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Management and Culture in an Enlarged European Commission: From Diversity to Unity?

Carolyn Ban

Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, 288 pp., £95.00 (hb), ISBN: 9780230252219

The European Commission and Bureaucratic Autonomy: Europe's Custodians

Antonis Ellinas and Ezra Suleiman

Cambridge University Press, 2012, 233 pp., £61.85 (hb), ISBN: 9781107023215

The European Commission of the Twenty-First Century

Hussein Kassim, John Peterson, Michael W. Bauer, Sara Connolly, Renaud Dehousse, Liesbet Hooghe and Andrew Thompson

Oxford University Press, 2013, 400 pp., £54.63 (hb), ISBN: 9780199599523

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

Anchrit Wille

Oxford University Press, 2013, 256 pp., £55.00 (hb), ISBN: 9780199665693

INTRODUCTION

  1. Top of page
  2. INTRODUCTION
  3. ADMINISTRATIVE AUTONOMY AND INSTITUTIONALIZATION
  4. THE COLLEGE OF COMMISSIONERS: POLITICIZATION AND PARLIAMENTARIZATION
  5. INSTITUTIONAL POWER AND ROBUSTNESS
  6. CONCLUSION
  7. REFERENCES

The European Commission constitutes a unique institution within a unique polity, namely the European Union (EU). At this supranational level, the EU is the only governance structure in the world which consists of two legislative bodies, including a directly elected parliament, that share legislative and budgetary powers across a considerable range of policy fields. In addition to the dual legislature (the European Parliament (EP) and the Council of Ministers (Council)), executive functions such as policy preparation and (monitoring) implementation reside in a separate administration with its own political leadership on a full-time basis (i.e. the Commission). While a council of ministers (or its equivalent) with its incorporated secretariat makes up the standard organizational template of international governmental organizations (IGOs), the Commission seems so far unprecedented and unparalleled.

While other regions in the world may look to the EU for organizational models, so far only more intergovernmental (and thus less innovative) components, such as the Council's committee of permanent representatives (Coreper), seem to have been deliberately copied (Murray and Moxon-Browne 2013). Centralizing executive power at a higher level of governance creates real action capacity at the new centre and thus may be perceived as particularly threatening to already established executive powers. The building of an American federal state provides an interesting historical parallel: the Congress and the Court of Justice were both well established in Washington before a federal executive attained adequate capacity to act on a broader scale (Skowronek 1982). All things considered, the Commission deserves considerable scholarly attention. Besides being a key institution in the EU polity, it can also be seen as a unique laboratory for experiments in building capacity for collective problem-solving at the supranational level (Egeberg 2012).

Four books on the Commission have recently been published. In The European Commission and Bureaucratic Autonomy: Europe's Custodians, Antonis Ellinas and Ezra Suleiman focus on the autonomy of the Commission administration and its relationship to its political leadership (i.e. commissioners), the Council, the EP, and interest groups. Management and Culture in an Enlarged European Commission: From Diversity to Unity? by Carolyn Ban studies the so-called Kinnock reforms and the EU-12 enlargement with a particular view to the potential impact of taking on board a huge number of new staff. Anchrit Wille, in her book The Normalization of the European Commission: Politics and Bureaucracy in the EU Executive, portrays the Commission as an organization that gradually takes on what she sees as ‘normal’ features of the executive branch of government. Finally, in The European Commission of the Twenty-First Century, Hussein Kassim, John Peterson, Michael W. Bauer, Sara Connolly, Renaud Dehousse, Liesbet Hooghe, and Andrew Thompson unpack the Commission's inner life in terms of its officials' backgrounds, careers, attitudes, and networks, as well as its political leadership and how the EU-12 enlargement was perceived from inside. The four books build on an impressive collection of data: in addition to documentary sources, Ellinas and Suleiman interviewed 188 policy-related staff, Ban interviewed 211, Wille interviewed 50, and Kassim et al. received replies from 1,901 in an online survey and conducted 212 face-to-face interviews.

Taking into consideration the voluminous literature that previously existed (see, e.g. Egeberg 2012 for a review), the Commission probably stands out as one of the most investigated executives in the world. One obvious reason may be that while national executives primarily attract scholars from their respective countries, the Commission becomes targeted by researchers from 28 member states, plus several others, including the USA.

