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How Far Is the European Commission the Motor of European Integration?

Info: 3429 words (14 pages) Essay
Published: 17th Jul 2019

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Jurisdiction / Tag(s): EU Law

“The Commission is sometimes called the motor of European integration, not only because of its almost exclusive right to initiate legislation in socioeconomic policy areas but also because of its history, composition, culture, and European rather than national outlook.” [1] However, lately the Commission is faced with enormous challenges – challenges that undermine its status as engine of European integration. Since the implementation of the Maastricht Treaty, national governments have turned its back to the Commission, taking charge of the integration process. The strengthening of the European Parliament and European Council, the introduction of the open method of coordination, Eastern enlargement, allegations of mismanagement and the politicisation of EU decision-making have all played a pivotal role in the decline of the Commission. “The original and essential source of the success of European integration is that the EU’s executive body, the Commission, is supranational and independent from national, sectoral or other influences. This is at the heart of its ability to advance the interests of the European Union.” [2] Nowadays, however, questions have been raised about the independence, effectiveness and accountability of the Commission. The matter of who plays the key role in the process of European integration is disputed as there are diverse theories of integration focusing on different actors. In order to investigate the role of the Commission in the process of European integration, I plan to look at two theories of integration: neo-functionalism and liberal intergovernmentalism. I plan to analyse the faults the engine (the Commission) has encountered, and discuss the effects of these and the future role of the Commission in the process of European integration.

Historical background – Theoretical framework:

“Acting as a custodian of European interests [and] as a repository of past achievements, Delors declared that the Commission has a cherished obligation to point the way to the goal ahead.” [3] The intention of the founding fathers of the European Union was to create a supranational institution that would be the engine of European integration – an institution that would be independent from the influence of national governments, and one that would promote European interests and not national ones. This is embodied in neofunctionalist beliefs. Although Member States play a role in the integration process, EU institutions themselves are very important. Once in place, supranational institutions act as agency shapers and policy entrepreneurs. “As supranational organizations gain power, so more interests are drawn to them and this is turn strengthens their resolve to shift authority to the European level.” [4]

On the other hand, liberal intergovernmentalists argue that supranational institutions are controlled by Member States, acting as agents of their principals; therefore European integration is being ran by national governments who want to maximize their economic benefits through international cooperation while maintaining their sovereignty. Therefore, the Commission is the motor of integration only formally, yet in reality it is the member states who by monitoring and controling the Commission promote integration. Powers have been delegated to the Commission in order to “reduce decision-making costs” [5] and to “enhance credibility of long term policy commitments” [6] .

Maastricht Treaty: What changed?

The liberal intergovernmental theory becomes even more relevant, when the changes in the political environment since the Maastricht Treaty are considered. The Treaty has strengthened the institutional role of the member states, putting them at the core of EU decision-making. “… the Commission bears some of the responsibility for the changes that have taken place. Over much of the period it has been characterised by poor leadership and over-ambition.” [7] In fact, the effect of the Maastricht Treaty on the Commission was colossal. This treaty change has altered the powers of the Commission. This is instrumental when considered that in order to amend a treaty all member states must agree.

“The Commission was relegated to a secondary role.” [8] The Treaty has introduced a number of institutional changes that contributed to this. One such change was the strengthening of the European Parliament (EP). The EP gained powers in the legislative, budgetary and policy-making processes at the expense of the Commission. “Commission accountability to the European Parliament was strengthened at Maastricht by the extension of the Commission’s term of office to five years, making it concurrent with the European Parliament. “ [9] This could lead to “a first step toward the parliamentarization of Europe, in which a ‘political’ Commission would be appointed by and responsible to a majority in the European Parliament.” [10] In fact, in 2004, a majority of members in the European Parliament disapproved the proposed team by Commission President Barroso, so he had to withdraw his proposal for reconsideration. This shows the shortcomings of the neo-functionalist argument that the Commission is independent of national governments’ influence, as the former’s preferences are shaped by the latter through the processes of appointment and reappointment. The Commission still enjoys a particularly strong right of initiative for almost all pillar one legislation; however, since the introduction of the co-decision procedure, the EP shares a co-legislator status with the Council, reducing the Commission’s agenda-setting powers. The EP “no longer sees the Commission as an ally in inter institutional relations but as a junior partner in its dealings with the Council.” [11]

