The European Comission -

the evolving EU executive


Morten Egeberg

Reader’s Guide

This chapter looks at an international institution that has more in common with a national government than with other international organizations. We will first present its tasks, which are rather similar to those of national executives. We then shortly discuss the Commission’s influence in the larger EU system and the role of nationality in Commission decision-making as this is seen from an intergovernmentalist and an institutionalist perspective. In addition, an organizational perspective is presented which says that the role nationality might play is highly contingent upon how the Commission is structured and staffed. Thus, when portraying the different parts of the Commission; the College, the cabinets, the services and the committee system, the focus is always on organizational structure and personnel composition. These portrayals all end with a short discussion on the implications of organization and recruitment for policy processes in the Commission.



The author is grateful for helpful comments on an earlier draft from Michelle Cini and Gerhard Sabathil. 


Among the institutions of international organizations the European Commission is a rather unique kind of construction. International organizations have secretariats, but secretariats do not enjoy a separate political function like that of the Commission. If we, however, compare the Commission with national governments, it is not that peculiar any more. Like state executives the Commission consists of a group of politicians at the top and an administrative apparatus beneath. The tasks assigned to it are also quite similar to those of national governments, as will be shown in the next section. However, the extent to which the Commission should be seen as a really powerful actor on the European scene is a highly contentious issue. It is also disputed whether the Commission itself, in its internal decision processes, is permeated by national interests, or whether it has a will of its own. Both topics are addressed in the following section, and the latter one will be an enduring theme throughout this chapter.


It seems quite reasonable to start this presentation of EU institutions (Part III) by introducing the European Commission. The Commission submits its policy proposals to the Council of the European Union (Ch. 9) and the European Parliament (Ch. 10), which both may be seen as legislative bodies in this respect. Theoretically, this chapter contrasts intergovernmentalist and institutionalist thought (see Chapters 6 and 7), and adds an organizational perspective that is shortly presented in Box 1. After having presented the functions of the Commission in the overall European Union (EU) polity and the theoretical ideas, I then go on, in the third section, to describe how the various Commission components (the College, the cabinets, the services and the committee system) are structured and recruited. The discussion on each part is summed up by showing how decision processes might be contingent upon the way entities are organized and staffed. Finally, the question is raised whether the Commission has become a real institution. If so, its robustness against internal reform efforts as well as against pressure from external actors, e.g., national governments, has probably increased.


Key points


·        EU Commission is unique as an international institution

·        The Commission displays many of the same features as national governments

·        The Commission is seen by some as permeated by national interests

·        It is seen by others as independent and supranational

The role of the Commission in the EU polity

Commission tasks

Like national executives the Commission is expected to initiate and formulate policies, e.g. in the form of legislative, budgetary and programme proposals. These policy documents are prepared for the legislative bodies. In the EU the legislature is composed of two parts; the European Parliament (EP) and the Council. This construction may be seen as somewhat parallel to the two chamber systems that we find in federal systems where the second chamber is meant to express more explicitly the will of the constituent territories. In the EU the Council assumes this role, although this does not mean that the Council is secondary to the EP as far as political power is concerned, quite the contrary. Under the so-called first (supranational) pillar, which encompasses the internal market and the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), the Commission has an exclusive agenda-setting role. Other actors, like the European Council, the EP, member governments or interest groups may of course, and they do, take initiatives and advance policy proposals. It is, however, up to the Commission to decide whether such inputs will be put on the agenda and subsequently passed on to the legislature. In practice, policy initiatives also under the first pillar quite often originate from outside the Commission itself. Under the formally intergovernmental pillars; the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) pillar (second pillar) and the Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) pillar (third pillar), the Commission does not have this exclusive agenda-setting role. It may still be active, though, in developing policy programmes. According to the Amsterdam Treaty, the third pillar is due to be gradually transferred to the first and formally supranational pillar. Regarding the EU’s foreign and security policy, the Secretary General of the Council has also been appointed as the High Representative for the Union’s CFSP (“Foreign Policy Chief”). The strengthening of the Council secretariat in this respect, thus challenging the Commission’s executive role, illustrates clearly the considerable amount of tension between intergovernmentalism and supranationalism in this particular policy arena.