A short review article doesn't allow one to give attention to all observations that may be of interest in the four books under review. I will instead concentrate on how they shed new light on the extent to which the Commission has become more of an institution in its own right rather than an agent or instrument (as seen by, e.g. Moravcsik 1998, p. 8). Moreover, to what degree has it developed into a genuinely political executive rather than a mere technocracy (as seen by, e.g. Moravcsik 1998, p. 67), and to whom might it be accountable? How powerful is the Commission in terms of the range of policy fields covered and its reach down the levels of governance? And, finally, if it has reached a certain level of integrity and institutionalization, how robust is it? The EU-12 enlargement could be seen a critical test of its resilience.

ADMINISTRATIVE AUTONOMY AND INSTITUTIONALIZATION

  1. Top of page
  2. INTRODUCTION
  3. ADMINISTRATIVE AUTONOMY AND INSTITUTIONALIZATION
  4. THE COLLEGE OF COMMISSIONERS: POLITICIZATION AND PARLIAMENTARIZATION
  5. INSTITUTIONAL POWER AND ROBUSTNESS
  6. CONCLUSION
  7. REFERENCES

The Commission recruits policy-related staff from all member countries; however, larger member states are somewhat underrepresented (Kassim et al. 2013, pp. 43–45). Officials are highly educated, which means less dependence on external expertise. Most commonly, officials hold a master's degree in economics, science, law, or social science (Ellinas and Suleiman 2012, p. 53; Kassim et al. 2013, p. 40). More than 50 per cent have done at least part of their studies abroad, giving staff an international profile at the outset. Many had experience in private business before they entered the Commission. There are more men than women among policy-related staff; however, the gender balance improved significantly during the EU-12 enlargement (Ban 2013, ch. 7; Kassim et al. 2013, p. 253).

Through various procedural reforms, the Commission services have acquired considerable control not only over recruitment at the so-called ‘entry level’, but also as regards the appointment of managers. The role of governments in this area has been significantly diminished, illustrated by the fact that the former practice of attaching national flags to particular senior posts has come to an end (Fusacchia 2009). Member states' room for manoeuvre in Commission personnel policy has been further curtailed by the fact that an overwhelming majority of officials today hold permanent posts rather than being seconded from national administrations, as in the early days. And it is quite common to stay for a considerable number of years in these permanent jobs: senior managers have, on average, 21 years of service (Ellinas and Suleiman 2012, p. 52; Kassim et al. 2013, p. 63; Wille 2013, pp. 131–32). Interestingly, the de-politicized appointment processes in the Commission today may have more in common with such processes in the UK or Scandinavian governments than with similar processes in France or Germany, the two countries that probably had the strongest impact in the early years.

Although long careers should be quite conducive to organizational (re-)socialization, early (national) socialization seems to explain whether officials perceive themselves as supranationalists, state-centrists, or institutional pragmatists (Kassim et al. 2013, ch. 4). For example, supranationalists come disproportionately from countries that are smaller, Catholic, have extensive decentralization, and have less effective governance. Supranationalists are, unsurprisingly, more in favour of increasing the EU's overall policy scope.

However, when it comes to predicting the desire to centralize particular policies at the EU level, the ‘Directorate General (DG) family’ to which an official belongs seems to be the strongest predictor. For example, officials in ‘market-enhancing DGs’ want to bolster EU authority in competition and trade but are less keen to do the same regarding market-correcting policies (Kassim et al. 2013, pp. 124–25). The latter finding supports previous research that has emphasized the explanatory power of officials' departmental affiliation in relation to their actual decision behaviour, not only within the Commission services, but also in international administrations in general (Trondal et al. 2010). This seems to hold even for so-called seconded national experts in the Commission; that is, people who are engaged on short-term contracts, thus without any noticeable socialization potential (Trondal et al. 2008; Suvarierol et al. 2013).

