Judging from the first comments, last week's grilling of the new commissioner-designate for enlargement and neighborhood policy Stefan Füle revealed to some a surprisingly promising figure for the European political landscape.
The career diplomat’s prudent formulations and seemingly modest ambitions have repeatedly paid off for him, notably over the course of 2009.
Last April’s fall of the Czech government in the middle of the EU presidency could not have been better timed for Mr Füle who was about to leave Brussels after four years of having represented Prague as its ambassador to Nato.
The stalemate situation in the Czech parliament produced a bi-partisan agreement on a caretaker cabinet and created a demand for bi-partisan public servants – a category which Mr Füle perfectly embodied.
With limited EU experience, but broad political support, Stefan Füle was to his own surprise chosen as interim minister for European Affairs with a simple task: to steer the badly shaken EU presidency to a decent conclusion. As the Czech political chaos lingers, the caretaker cabinet’s mandate did not see its promised end.
Initially, the autumn debate on the Czech nomination for the EU commission revolved around various names, but the stalemate mathematics could provide only for one candidate, whom all parties “would not mind.”
With zero visibility – and actually modest expectations – of the future portfolio for their nominee, the Czech government made after all quite a wise selection. If nothing else, Mr Fuele’s long diplomatic experience compensates for his relatively low knowledge of EU issues.
On one hand, Mr Barroso’s subsequent assignment of portfolios produced reasonable expectations that enlargement and neighborhood policy issues will remain in capable hands. On the other hand, however, in the course of his career, Mr Füle has only defended the interests of the Czech Republic – his abilities to serve independently (from Prague) have yet to be proven.
During the parliamentary hearings, he already struck some different tones to the generally enlargement-cautious line of the EU commission. The outgoing executive has always been careful not to link enlargement perspectives with neighbourhood policy. But Mr Füle did not rule that out, especially in the case of Ukraine. He has also expressed support for Turkey’s EU membership, which is a rather divisive issue among member states.
Expectations lie eastwards of the current EU border as well. The recent claim of the Ukrainian Prime Minister that (if elected president) she will lead Kiev to the EU within five years has to be regarded as a promise which not only reflects the quality of Ukrainian political culture, but also the anxieties in several post-Soviet capitals whether the EU will or will not stick to its pledges that any European country can become a member.
At the end of the day, the Union’s boundaries are drawn in the capitals, not by the commission.
The EU can have a passable enlargement commissioner but his or her personal qualities matter little when there is the political impetus to enlarge. Or, we can have a brilliant commissioner wasting his or her energy since there is no coherent vision about further enlargement. Though Mr Füle may eventually prove to be the latter case, for the moment he enters the stage as a man whom “nobody minds.”