Like national executives the Commission is also expected to implement the policies that have been decided by the legislature. In an EU context this means first of all to monitor and oversee implementation processes in the member states. Like in the Federal Republic of Germany, policy execution remains mainly the responsibility of the constituent governments. However, before implementation may take place at the national level it may need to be concretized since outputs from the EP and the Council (combined) may sometimes be more like broad policy guidelines than precise steering instruments. Thus, it is up to the Commission, in close cooperation with the member states, to detail and fill in EP/Council legislation and policies with more precise rules, such as “Commission directives and regulations”. When doing this the Commission issues delegated legislation. The Commission involves itself only to a limited extent in implementation at the level of handling individual cases. As already said, applying EU rules in practice is usually handed over to national governments. However, within the competition policy field also the Commission itself handles individual cases, for example firm merger applications, according to EU competition law. Finally, among the Commission’s key tasks should be mentioned its external representation role. Like national governments, the Commission staffs and runs “embassies” (Delegations) throughout the world. No less than 130 offices are present in non-member countries. The Commission is the main negotiator for the Union in trade and cooperation negotiations and in international organizations.



Commission influence

The Commission participates in all phases and at all possible levels of the policy-making process. Subsequent to having presented a policy proposal, it attends meetings in the relevant EP committee and plenary sessions, the relevant Council working party, the Council Committee of Permanent Representatives (COREPER) and the relevant Council ministerial meeting in order to defend its proposal, and, if necessary, to mediate between conflicting parties. The Commission also presents policy documents at European Council meetings and Intergovernmental Conferences (IGCs). Still, it remains highly contested whether Commission initiatives make a significant difference or not. According to intergovernmental thought national governments make up the real driving forces in the European project, as in all other politics at the international scene. In the liberal intergovernmentalist version, the Commission plays a certain role in the first pillar, however, the authority it exercises as an agenda-setter and overseer of national implementation is only a derived and delegated authority (Moravcsik 1998). The Commission thus may facilitate intergovernmental cooperation, but, according to this view, it has no real power basis of its own. All it can do is decided upon and framed by the constituent nation states at previous IGCs. Most institutionalists, on the other hand, argue that the Commission, on several occasions, has displayed strong leadership and impacted profoundly even on the outcomes of “history-shaping” and frame-setting IGCs and European Council meetings. For example, Armstrong and Bulmer (1998) assign a highly significant role to the Commission (and other EU institutions as well for that matter) in the process that led to the creation of the internal market. The internal market, in place from 1993, is indeed one of the important frames within which the Commission operates under the first pillar. Institutionalists would, however, also argue that treaty-based frameworks, focused so heavily upon by intergovernmentalists, quite often are rather vague and ambiguous constructions that need to be concretized through day-to-day policy-making. When it comes to this follow-up work the Commission is one of the key actors.


Another, but related, scholarly dispute deals with the extent to which the Commission as such is able to impact on the decision processes that go on within itself. To many intergovernmentalists, the Commission appears to be very much an arena permeated by national interests. From this perspective, Commissioners, their cabinet members, as well as officials in the services, are seen as mainly pursuing the interests of their respective national governments. Institutionalists, on the other, tend to emphasize that the Commission, like other institutitons, furnish individual actors with particular interests and beliefs, and that it may even be able to resocialize people so that they gradually come to assume supranational identities. From an organizational perspective (see Box 1), the contending approaches may be both partly correct in their assumptions: the extent to which individuals’ preferences and allegiances might become shaped or reshaped within the Commission has to depend on the Commission’s organizational structure, organizational demography and degree of instittutionalization (Egeberg 1996).