Kassim et al. (2013, ch. 3) certainly nuance, but mostly underpin, the observations made by Suvarierol (2008) on the secondary role of nationality in determining officials' informal (personal) networks; understood as the people within the Commission to whom officials turn for information or advice on professional matters. Having worked in the same unit or team is far more important than nationality as the base for an informal network (Kassim et al. 2013, p. 85). Although the Commission has to rely on expertise provided by, for example, national administrations, independent experts, and interest groups (Gornitzka and Sverdrup 2008), the dependency on external sources may have been somewhat exaggerated in parts of the literature. When Commission top officials were asked about which main sources of information they considered necessary to formulate policy, their own staff was considered the most important source. Much further behind were member state administrations and interest groups (Ellinas and Suleiman 2012, p. 65). When asked about who generates innovative policies in the Commission, the overwhelming response was their own services and inter-service teams (Ellinas and Suleiman 2012, p. 135).

Although there is, as shown, variation in terms of Commission officials' governance beliefs and attitudes, a clear majority say their motivation for pursuing a career in Brussels is ‘commitment to Europe’. This holds for EU-12 recruits as well, although the proportion is smaller (60 per cent). While only 37 per cent of all surveyed officials would like to see the College of Commissioners become the government of Europe, 75 per cent oppose the idea that the member states should be the central players in the EU. Instead most officials endorse the so-called ‘community method’ (Kassim et al. 2013, pp. 105, 252), which may be seen as a kind of quasi-federal arrangement assigning the Commission the functions that are most equivalent to the functions governments usually have. Ellinas and Suleiman (2012, pp. 176, 182) report the presence of a supranational orientation among Commission top officials independent of nationality, underscored, inter alia, by the fact that 80 per cent support a European constitution.

THE COLLEGE OF COMMISSIONERS: POLITICIZATION AND PARLIAMENTARIZATION

  1. Top of page
  2. INTRODUCTION
  3. ADMINISTRATIVE AUTONOMY AND INSTITUTIONALIZATION
  4. THE COLLEGE OF COMMISSIONERS: POLITICIZATION AND PARLIAMENTARIZATION
  5. INSTITUTIONAL POWER AND ROBUSTNESS
  6. CONCLUSION
  7. REFERENCES

Various treaty changes may have contributed to diluting the relationship between commissioners and national governments. Consider, for example, the enhanced role of the EP in appointing commissioners, the coupling of the outcome of the EP elections and the choice of Commission President, and the empowerment of the Commission President as regards the distribution of portfolios among college members (for an overview, see Wille 2013). Moreover, the cabinets, that is, the small ‘private’, political secretariats of commissioners, formerly portrayed as national enclaves and Trojan horses within the Commission, have over time been transformed into genuinely multinational entities. Given the profound change of cabinet demography, it is an interesting (but understandable) observation that cabinet behaviour seems to have changed accordingly. Cabinets have actually toned down their role as liaison office between commissioners and their respective home governments (Kassim et al. 2013, pp. 198–99; Wille 2013, p. 110). Kassim et al. (2013, pp. 198–99) observed that cabinets not only assigned less weight to particular national concerns; they also focused less on interdepartmental concerns. Cabinets' increased portfolio focus, that is, on vertical relations between commissioner, cabinet, and DG, means that commissioners' opportunities to intervene in another commissioner's work are limited in practice. Thus, if a commissioner wants to pursue national interests, this may be seriously hampered outside his/her own remit.

Due to the size of the present college, involvement in other commissioners' business is also constrained by the tendency to negotiate issues directly between the president and the affected commissioner(s) instead of involving the college as a whole (Kassim et al. 2013, p. 168; Wille 2013, p. 82). A strengthened Secretariat General, acting more as the office of the president than as the secretariat of the college as such, has provided the necessary administrative capacity for the president's more ‘presidential’ role in the decision-making process (Kassim et al. 2013, pp. 171–73).

The predominantly portfolio focus of commissioners' cabinets (see above) is underpinned by findings on the behaviour of the commissioners themselves: ‘popular’ (as seen from inside) commissioners tend to advance their respective DG interests, and, in spite of collective responsibility within the college, they are seen as being personally responsible for the activities of their respective DGs (Ellinas and Suleiman 2012, p. 70; Wille 2013, p. 80).

In addition to the national connection, although de-emphasized (see above), and the (sectoral) portfolio affiliation, commissioners normally signal an ideological preference as well. Under the leadership of Prodi and Barroso, commissioners have appeared to be more explicitly cultivating their roles as members of political parties (Wille 2013, p. 89). For example, commissioners may have a ‘special relationship’ with their respective political groups in the EP (Wille 2013, p. 88). This observation corresponds well with a study showing that party group staff in the EP interacts disproportionately with commissioners sharing their political leaning. Seen from the EP, commissioners' ideological profiles are more apparent than their nationality, although clearly less evident than their portfolio connection (Egeberg et al. 2014). Party affiliation seems to matter less among cabinet members; however, it matters significantly more at this level than among officials in the services (Kassim et al. 2013, pp. 66–67).

