Is the European Commission Too Powerful? Neofunctionalism and Intergovernmentalism Considered

By Andrei Constantin
2013, Vol. 5 No. 10 | pg. 1/2 |

This article highlights the European Commission’s role within the (EU), which has been weakened over time. Through this essay various aspects of the Commission’s in relation to the structure and procedures of comitology are analyzed utilizing the frameworks provided by the two leading schools of thought on European integration: neofunctionalism and liberal intergovernmentalism. The Commission is considered the heart of the process of integration because it is the key organisation whose formal powers and actual operation are believed to echo the patterns of integration in Europe (Dimitrakopoulos 2004). Even if the Commission is not as strong as it once was (e.g., in the 1980s), it still carries the exclusive responsibility for proposing new legislation in most areas of EU policy-making. The monopoly of initiative regarding most first pillar issues has made the Commission a ‘pivotal actor in the EU policy process,’ placing it in a privileged position in relation to national governments, interest groups, and the European Parliament (EP). This essay also considers the Commission’s political and administrative components. Through this analysis, the term ‘Commission’ is used to refer primarily to two bodies: first, it may refer to the College of Commissioners, which constitutes the political, quasi-ministerial level of the institution; and second, it denotes the body of more than 20,000 officials who make up its administrative services (Christiansen 2006, 100).

A Brief History of the European Commission

The European Commission was designated as both secretariat and proto-executive in the European institutional system. In its initial version, as the High Authority of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), it focused more on its executive side, while enjoying considerable autonomy. The body helped coin the term ‘supranational,’ which it described in article 9 of the original ECSC treaty, but it lost this label with article 10 of the Merger Treaty of 1965 (Spence 2000, 3). When the European Economic Community (EEC) was founded in 1958, some member states had doubts about the creation of a strong autonomous institution. This was most visible during and after the 1966 Luxembourg crisis, which signalled an era of weakening of the Commission’s hitherto powerful role in European integration. Thereafter the Commission had an unclear sphere of activity, with strong powers in some fields (i.e. competition policy), and weaker powers in most others (Wallace 2005, 50). This ambiguous purpose for the Commission has hindered its internal reform process, and it has helped explain the fact that the Commission is not that powerful since its authority only stretches over a handful of areas. In addition, the responsibility to develop credibility, expertise, and the basis for political power was left to the Commission itself, and as we shall see it was not very successful in this regard.

The European Commission exercises its responsibilities collectively. On the one hand, the Commissioners, historically two from each of the ‘larger’ member states and one from each of the others, but from November 2004 one from each of the member states, constitute a ‘college’ of senior officials. The Commission is charged by a President, chosen with other colleagues (i.e. five vice-presidents) by qualified majority voting (QMV) in the Council. Moreover, the Treaty of Amsterdam gave the EP the stronger power to confirm in office the college of commissioners. This power was tested in October 2004, when a majority of the members of the EP (MEPs) disapproved of some members of the Commission, therefore forcing the President-designate, José Manuel Barroso, to reconsider his proposed team (Wallace 2005, 52). On the other hand, the Commission as an institution is organised into Directorates-General (DGs), which are known by the name of their main area of policy activity. Furthermore, the staffs of the DGs make up the European civil service, recruited mostly in competitions across the member states, and supplemented by seconded national experts and temporary staff (Nugent 2001). These aspects have prompted Alasdair Murray to argue that the Commission is the institutional heart of the EU. He states that for fifty years the Commission has supervised the daily functioning of the EU and that it has also lead the debate on the EU’s future. In other words, it formulates policies, drafts laws and then guides EU legislation through the Council of Ministers and the EP. Murray (2004) continues to say that the Commission also carries out executive functions such as the administration of EU spending programmes (i.e. development aid), or the enforcement of EU merger rules. In the international arena, the Commission represents and negotiates on behalf of the EU in a wide range of communities, such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO). These are only a limited selection of the Commission’s duties, but they show that, at least in some areas, the Commission is vital for the effective management of the EU.

How Powerful is the Commission? Neofunctionalism and Liberal Intergovernmentalism Considered

In examining the European Commission’s power, two well-utilized theories of European integration are considered. We begin with the neofunctionalist theory of integration which was set out by Ernst Haas in 1958. As detailed by Haas and other scholars, neofunctionalism posited a process of ‘functional spillover,’ in which the original decision by governments to place a certain sector (i.e. coal and steel), under the authority of central institutions, such as the European Commission, creates pressure to extend the authority of that institution into neighbouring areas of policy, such as currency exchange rates, taxation, and wages. Moreover, other researchers identified a second strand of the spillover process, which they called ‘political spillover,’ in which both supranational actors (i.e. the Commission), and subnational actors (i.e. interest groups) create additional pressures for further integration. It is important to note that the subnational groups would come to understand the benefits of integration, and would thereby transfer their demands, expectations, and even their loyalties from national governments to a new centre within the supranational level. As a supranational body, the Commission would promote such a transfer of loyalties, advancing European policies and brokering negotiations among the member states so as to ‘upgrade the common interest’ (Pollack 2005, 16). In particular, this was the case during the Delors presidencies, when the Commission had a strong leadership and was focused on obtaining more executive power and loyalties.