                                             BOX 1

An Organizational Perspective: Key Concepts

Independent (explanatory) variables:

Organizational structure

An organizational structure is a normative structure composed of rules and roles specifying, more or less clearly, who are expected to do what, and how (Scott 1992). Thus, the structure may define broadly the interests and goals that are to be pursued, and the concerns that should be emphasized. According to Gulick (1937) there are four fundamental ways in which tasks may be distributed horizontally among organizational units, namely in relation to geography (territory), purpose (sector), process (function), or clientele served. If an organization or system is specialised according to the geographical area served it means that each area has its “own” organizational unit. In this case, the structure reflects the territorial composition of the system and focuses attention along territorial lines of cleavage. Organizations based on a purpose principle, on the other hand, are supposed to foster sectoral horizons among decision-makers and policy standardisation across territorial units. Process specialization means that work is divided according to the function that has to be fulfilled in order to attain a goal (e.g., units for budgeting, planning, staffing).

Organizational demography

According to Pfeffer (1982:277) demography refers to the personnel composition, in terms of basic attributes such as age, sex, social and geographical background, education and length of service of the social entity under study. A demographic perspective emphasizes the effects that flows of personnel (where people come from, their present and future careers) might have on decision processes. Background factors are supposed to be less important if, for example, the organizational structure is composed of permanent posts. In that case, life-long career patterns may develop, thus making resocialization of recruits more likely. 


From an organizational point of view all institutions are organizations, not all organisations are, however, institutions. Institutionalisation is a dimension of organizations that adds important characteristics. According to Selznick (1957), institutionalisation necessarily takes time. It means that organizations are growing increasingly complex by adding informal norms and practices. To become a “real” institution, however, the grown-up and complex organization also has to be infused with value beyond the technical requirements of the task at hand.


Dependent (effect) variable:

Actual decision behaviour/decision processes

Here the focus is on those who actually participate in a decision process, the interests they pursue and the choices they make. A decision process encompasses not only the formal decision phase, but also the initial and implementation stages.



To illuminate the argument, let us contrast two alternative organizational designs of the Commission; one that is supposed to be highly conducive to an intergovernmental pattern of behaviour (alternative 1), and one assumed to be far more compatible with the institutional expectation (alternative 2). In alternative 1, the Commission is specialized according to the geographical area served so that it contains one particular department for each member state. All posts are temporary, and they are filled by nationals from the country served. Each member government appoints the staff of “their” respective departments. Alternative 2 means that the organizational structure reflects different sectors or functions rather than the territorial components (countries) of the system. Posts are permanent and units are staffed multi-nationally so that national clusters or enclaves do not emerge. Officials are recruited by the Commission itself, and they have life-long careers for the most part. Thus, in order to grasp how the Commission actually works we have to highlight the organizational features that are present. These features do not necessarily work coherently in the same direction as in the alternatives outlined above. Since there are underlying tensions in most important institutions, as, for example, between intergovernmentalism and supranationalism in the Commission, the organization of the day often expresses the competing forces behind.


Key points


·        The Commission has an exclusive right to propose new legislation

·        It is responsible for the implementation of EU policy, although this is for the most part taken care of by the Member States

·        It is representing the EU throughout the world through 130 Delegations.

·        The Commission is seen as relatively insignificant by intergovernmentalists, while as having an independent impact by institutionalists

·        From an organizational perspective, the role of nationality in Commission decision-making depends primarily on how the Commission is structured and staffed


Commission structure, demography and decision-making

The President and the College of Commissioners

The Commission has both a political and an administrative part. This does not at all mean that the processes that unfold in the administrative branch are without political significance. What it does mean, however, is that we have a group of political leaders – the College of Commissioners – at the helm of the organization, and a much larger number of officials in the services beneath. On this ground, the Commission has often been portrayed as a hybrid and unique kind of institution. This notion may be understandable if we compare the Commission with a traditional secretariat of an international organization since such a secretariat only comprises an administrative component. If we, however, on the other hand, conceive of the Commission more as a kind of government, its basic structure suddenly looks much more familiar. In that case the Commissioners are equivalent to the ministers of a national government, and the administrative parts have, as we will see, a rather similar structure to that of a national bureaucracy.