Commissioners face competing role expectations on a routine basis, as the findings reported above confirm. Like national ministers, they have to cope with a departmental portfolio, a political-party affiliation, a ‘constituency’ back home, as well as the expectation to be loyal to the college as such (Egeberg 2006). Interestingly, in describing the genuinely political role of commissioners, the new studies explicitly compare their roles and behaviour with those of national ministers (Ellinas and Suleiman 2012, p. 65; Kassim et al. 2013, ch. 6; Wille 2013, pp. 91–94). Commissioners are unambiguously seen as the political masters of their respective departments (DGs) or services. Based on the president's (college's) guidelines, they are expected to hammer out the political course and, eventually, get their policy proposals adopted by the EP and the Council. In order to succeed, they are highly dependent upon the expertise, administrative capacity, and policy advice provided by their officials in the services (Wille 2013, ch. 7). A majority of the top officials report that they probably influence the college more than the college influences them (Ellinas and Suleiman 2012, p. 73). At the same time, top officials clearly express loyalty to the political positions of the college (Kassim et al. 2013, p. 128).

Another indicator of the ‘normalization’ of the Commission as a political executive is the gradual introduction of measures associated with a (quasi-)parliamentary system of governance. Examples include the increased role of the EP in the appointment of the College of Commissioners, and the EP's frequent questioning of the Commission during its term of office (for an overview, see Wille 2013). Although mainly seen as an ally, senior Commission officials nevertheless tend to look upon the EP as a difficult interlocutor due to its heterogeneity, unpredictability, and lack of expertise (Ellinas and Suleiman 2012, pp. 76, 213–14). Whether the development of a parliamentary system of governance represents the ‘normal’ route of institutional development in an EU context (Wille 2013, p. 209) is, however, questionable. Arguably, due to the EU's highly composite nature, for example in terms of nationalities, a system based on the separation of power between the parliament and the executive (with a directly elected president) might be seen as more ‘normal’, sustainable, and legitimate than a parliamentary system (cf. Lijphart 2012).

INSTITUTIONAL POWER AND ROBUSTNESS

  1. Top of page
  2. INTRODUCTION
  3. ADMINISTRATIVE AUTONOMY AND INSTITUTIONALIZATION
  4. THE COLLEGE OF COMMISSIONERS: POLITICIZATION AND PARLIAMENTARIZATION
  5. INSTITUTIONAL POWER AND ROBUSTNESS
  6. CONCLUSION
  7. REFERENCES

A majority of Commission officials report that the Commission is losing power to national capitals and to the EP (Kassim et al. 2013, ch. 5, pp. 131–32, 144). However, it is not obvious why this perceived decline in power is related to the former ‘pillar structure’ of the Maastricht Treaty or the setting up of EU agencies, as argued by the authors.

The same authors argue that task expansion has taken place at the Commission; adding dossiers related to police and judicial cooperation, monetary union, and crisis management (p. 78). Although executive functions in the area of foreign and security policy have not been transferred to the Commission in the same way as in the area of justice and home affairs, one might, nevertheless, argue that the former functions have never been as close to the Commission as today; while the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy previously combined this position with being the secretary general of the Council Secretariat, she now acts at the same time as a vice-president of the Commission. Also, the literature so far does not point in the direction of (re-)nationalization of regulatory politics (e.g. Busuioc et al. 2012). The empowerment of the EP has meant of course that one more institution has to be taken seriously into account. However, while the Council has to share its legislative function with the EP, the Commission can keep its functions untouched.

