

A non-political, non-partisan commissioner nominee for a commission that will have an overtly political agenda therefore is a bit of an ill fit and seems like an easy target for anyone who has a bone to pick with the new European Commission.

And while nobody expects Lenarčič to flunk his hearing in the European Parliament the way Alenka Bratušek did five years ago, the fact that he has no political affiliation will make him easer to dispense with, should the parliamentary mathematics and representation of political groups not add up for von der Leyen.

Not to mention the fact that Šarec’s government still hasn’t set out any real priorities with respect to the new commission. There were some noises in the direction of Muddy Hollows wanting the enlargement portfolio (which, actually, is not a bad idea), but then there were noises made in other directions as well, such as regional development, science and technology, etc…

Point being that the government doesn’t really know what to do with this whole EU thing, which is why it basically had to nominate someone who fits many bills. You know, just in case.

Which goes to show that for all his expertise and experience (of which there can be no doubt), Janez Lenarčič is in fact a nominee of last resort rather than a brilliant choice by a politically uber-savvy PM some cast Marjan Šarec to be.

Case in point the ham-fisted approach Šarec took to force the nomination through government procedure, which basically rubbed every coalition partner the wrong way and enraged the Social Democrats to the point of actually voting against the nomination in the cabinet vote, which in itself is a rare occurrence.

This, again, shows that a nominally politically weak non-partisan candidate was the only option for Šarec if he wanted to both have the cake and eat it.

Which might cost him dearly in the end.

Because when all is said and done, there is still the fact that the new Commission president was quite clear that she expects to appoint 50% of women commissioners and asked for members states to come up with one male and one female nominee, to make her job easier.

Not many member states are heeding that call right now and if she comes up short in the end, VDL might well look to ask nominees with the least political footprint to be replaced by a female candidate.

You do the math.

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Agent provocateur and an occasional scribe.