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Germany's Schaeuble wants to rebalance EU Commission's role

[BERLIN] Germany's finance minister wants to correct the balance between the European Commission's political role and its regulatory powers, reflecting concern in Berlin over the EU executive's neutrality as its political clout grows.

A spokeswoman for the German Finance Ministry said on Thursday that Wolfgang Schaeuble had raised the idea at a meeting of European Union finance ministers in Brussels two weeks ago.

"The minister ... addressed the role of the institutions. Taken as a whole, what's important here is that the Commission keeps the right balance between its political function and its role as a guardian of the treaties," the spokeswoman said.

Among issues raised were the Commission's ability to enforce EU budget discipline rules neutrally, a persistent concern of Germany, which accuses Brussels of being too soft on countries that run persistent excessive budget deficits.

But the spokeswoman denied that Schaeuble sought to emasculate the executive by stripping it of its core antitrust and free market enforcement powers, as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) reported on Thursday.

The newspaper said Schaeuble had proposed transferring to politically independent authorities responsibility for regulating competition - which covers merger control, abuses of market dominance, cartels and state aid to industry - and for upholding the EU's single market rules.

Along with the power to conduct trade negotiations on behalf of the 28-nation bloc, enforcing competition and single market rules are the Commission's most potent prerogatives.

The FAZ added that the Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem wanted to make this topic a key plank of the Dutch EU presidency's programme in the first half of 2016.

Dutch Finance Ministry spokeswoman Simone Boitelle said she was unaware of any concrete plan to table the idea during the Dutch presidency or make it a policy goal. "I think somebody has been adding things up that aren't necessarily meant to be added up," she said, though she welcomed the discussion about the Commission's role.

European Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva played down the report, saying the EU executive would not comment "on echoes of rumours".

She noted that the Commission's role under the EU treaty went far beyond the right to initiate and enforce legislation since it was charged with promoting the general European interest.

The German spokeswoman said Schaeuble's comments were made in an initial debate on a report by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and the heads of other EU institutions on further deepening of the euro zone.

Finance ministers would return to the subject for a fuller debate in Luxembourg on Sept 11-12.

The report, published ahead of a June summit, called for both short-term measures and longer-term steps to strengthen eurozone governance and complete a European banking union.

The conservative Mr Schaeuble, 73, is a veteran pro-European who has long favoured turning the Commission over time into a European "government". That would not be incompatible with handing some of its regulatory enforcement functions to independent agencies, as Germany does with its Federal Cartel Office, diplomats said.