Is the European Commission Too Powerful? Neofunctionalism and Intergovernmentalism Considered

By Andrei Constantin
2013, Vol. 5 No. 10 | pg. 2/2 |

Brussels Eurocracy

‘Brussels Eurocracy’ represents the complex system of advisory, management, and regulatory committees that surround the European Commission. These committees are generally made up of ‘national experts’ in many highly specialised fields of policy-making, as well as Commission staff. By specifically analysing these committees, it becomes clear that the Commission’s power is more or less constrained by the member states, depending on the policy area. This special focus is based on the fact that these committees are explicitly meant to safeguard member states’ interests in particular stages of the EU’s policy process, which represent the core of the Commission’s powers, such as: drafting of legislative proposals, the implementation of policy, and the enforcement of compliance (Christiansen 1997, 84). This intrusive and expensive form of oversight has come to be known as ‘comitology.’ It is important to note that comitology introduced greater complexity in the Commission’s managerial powers of the EU’s affairs, and in its relations with the administrations of member states. Moreover, there was an overall shift in the Commission’s main role from policy consultant and drafter of legal initiatives to project supervisor. David Spence argues that these changes created new challenges, most notably through a shift in the relationship between the Commission and the EP. He also points out that this latter change was supposed to ‘increase legitimacy and public identification with the Commission’s work,’ but in the end it was not successful (Spence 2000, 4; Hix 2005).

It is vital to understand the extent to which comitology allows the member states to control the Commission’s actions, and how this affects its powers. Apparently, less than one percent of all Commission decisions are referred to the Council, which would seem to suggest that committees’ oversight is more or less ‘decorative’ in essence, and that the Commission enjoys a large degree of autonomy. However, as Victoria Gerus (1991) argues with precise reference to the EU’s comitology procedures, rational anticipation of committee action by the Commission may mean that it is successfully and indirectly controlled by the member states, despite the small number of sanctions against it. In other words, the career prospects of a young Commission official could be affected if their proposal is referred from a committee to the Council. This fear constitutes a powerful incentive to rationally anticipate a proposal’s acceptance or rejection in the appropriate committee. Some scholars believe that this has been the case since the early delegation of executive powers to the Commission in the area of agricultural policy in the 1960s, which also represents the beginning of the oversight committees. Furthermore, after the approval of the Single European Act in 1987, this system of committees was codified and reorganized in the famous ‘Comitology Decision’ of July 13, 1987, which mentioned only three types of oversight committees: advisory, management, and regulatory (Pollack 1997, 114). In a concise form, the different committees and their procedures are as follows.

First, under the advisory committee procedure, the Commission must send its proposed actions to the committee, which has the right to progress to a vote by simple majority on the Commission's proposals. Of the three procedures, the advisory committee provides the Commission with the greatest autonomy and member states with the smallest influence, and it is most frequently used in the area of competition policy. Second, under the management committee procedure, which began and still dominates the EU’s agricultural policy, the Commission refers its implementing policies to the committee. The management committee is stricter than the advisory committee because it requires a qualified majority vote to secure a referral to the Council, where a second similar vote will take place within the Council in order to override the Commission's decision (Pollack 1997, 115). The third committee – the regulatory committee – was especially created to control the Commission more closely than the management committee. Under the third procedure type, the Commission can only adopt the policies that are approved by QMV within the committee (Docksey & Williams 1997). In comparison with the second procedure type, the regulatory committee only requires a qualified minority to secure a reference to the Council, where member states can even block the Commission’s proposal by a simple majority vote (Pollack 1997). In sum, the Commission is only powerful in policy areas which are supervised by the advisory committee and to a certain extent by the management committee. However, its power is very much restricted under the regulatory committee procedure.


This essay argues, on the one hand, that the European Commission is an important and powerful supranational actor from a neofunctionalist perspective. On the other hand, liberal intergovernmentalists downplay its role, and define it as an agent of the member states with little or no influence over the intergovernmental bargaining process. In addition, an analysis of the Commission’s power in relation to the structure and procedures of comitology, showed that the Commission retains its power in certain policy areas which are under the advisory and management committees even while it sees its power constrained by the regulatory committee. In addition, the mixture of tasks it has to perform within the EU makes the Commission a complex institution. Therefore, it has to acquire technical expertise in almost every European policy area if it wants to see its proposals and other initiatives succeed (Christiansen 2006). Nevertheless, it is important to note that in a larger, more diverse Union the Commission’s function as ‘the EU’s collective memory’ will be enhanced. Murray (2004, 6) is right to argue that only the Commission is in a position to guarantee continuity in the middle of the ‘ebb and flow of national politics.’ Furthermore, he points to the fact that the Commission cannot execute its fundamental tasks unless it obtains real political power and legitimacy. In conclusion, the Commission is not powerful enough to decide its own destiny or to reach its previous levels of autonomy (i.e. under the Delors presidencies), and it cannot receive new powers if the member states think that it is incapable of performing its existing tasks properly.


Christiansen, Thomas. (1997). “Tensions of European governance: politicized bureaucracy and multiple accountability in the European Commission,” Journal of European Public Policy, 4 (1): 73-90.

Christiansen, Thomas. (2006). “The European Commission: the European executive between continuity and change,” in Jeremy Richardson (ed.), European Union: power and policy-making (3rd ed), 99-121. New York: Routledge.

Cini, Michelle. (2002). “Reforming the European Commission: discourse, culture and planned change,” in Madeleine O. Hosli, Adrian M. A. van Deemen and Mika Widgren (eds.), Institutional Challenges in the European Union, 1-22. New York: Routledge.

Cram, Laura. (1994). “The European Commission as a multi-organization: Social policy and IT policy in the EU,” Journal of European Public Policy, 1 (2): 195-217.

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