The College consists of 20 Commissioners including the President of the Commission. Contentious issues that have not been resolved at lower echelons of the Commission are lifted up to this highest political level in order to find a way out. The College strives to achieve consensus through arguing and bargaining. If it does not succeed this way, however, voting may take place, although this seems to be relatively rare. In that case, all Commissioners, including the President, carry the same weight – one vote each. An absolute majority must provide support in order to reach a final decision. Since the College operates according to the principle of collegiality, meaning that all Commissioners are collectively responsible for all decisions taken, it is reason to believe that a relatively large proportion of all decisions are referred to the College itself. Although a minister in a national government usually is granted more room for manoeuvring than a Commissioner, the principle of collegiality may also be found at the national level, as is the case in the Swedish Council of Ministers.


The President, who chairs the meetings of the College, used to be thought of as primus inter pares. Over time, however, the role of the President has been steadily growing in importance. Today it seems accepted that the work of the College shall be subject to his/her political leadership. The President has got more influence on the appointment of the other Commissioners (se below), and also attained the right to reshuffle Commissioners’ areas of responsibility (portfolios) during their five years term of office, and even to dismiss individual Commissioners. Like a national Prime Minister the President also has to his/her disposal a permanent secretariat; in the Commission this is the General Secretariat (see below). The other Commissioners are all in charge of a particular Directorate General (DG) (see below), although Commissioners may be assigned the responsibility of more than one DG. When exercising their duties, Commissioners are not allowed to take instructions from anybody outside the Commission. Since the administration is mainly specialized according to the principles of purpose (sector) and process (function) (see Box 1), it follows that the organizational structure may be expected to activate and privilege sectoral and functional conflicts and identities among Commissioners (see Box 2). This tendency may be further underpinned by the Prodi Commission’s decision to house Commissioners with their respective departments instead of being located collectively in a separate building. Physical proximity among decision-makers usually foster some common perceptions among them.




                                         BOX 2

How politics within the Commission may reflect the sectoral and functional specialization of its organizational structure and related interest groups


The weekly European Voice (31 May – 6 June 2001) reported that the Transport Commissioner Loyola de Palacio was set for a clash with the Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström over the future direction of EU transport policy. “Officials from Wallström’s services have only just begun studying de Palacio’s White Paper on transport after it was released for consultation between Union executive departments. But already they say there are “things missing” from the 120-page document that are likely to prompt criticism from Wallström.” The newspaper reported that Wallström was likely to intervene with some of concerns raised by environmental interest groups over the policy proposal, which seeks to freeze road traffic at its current 44% share of all transport, but makes no attempt to reduce its overall growth. “Green groups say the White Paper fails to live up to the Amsterdam Treaty obligation to bring environmental objectives into all policy areas.” “Environmentalists insist the proposal will make it harder for the EU to comply with its Kyoto obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”


Although Commissioners do not formally represent national governments, they, nevertheless, are nominated by the Member States. The five larger countries – Germany, France, the UK, Italy and Spain - each have two Commissioners, and all other members have one each. Since future enlargement of the Union could increase the size of the College significantly and threaten its decision-making capacity, plans on how such an increase could be avoided have been launched. A possible solution is to let all Member States – small and large – nominate only one each. Ahead of appointing Commissioners, however, the Member States first have to agree on a candidate for the Commission Presidency. This is necessary in order to give the new President a real opportunity to influence the composition of his/her team. Over time the President’s role in selecting his/her colleagues has grown in importance. According to the Amsterdam Treaty, the President will, at least in theory, be able to reject candidates nominated by member governments instead of having no option but to accept them, as in the past. The President will also have the final say in how portfolios are allocated and even the right to reshuffle the team during the Commission’s five-year term of office by redistributing dossiers (files). While President Santer was not allowed to claim the resignation of one of his Commissioners in whom he had lost confidence, the President of the day has the right to do this.