The Council as well has been reinforced by treaty change, gaining more accountability in establishing policy agenda. Although Commission is assigned by Treaties legislative agenda-setting powers (that in turn have been reduced by the previously discussed co-decision procedure), it has no legal authority to take executive decisions. The Commission is given by Treaties the power to ensure Member State compliance with EU law; therefore it has some sort of control on Member States. However, even though the Council has agreed to give the Commission a role in implementation, technically enforcement powers still belong to Member States. Through Comitology committees they control the Commission, choosing what role Commission is accorded in implementation and as well as how best to monitor that role. Another mechanism the Member States used to control the Commission was the rise of the Committee of Permanent Representatives (COREPER). One of the most important institutional developments introduced to increase member state control over the Commission is the introduction of the open method of coordination (OMC). This intergovernmental means of government increased cooperation among Member States. This method is preferred to the method of delegating powers to supranational institutions. “By endorsing the open method of coordination in a range of policy areas intended to make the EU a more dynamic and successful regional economy, the European Council explicitly relegated the Commission to a lesser role.” [12]

The neofunctionalist argument, therefore, has “two common failings: first, they underestimated the power of national governments in integration; and second, they overestimated the strength of the European Commission.” [13] The strengthening of the EP and Council supports the liberal intergovernmental belief that national governments are at the heart of EU decision-making. This also conveys that the Commission is not the only motor of European integration, as the other supranational institutions like the European Court of Justice, the Council and the European Parliament give an impulse to the process of integration.

External shocks to the system

The deepening of European integration has led to a politicisation of EU decision making. “The ‘no’ votes in the 2005 referenda on the Constitutional Treaty in France and the Netherlands reinforced the message. Politicisation has weakened the Commission’s claim to be the primary agenda-setter for Europe.” [14] It started to lose its credibility and legitimacy. Eastern enlargement, allegations of mismanagement as well as an increasingly sceptical public have all contributed to this. Enlargement in particular has been instrumental in the decline of the Commission. “No institution has been left unaffected by enlargement, but the impact on the Commission services has been great. [It had to] overhaul its own organization to make space for new nationals.” [15] The expansion of the European Union from 15 to 27 Member States meant the expansion of the College of Commissioners. “The more commissioners there are, the more difficult it is for the Commission to act coherently or collegially.” [16] The Commission tried to resolve this issue by minimizing the number of Commissioners, something that would have led to an unequal representation of Member States in the Commission. The proposal was denied. This in part supports the liberal intergovernmental theory, as with enlargement the influence of the national governments in decision-making has further increased – reducing the effectiveness of the Commission. “Enlargement will result in the Commission finding it a taller order to produce effective and efficient policy.” [17]

Another key issue that relegated the Commission to a secondary role in EU decision-making is related to the allegations of mismanagement in the Commission. It provoked a “major institutional crisis in 1999,” [18] “a piece of political theatre that drew massive media attention, to the detriment of the Commission’s image and generally that of the EU” [19] , resulting in the resignation of the Santer Commission. On the basis of the report from the Court of Auditors on Commission’s mismanagement of the budget, the European Parliament utilized the nuclear option of the censure procedure, and threatened to dismiss the college of Commissioners by a two-thirds majority. This outcome was inevitable for the Santer Commission so it resigned. This led to calls for reform. “Against the backdrop of politicization, enlargement, and the 1999 resignation crisis a concerted effort has been made to reshape the Commission into a more professional bureaucracy.” [20] These external shocks to the system led to the launch in 2000 of a reform programme by Commissioner Neil Kinnock, in order to address the problems the Commission faced and place it back in the vanguard of EU decision- making. It is therefore important to analyse these reforms in order to find out the extent to which the Commission’s organization and functions of the services have been affected by these.