How sustainable is the Commission in its present institutional form? The EU-12 enlargement could in fact be seen as a critical test of its institutional robustness. The Commission had to recruit no less than about 4,000 officials from the new member states; an increase of about 20 per cent in its staff size (Ban 2013, p. 75). An overwhelming majority of the new staff came from countries with a communist past; countries in which the legacy regarding governance norms and practices was quite different from that of the present EU. However, Ban (2013) concludes that the numerous newcomers smoothly integrated both at the entry level and the management level. There are several reasons for this. First, new recruits at the entry level, who passed the concours (competitive exams), had often studied and worked abroad. Second, the Commission screens those appointed at the management level according to the new (Kinnock) recruitment procedure. Although many managers came directly from their national administration, many had negotiated accession to the EU on behalf of their country and were therefore already familiar with the ways of doing things in the EU. Moreover, there was a tendency to assign them less relevant policy posts (Ban 2013, p. 172). Third, newcomers were widely dispersed throughout the organization and thus came to lack the ‘critical mass’ necessary to make a significant difference at various decision points.

CONCLUSION

  1. Top of page
  2. INTRODUCTION
  3. ADMINISTRATIVE AUTONOMY AND INSTITUTIONALIZATION
  4. THE COLLEGE OF COMMISSIONERS: POLITICIZATION AND PARLIAMENTARIZATION
  5. INSTITUTIONAL POWER AND ROBUSTNESS
  6. CONCLUSION
  7. REFERENCES

The four books have added substantially to our knowledge about the only supranational executive in the world. The European Commission today is probably better described as an institution with its own will than as a mere agent or instrument for someone else. It is probably more of a political body than a typical technocracy. So far the Commission has shown considerable resilience in spite of extensive enlargement of the EU. Nevertheless, there may be ‘limits to growth’. Arguably, the existence of a professional bureaucracy and relatively distinct administrative and political roles as we have observed in the Commission cannot be entirely independent of certain civic culture qualities within the member states.

REFERENCES

  1. Top of page
  2. INTRODUCTION
  3. ADMINISTRATIVE AUTONOMY AND INSTITUTIONALIZATION
  4. THE COLLEGE OF COMMISSIONERS: POLITICIZATION AND PARLIAMENTARIZATION
  5. INSTITUTIONAL POWER AND ROBUSTNESS
  6. CONCLUSION
  7. REFERENCES
  • Busuioc, M., M. Groenleer and J. Trondal (eds). 2012. The Agency Phenomenon in the European Union. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  • Egeberg, M. 2006. ‘Executive Politics as Usual: Role Behaviour and Conflict Dimensions in the College of European Commissioners’, Journal of European Public Policy, 13, 1, 115.
  • Egeberg, M. 2012. ‘Experiments in Supranational Institution-Building: The European Commission as a Laboratory’, Journal of European Public Policy, 19, 6, 93950.
  • Egeberg, M., Å. Gornitzka and J. Trondal. 2014. ‘A Not So Technocratic Executive? Everyday Interaction between the European Parliament and the Commission’, West European Politics, 37, 1, 118.
  • Fusacchia, A. 2009. ‘Selection, Appointment and Redeployment of Senior Commission Officials’. PhD dissertation, European University Institute, Florence.
  • Gornitzka, Å. and U. Sverdrup. 2008. ‘Who Consults? The Configuration of Expert Groups in the European Union’, West European Politics, 31, 4, 72550.
  • Lijphart, A. 2012. Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries, 2nd edn. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Moravcsik, A. 1998. The Choice for Europe. London: UCL Press.
  • Murray, P. and E. Moxon-Browne. 2013. ‘The European Union as a Template for Regional Integration? The Case of ASEAN and Its Committee of Permanent Representatives’, Journal of Common Market Studies, 51, 3, 52237.
  • Skowronek, S. 1982. Building a New American State: The Expansion of National Administrative Capacities 1877–1920. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Suvarierol, S. 2008. ‘Beyond the Myth of Nationality: Analysing Networks Within the European Commission’, West European Politics, 31, 4, 70124.
  • Suvarierol, S., M. Busuioc and M. Groenleer. 2013. ‘Working for Europe? Socialization in the European Commission and Agencies of the European Union’, Public Administration, 91, 4, 90827.
  • Trondal, J., C. van den Berg and S. Suvarierol. 2008. ‘The Compound Machinery of Government: The Case of Seconded Officials in the European Commission’, Governance, 21, 2, 25374.
  • Trondal, J., M. Marcussen, T. Larsson and F. Veggeland. 2010. Unpacking International Organisations: The Dynamics of Compound Bureaucracies. Manchester: Manchester University Press.