Thus, Member States have over time seen their role in constituting the College somewhat diminished. The EP has, however, on he other hand, gradually gained more weight in the same process. The term of office of Colleges has been extended from four to five years so as to bring them into close alignment with the term of the EP, and the appointment of a new College has to take place subsequent to the EP elections. The EP shall not only be consulted on the choice of the President, but has also been assigned the right to approve his/her appointment. Steps have been taken to render the College directly accountable to the EP, as illustrated by the EP committees’ examination of nominated Commissioners, its vote of confidence, and its right to dismiss the entire College. Further initiatives in the same direction have been launched by the EP that, if realized, will bring the EU rather close to a parliamentary system. In a 1999 resolution the EP advocated a strong link between, on the one hand, the preferences expressed by Union citizens in EP elections and, on the other hand, the nomination of the College of Commissioners and its programme for the parliamentary term.     


What kind of College demography does this organizatinal structure bring? First of all, of course, it provides the political leadership of the Commission with a fixed mix of nationals – two from each of the larger Member States and one from each of the smaller ones. Second, it brings in people who have the same political party background as the national government that nominates them. The norm seems to be, though, that one of the two selected by the larger countries comes from the biggest opposition party. Over time, those who have been nominated have increasingly held senior political posts back home. Thus, prominent national ministers more often than before appear on the list of nominees. Such a recruitment pattern obviously furnish the College with additional political capital, but probably not in a strictly party political sense. A coherent party platform for the College as such is almost unthinkable under the current appointment procedures. Instead, Commissioners’ nationality is probably a more crucial background factor to take into account in order to understand some of their behaviour. This is so since national governments, lobbyists, and the like, “naturally” contact “their” Commissioner(s) in order to get information or have a say at the very highest level of the Commission structure. Commissioners may take part in networks among compatriots, for example nation-based gatherings at their respective Permanent Missions in Brussels. It should, however, not be concluded from this that Commissioners primarily act as agents of the national governments that nominated them. The particular portfolio of which a Commissioner is in charge seems more often to be emphasised when his/her interests and decision behaviour are to be explained. However, like national ministers, Commissioners see multiple and often conflicting role expectations imposed upon them: they are, for example, supposed to feel some allegiance, although informal, to the geographical area from which they originate, and they are simultaneously clearly expected to champion overall Commission interests and one’s more specific portfolio concerns.


To sum up: the organizational characteristics that may lead the behaviour of Commissioners in an intergovernmental direction are the nomination and appointment procedures, and the temporary posts that might create incentives for behaving in a manner that could lead to renomination for a second term. However, we also find several organizational features that may be highly conducive to patterns of behaviour that could be expected from an institutional perspective. The new “prerogatives” of the President concerning the composition of the College and the distribution of portfolios, which previously could have “national flags” attached to them, are, together with the enhanced accountability to the EP rather than to national governments, obvious examples. The sectoral and functional specialization of the services that tend to make Commissioners defenders of particular portfolio interests rather than national interests are also quite illustrating (see Box: 2). And, last, but not least, the effect of formal rules banning Commissioners from taking instructions from national governments should not be underestimated. Over time, these formal norms also seem to have become increasingly underpinned by cultural norms that consider apparent promotion of national interests as inappropriate Commissioner behaviour.