The Prodi Commission has aimed at internal reform of the Commission. In order to achieve the objective of creating a more independent, accountable, efficient and transparent Commission, numerous changes have been implemented, such as: “new methods of auditing and financial control; a system of activity-based management (intended to match responsibilities and resources); and new recruitment, promotion, and disciplinary procedures.” [21] Other important measures implemented were: creating new codes of conduct for Commissioners, simplifying relations with the European Parliament, improving public access to documents, introduction of New Public Management and a re-organization of the staff. “Meritocracy has been given clear preference over nationality in recruitment and promotion, and that should make it more difficult for national governments to interfere with Commission personnel policy.” [22] The Commission under Barroso has continued the reform effort. This has, however, become more difficult to administer with the accession of 12 new Member States, since an increased number of governments interfere in the internal operations of the Commission. “For systemic reasons, the Commission can never become simply an executive body. Thus the Commission can be reformed, but there are limits to how much it can be transformed.” [23]

Future role of Commission: A need for a stronger Commission.

“The decline of the Commission has important implications not only for the institution, but also for the performance of the Union as a whole and the future of European integration.” [24] The control Member States enforce upon the Commission may hold it back from carrying out tasks that are important to the progress of European integration. This could also prove counterproductive for the interests of Member States themselves. The Commission can be seen as a tool for the national governments to attain their objectives. Decisions can only be attained collectively; therefore it only takes one Member State to disagree on policy-making to hamper the objectives of the rest. The Commission could play a stabilising and coordinating role in the internal organization of the Union. With the expansion of the European Union these functions became more important, and with a possible further expansion in sight, they could become crucial. “…enlargement will grind EU decision making to a halt unless the Commission gains more power and can preserve its right of initiative.” [25] A stronger Commission, independent from Member States in its proposals, would provide smoother and more efficient decision-making in the EU. It would protect the overall coherence of the Union policies, and it would more likely appeal to different combinations of Member States. It would warrant even benefits between Members, and would avoid prejudicing some in favour of others (protecting in the process the smaller and more vulnerable states). “Institutions like the Commission and the Court of Justice are needed in order to make sure that the common rules, freely accepted by all members of the Union, are enforced in good faith.” [26] Then, European integration would prosper.

Mark Pollack argues that “the Commission will enjoy a margin of discretion within which it is not worthwhile for key Member States to challenge its powers or withdraw their co-operation.” [27] Member States face a cost in terms of trying to monitor the Commission. They will not challenge the powers of the Commission, but provide it with a level of independence, up to the point it equals the marginal return (benefit) to Member States of constraining the Commission.

Conclusion: Why will it never achieve past glories?

The Commission has not lived up to its name as motor of European integration. Neo-functionalists have long argued that supranational institutions such as the Commission have been at the heart of European integration. They argue that having important powers and functions such as: policy initiator, legislative facilitator, guardian of the Treaties, agent of Member States, protector of small states, executive roles, mediator and broker; the Commission has managed to set the pace of integration. “The EU has a busy policy agenda, but is unlikely ever again to embrace a grand venture that could propel deeper integration under the leadership of a powerful Commission president or a national leader or leaders. There are few frontiers of European integration left to conquer.” [28] The Commission has in fact, “proven to be a poor stimulator of political spill-over in recent years.” [29] By exercising the powers and functions outlined by the neo-functionalists, it has become dependent on member states, the Council and the European Parliament. The strengthening of the European Parliament and the European Council has reduced the powers of the Commission (especially since the introduction of the co-decision procedure). External shocks such as Eastern enlargement, allegations of mismanagement and the politicisation of EU decision-making have further demoted the Commission to a less important role. The reform programme has reinforced the Commission by adjusting its organization. However, “the Commission can no longer be in the vanguard of European integration because European integration, as a movement of fundamental economic and political change, has arguably run its course. Day-to-day European integration – implementing a range of EU policies and programs – is nonetheless a demanding and useful endeavour, in which the Commission will always be at centre stage.” [30]

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