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.

Academic research on the EU, Euroscepticism, Public opinion, Uncategorized

Europeanization and its discontents

The generally held view that the smooth functioning of political systems depends on trust has caused much concern about dropping levels of support for the EU political institutions. In his blogpost in December, Dimiter Toshkov showed that trust in the EU institutions has decreased by more than 20% (from its 2009 levels) implying a decline in the EU’s legitimacy. The latest results from the Eurobarometer published in December 2012 (Standard Eurobarometer 78) show that trust in the European Union has increased with 2 percentage points to 33% since spring 2012, but that the long-term trend since 2004 indicates a steady erosion of support for the EU. Trust levels in the EU are now approaching the trust levels of national governments (27 %) and national parliaments (28%).

How worrisome is this falling level of trust in the EU? It is commonplace to say that trust is good and that declines are bad. Declining trust generally connotes a public that is not happy with its political institutions. But the wealth of explanations found in the political science literature for the declining levels of trust in advanced industrial democracies, indicate that the erosion of political support is also a result of a better-educated, better-informed cohort of politically astute citizens that is more apt to use critical criteria when asked to evaluate governments or political institutions. Some political theorists argue that it is not trust, but vigilance and scepticism that provide the hallmark for well-functioning political systems. Declining levels of trust may, thus, represent the rise of a public that is—and perhaps as they should be—sceptical of political power. Trust in the EU falling to the (lower) levels observed in the member states suggests a progressive political normalisation of the EU. Citizens, when forming opinions, judge the EU apparently with similar standards and skepticism that they also use in their evaluations of political institutions at the national level. Maybe the problems of legitimacy facing the EU are not so fundamentally different from those facing the member states.

Academic research on the EU, Europe in the news, European Parliament

The Politicization of the EU Commission

Last week the European Parliament has given its backing to Tonio Borg becoming the European commissioner for health. He was put forward by Malta to replace John Dalli, who resigned last month over allegations of fraud. The newly nominated EU commissioner had to dispel his image as a Roman Catholic hardliner in a bid to win MEPs’ approval in the hearing before two Parliament committees – for the environment, public health and food safety, and for internal market and consumer protection – that took place at 13 November. Borg came under criticism for his socially conservative views, on women’s rights, homosexuality and abortion. The hearing saw Liberal and Green deputies accuse him of homophobia and backward-looking views on contraception.  But the nominated EU health commissioner obviously has overcome concerns about his Roman Catholic views and won MEPs’ approval by a clear majority. In a vote during the plenary session in Strasbourg on 21 November, 386 mostly right leaning MEPS supported Borg, with 281 voting ‘No’ to his appointment and 28 abstentions. His antagonists in the EP said they will watch him like a hawk.

This confrontation in parliament, together with previous incidents, with Rocco Buttiglione in 2004 and Bulgaria’s embattled nominee, Rumiana Jeleva in 2010, illustrate how firm the grip of the EP has become in the selection of the EU Commission. In the September issue of the International Review of Administrative Sciences (Vol 78, Number 3) the article ‘The Politicization of the EU Commission’ explains how strengthened democratic control and accountability over the EU executive has politicized the selection of EU commissioners. This has become noticeable in the access and exit procedures of this part of the EU executive, but also in shifts in the demand and supply-factors in the process of EU executive recruitment. An analysis of the careers of commissioners shows ‘who’ is eligible for executive office. Shifts towards political professionalization have made that an extensive career through political institutions has become the most common route for entering the Commission. A look at the political background of Tonio Borg shows that his career fits well in this pattern of recruitment of commissioners. Not a technocratic background but political competences have become relevant for holding this office.