Commissioners’ Cabinets

Like most national Ministers, Commissioners also have at their disposal a political secretariat. A political secretariat, also denoted a “private office”, is organizationally separated from the administration as such and composed of people in whom the political master has personal trust and who may be hired and fired at his/her discretion. Thus, they have to leave their jobs when there is a shift of political leadership. By creating these kind of offices one has wanted to give more weight to the political head of the apparatus, thus making it more likely that political guidelines will be adhered to down the lines of a growing bureaucracy. In the Commission, these secretariats are modelled on and named after the French cabinets. Each Commissioner’s cabinet consists of five advisers, but has in addition some clerical staff. Cabinets are supposed to help push Commissioners’ ideas down the services and, on the other hand, to edit and filter policy proposals coming up from the services before they are referred to the Commissioner and the College. As an integral part of this “editorial work” a Commissioner’s cabinet interacts frequently with other Commissioners’ cabinets in order to register controversies or objections that might be raised by other Commissioners. Due to the principle of collegiality (mutual responsibility), each of the 20 cabinets covers all the portfolios that are present in the Commission. Thus, a Commissioner’s cabinet is vital for keeping him/her informed about things going on outside his/her own remit. Ahead of the weekly College meeting, the chefs de cabinet (cabinet heads) convene in order to ensure that the Commission acts as coherently and cohesively as possible. At these inter-cabinet gatherings the head of the President’s cabinet naturally assumes the role as mediator and broker if necessary.


In addition to the role cabinets play as regards vertical and horizontal coordination within the Commission, they also have important functions at the interface between the Commission and its environments. Cabinets are crucial points of access for governments, lobbyists and the like, and they assist Commissioners in their dealings with the outside world, for example, cabinet members write speeches, represent at numerous occasions and so on. Cabinets have also been kind of liaison offices between Commissioners and “their” respective governments, including “their” Permanent Missions in Brussels. Thus, they have informed about upcoming issues in the Commission that might become politically interesting from a national point of view, and they have, on the other hand, got informed about national positions on policy initiatives that are under consideration in the Commission.


Cabinets have often been portrayed as national enclaves or clusters. This description seemed rather pertinent if we look at the personnel composition which in the past reflected nicely the nationalities of the respective lead Commissioners. The rule was that only one member of a team should be a foreigner. The Prodi Commission has changed this historical pattern. From then on, cabinets should be multi-nationally staffed and somewhat down-sized. It is now required that at least three different nationalities should be represented in each cabinet, and that the head or the deputy head should preferably be of a different nationality from that of the Commissioner. Moreover, at least half of cabinet members should be recruited from within the Commission services. This may also have interesting implications for the role that nationality may actually play in cabinets sine those coming from the Commission administration most likely have few strong ties to any particular national constituency. One concrete reason for this recruitment provision was probably that cabinets traditionally have been stepping stones for rapid advancement to senior posts in the services. Privileging former cabinet personnel has been critized by staff unions for causing serious demotivation down the ranks, and, particularly so, when top level jobs have been filled by former cabinet members from outside the services. So, relying more on internal recruits for the cabinets could diminish the extent to which outsiders are “parachuted” into senior posts. Those who have come to the cabinets from outside the Commission have for the most part served in national governments, but some have also been picked from other organizations, for example from the political party to which the Commissioner belongs.


Previous to the Prodi Commission reforms of the cabinet system one would probably conclude that the structure as well as the demography of these entities would foster highly intergovernmental patterns of behaviour. However, structure and demography have both changed. We might expect that multi-national staffing and an increased emphasis on internal recruitment will make behavioural patterns in accordance with what can be expected from an institutional perspective more likely. It is indeed hard to imagine that the role of cabinets as liaison units between national governments and the Commission will not be profoundly redefined in the future.


The Commission Services

Like in national executives the political leadership is served by an administration. In the Commission this administration is often referred to as the “services”. The main components of the services are the 23 Directorates General (DGs) which are rather equivalent to the administrative parts of national ministries, and which cover almost all possible policy fields. The basic principles of organizational specialization are also quite similar: the division of labour among DG’s follows mainly the purpose (sector) or the process (function) principle. While DG Agriculture and DG Justice and Home Affairs reflect the application of the


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