By Richard Corbett MEP
Popular EU decisions are rapidly claimed by governments. Unpopular ones are blamed on the Commission. The European Commission is the eternal bogeyman of Europe.
But in Britain we go further. Our popular press demonises the Commission as an unelected dictatorship, – a giant bureaucracy with tentacles everywhere. Even our pro-European politicians tend to argue that its role should be diminished, with greater primacy given to the Council. Some even advocate creating a new full-time President of the Council, separate from the Commission and taking over part of the Commission’s role, notably in external relations.
Yet most British fears about the Commission bear no resemblance to reality:
It is not a gigantic bureaucracy, having fewer employees than Leeds City Council – and a third of them are accounted for by the need to interpret and translate into the Union’s various languages.
It has no dictatorial powers. For the most part, it simply makes proposals to the Council (i.e. the national governments) and carries out what has been agreed. For EU legislation, its proposals must pass two hurdles: the Council and the European Parliament. Only in the area of competition policy does it have substantial discretionary powers, bestowed upon it by the member states themselves.
Nor is it unaccountable. The Commissioners themselves are politicians. The bureaucrats in the various Directorates General are under their supervision. Commissioners, like Ministers, are appointed by Prime Ministers, albeit collectively. They take office only after receiving a vote of confidence from the European Parliament and they can be dismissed by a vote of no confidence in the European Parliament. In practice, it is also unthinkable that a Commission would stay in office if the European Council (of Heads of Government) asked it to resign.
The Commission is part of what makes the EU system unique – and makes it work. In many ways it is the original “third way” in solving the question of how separate countries are to manage common policies. One way would have been to delegate powers entirely to a central authority, and let it get on with it – but this would have posed significant problems of accountability. Another way would have been to manage policies through interminable inter-ministerial negotiations, seeking compromises between various national proposals defined in advance of lengthy gladiatorial wrangles. The third way was to seek a blend of these two: a Commission, duty bound to act in the overall interest, making proposals, and a Council, composed of national ministers from each country, to approve, amend or reject the proposals. The ministers work on the basis of the Commission’s single draft, rather than competing drafts from different countries.
The Commission also has the capacity to carry out what member states in the Council agree: it has civil servants to follow up Council’s decisions, it can chase member states that fail to implement community law and it can represent the Union in the outside world.
Indeed, the most successful aspects of the Union’s external relations can be found in the areas where the Commission represents the Union. Pascal Lamy, negotiating in the WTO and in bi-lateral trade talks on behalf of the Union, gets his mandates from the national governments in the Council, but speaks for the Union as a whole and carries far greater clout on behalf of all member states than they would have acting separately.
In the area of the Common, Foreign and Security Policy, where some member states were extremely reluctant to allow the Commission to get involved (though it does have a right to make proposals and it does participate in all Council meetings on the CFSP), it was soon found necessary to find a replacement for the Commission. The High Representative for CFSP is to the Union’s “second pillar” what the Commission is to the first pillar. He represents the Union externally, and he provides an impartial starting point for many discussions.
For the outside world, and for much of public opinion within the Union, it is bewildering to find Commissioners representing the Union in most areas of EU responsibility, co-ordinated by Chris Patten as the Commissioner for external relations, and in other areas Mr Solana, High Representative & Secretary General of the Council and not part of the Commission. Inevitably, there is some overlap and duplication but above all no obvious justification for keeping this artificial distinction.
A large majority in the Convention on the Future of Europe seems to agree that these two positions should be merged, with a double-hatted High Representative becoming a special member of the Commission, still getting mandates from the Council, but avoiding confusion and duplication and being better integrated with other aspects of external relations.
Curiously, it seems that, just as this division will be overcome, some wish to re-create it higher up by having two separate Presidents: a full time President of the European Council and a reinforced President of the Commission. This, indeed, is the tenure of the Franco/German proposal issued in January.
It is understandable that the heads of government may wish to have a more permanent chair of their meetings than is the case under the current 6-monthly rotation. But what would a full-time President of the European Council actually do between meetings? It is hard to envisage a role that would not actually duplicate that of the Commission. Public opinion and third countries would be faced with a two-headed Union, not knowing which President is responsible for what.
Such a double-Presidency risks division, conflict and confusion. Let us not make the whole system unnecessarily complicated because of unjustified paranoia about the Commission!
The European Council should instead make better use of the Commission. It has civil servants to follow up European Council decisions: a President of the European Council would be lacking any such means, unless it is envisaged to create another separate bureaucracy.
It is said that one reason for wanting a separate full-time President for the European Council is the fear that the Commission would be too subservient to the European Parliament if, as seems possible, the Convention agrees that the latter should elect the Commission President.
This fear is unfounded for the following reasons:
1. It is only the President, and not the Commission as a whole, who would be determined in this way – the rest of the Commission would continue to be chosen by agreement between the President and the national governments, as now. It would inevitably continue to be a “coalition” with members of different political parties.
2. Once appointed, the Commission can only be dismissed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament and is therefore immune from undue pressure from one side only within Parliament.
3. The Commission will not be a powerful executive able to act without reference to others. On the contrary, it will still be a small, common think-tank and administration, making proposals that require approval from national governments (and the European Parliament too for legislation). The President would not be a European “Kaiser”, as the respective powers of the institutions would not change fundamentally.
4. The Commission is in practice responsible not just to the European Parliament but to the Council too. It is inconceivable that a Commission would continue in office if the European Council called for it to resign.
5. European political parties would obviously have to indicate who their candidate would be for President of the Commission before the election campaign starts, (which would enhance their role and visibility too). Within parties, it is likely that party leaders and prime ministers will have a decisive say in choosing their party’s candidate, so there will still be involvement of heads of government in the procedure. Heads of government will be well aware that candidates must have the necessary credibility and attributes to work with the other institutions, including the European Council and its members.
Election of the Commission President by Parliament would therefore not have as dramatic a consequence as some people imagine. But it would have a number of advantages:
1. It would give more visible democratic legitimacy to the Commission, helping to counter the perception that it is an unaccountable bureaucracy with no democratic legitimacy.
2. It would enhance the significance of European Parliamentary elections. One problem with these elections has been the lack of visible effect – all that is at stake is the exact balance between political groups in a “hung” parliament. Voters are used, in national parliamentary elections, to seeing a consequential effect on the executive. Giving the European Parliament the right to choose the President would link the election results to the choice of the head of the EU’s administration. This is something that most voters are familiar with and even expect.
It is time for all of us to be more realistic about the Commission and about the effects of some of the changes proposed to its method of designation. It is not and will not become an all-powerful, centralised government able to act with complete autonomy. It is and will remain a vital part of the EU system which should not be undermined nor sidelined. Enhanced visibility of its democratic accountability to the European Parliament would not overturn existing institutional balances, but would help create a link to the only elections that EU citizens take part in directly at European level.
Richard Corbett is a Labour MEP and spokesman for Labour and for the Socialist Group on the Constitutional Affairs Committee of the European Parliament. He can be contacted at email@example.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union. This article first appeared in E!Sharp (10 July 2000).