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The Normalization of the European Commission: Politics and Bureaucracy in the EU Executive

This blogpost first appeared on the European Union Democracy Observatory, EUDO website: http://blogs.eui.eu/eudo-cafe/

The European Commission is becoming more like a regular government. Due to revisions in the European treaties and internal reforms of the civil service, the European Commission is acquiring many of the organizational features and behavioural patterns that are highly typical of “normal” executives in national settings. This is the main conclusion of  the book “The Normalization of the European Commission” which is released in June by Oxford University Press. The study relies on a large number of in-depth interviews with top officials and commissioners working at the European Commission’s apex.

European Parliament controls the Commission.The European Commission, previously often seen as the European Union’s civil service, has in recent years increasingly come to play a more political role. Since the debate on the “democratic deficit” in the EU in the early 90s, a long series of revisions in the Treaties changed the legal and political framework within which the Commission operates. The power of the European Parliament has significantly increased, not only in the drafting of legislation, but also in the democratic control and accountability of the European Commission. The Commission should therefore increasingly take into account the European Parliament.  Parliamentary control of the Commission manifested itself also in the existing trend of making the appointment procedure ever more liable to politicization. Each new commissioner has to appear before parliament and to answer questions.

European commissioners act like national ministers. The political control by the European Parliament has significantly changed the Commission. Commissioners have started to act as ministers. They are not quasi-civil servants but professional politicians. They need to explain their policies to the outside world and are politically accountable to the European Parliament and the media. The Commission has become a more partisan and a more politicized body than ever before. It can no longer impose its decisions without a fuller consent by the governed. Policies are not struck in isolation inside the EU Commission. This means that commissioners have to spend much more of their time explaining situations, setting out the various options and trade-offs, and persuading those involved to join with them. This can lead to frictions and the contestation of decisions between the Commission and the EP, but isn’t this the way things work in any government?

A political-bureaucratic divide. The emergence of new political and administrative accountability arrangements has strengthened internally the separation between the political level, the commissioners, and the administration of the Commission, the Directors-General. The latter are not selected on their nationality or their political loyalty, but on the basis of expertise. Territorial principles of organization (flagging, parachutage) that had underpinned the Commission for so long lost their significance. Thus, the Commission has increasingly become a real government, with a clear separation between politics and administration.

2014: the election of the President of the Commission. In 2014 after the election of the new European Parliament, the EU goes one step further: the President of the European Commission will be elected by the European Parliament (rather than, as previously, being appointed by the European Council). The distribution of seats in the European Parliament, but also the choice for the President of the European Commission will depend on the election results. Based on the findings in this study, it can be argued that European citizens should seize the political campaign to widen the public debate on the future political direction of the Union in the upcoming elections. Political parties should play an important role in this. European political “families” could implement a Europe-wide political campaign and come up with suitable candidates who will be eligible for the presidency of the European Commission.

The EU Commission more democratic than most national governments. With the election of the President of the Commission, the European Commission will become in fact more democratic than many national governments. Democratic accountability provisions are currently in place around the Commission; what is important now is the input and involvement of European citizens.

Book:  Anchrit Wille (2013): “The Normalization of the European Commission: Politics and Bureaucracy in the EU Executive” Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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