The role of supranational actors put forward by neofunctionalists was a key departure from the initial technocratic functionalism, and consequently it helped interpret the Commission as a ‘cardinal component of the emerging European polity.’ In this sense, Dionyssis Dimitrakopoulos (2004) argues that the Commission would eventually generate solutions and come to command, alongside other actors of the emerging international system, the loyalty of different interest groups. It is also suggested that the resulting role of the Commission as the self-interested supporter of both the process of integration and the institutionalisation of the rising system relies wholly on the idea of rational, calculated and coherent action coming from the member states of the EU (Rosamond 2000). Furthermore, this latter scheme is possible only as long as the Commission receives support from member-state governments. However, many European states appear comfortable to allow the Commission’s political power to weaken, especially after the 1999 crisis of the Santer Commission (Cini 2002). The Commission used to be able to rely on the political support of countries which advocated further European integration. Unfortunately for the Commission, even Germany, who traditionally supported it, has become publicly critical of the Commission’s policies, especially over the strong line on state aid for German industry, and its stringent interpretation of the Stability and Growth Pact. Nowadays the Commission’s only reliable allies are the smaller member states. They want a strong Commission to thwart the EU becoming subjugated by ‘a directoire of the larger member-states’ (Murray 2004, 4). In other words, the Commission will only continue to lose its overall power if it will not obtain the support of larger member states, such as , Germany, or the UK.

One of the most important contributions of neofunctionalists to the study of EU policy-making was their conceptualization of a ‘Community method’ of policy-making. As Pollack pointed out, the Community method presents a unique representation of EU policy-making as a process driven by an entrepreneurial Commission and featuring supranational deliberation among member-state representatives in the Council. In other words, the Community method represents the legislative process whereby the Commission proposes legislation, and the Council and the EP decide the final version. It is important to note that this method characterized EEC decision-making in regards to the Customs Union and the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). However, after the Luxembourg crisis, where Charles de Gaulle insisted on the importance of states’ sovereignty, the implicit procedural code of the Community method was possibly broken. Nevertheless, the EEC continued to take most decisions de facto by unanimity, but the Commission was weakened by de Gaulle’s actions, while the ‘nation-state appeared to have reasserted itself’ (Pollack 2005, 16). More recently, the Commission is worried that the Community method could be under threat because member states are increasingly using other methods of decision-making, such as the ‘open method coordination’ which restricts the Commission’s role to that of a ‘secretariat encouraging the exchange of best practice’ between the member states. In addition, the Commission fears that it might lose some of its power because some critics are even debating its exclusive right of initiative for EU legislation (Usher 1997). The Commission’s so-called opponents argue that it drafts too many deliberately bad proposals, and as a consequence it ‘should lose its legislative monopoly,’ which could be considered its main source of power (Murray 2004, 5).

On the other hand, the approach of liberal intergovernmentalism focuses on different factors. Through the previously mentioned Luxembourg crisis, and the accession of new member states, such as the UK, Ireland, and Denmark in 1973, European governments showed their resistance to the gradual transfer of sovereignty to the Community, and pointed out that the European Community’s (EC) decision-making would be based on the systematic dominance of the nation-state. Reflecting these and other developments, a new ‘intergovernmentalist’ school of integration theory appeared in 1966. While some scholars viewed the advancement of the integration process as a result of earlier neofunctionalist forces, Andrew Moravcsik believed that even this latter progress could be explained through a revised intergovernmental model, which stressed the power and preferences of EU member states. In a schematic form, Moravcsik’s ‘liberal intergovernmentalism’ is a three-step model, which merges: (i) liberal theory of national preference formation with; (ii) an intergovernmental model of EU-level bargaining; and (iii) a model of institutional choice underlining the role of international institutions in providing ‘credible commitments’ for member governments (Pollack 2005, 18). The analysis of these three steps goes beyond the scope of this essay; thus I will only focus on this theory’s interaction with the Commission. In Moravcsik’s opinion the Commission exercises little or no influence over policy outcomes within the second or intergovernmental stage, where agreements are based on the relative power of each member state. By contrast with neofunctionalists, who put emphasis on the entrepreneurial and brokering roles of the Commission, Moravcsik and other intergovernmentalists call attention to the tools (i.e. side payments, package deals) used by member states during the bargaining process on the most important EU issues (Moravcsik 1998).

Overall, Moravcsik’s refined liberal version of intergovernmentalism is much more precise about the role of the Commission. Dimitrakopoulos (2004) highlights the fact that Moravcsik’s view is premised on the functional theory of regimes where organisations reduce transaction costs between member states, facilitate agreements, provide equitable information and guarantee fulfilment. He goes on to say that Moravcsik eventually recognizes three functions performed by the Commission after the end of intergovernmental conferences where major deals are made: setting the agenda, enforcing the new agreements (which is also meant to enhance the integrity of national commitments), and representing the EU within the international arena. As a result to this view, the European Commission is perceived as an agent of the member states, confined to work under the Council of Ministers. Within this epistemological framework, Dimitrakopoulos (2004, 2) concludes that the Commission is likely to act as a ‘gatekeeper of mutual agreements,’ thus limiting the cost of monitoring, which could be high if carried out by individual member states, and finally raise the reliability of the EU system as a whole. Whereas traditional and liberal intergovernmental approaches of the study of European integration have a tendency to downplay the potential role of the EU’s supranational institutions (i.e. the Commission), the growing literature adopting a approach and the ‘refined’ neofunctionalists have pointed to the Commission’s role as a ‘policy entrepreneur.’ By contrast to the intergovernmentalists’ view, the Commission is described as having an important margin of autonomy and capacity to influence outcomes in the decision-making process (Laffan 1997). Numerous scholars have studied the development of policy across an array of EU fields – such as , research, social policy, , and telecommunications – and their results support the idea of the Commission as a policy entrepreneur (Cram 1994; Hooghe & Keating 1994).

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