Oct 16, 2018

Book Reviews

Dr. Jan Werts for Journal of Common Market Studies,  2015, Volume 53/4.  
The European Council and the Council. New Intergovernmentalism and Institutional Change, by Uwe Puetter (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014, ISBN 978-0-19-871624-2); xiv+265pp.,?55.00


‘A New intergovernmentalism’ is on the rise. It dominates European Union decision-making in new areas such as economic governance, employment and justice and home affairs. Councils, like the EcoFin, the Eurogroup, the Foreign Affairs Council function predominantly on the basis of intergovernmental policy coordination rather than  legislative decision-making on the basis of the ‘Community Method’. A lack of political support by governments for the Community Method has, it seems, triggered this development. Simultaneously the Commission’s and the Court’s roles have become more limited. 

The new EU structure has made the European Council and the Council the power centres and in so doing have changed the Union’s working methods. A relentless search for consensus has become an alternative to the Community Method with decision-making by majority-voting. This important change took place because only the national leaders have the authority to decide over the growing number of domestically important matters discussed at an EU level. European integration therefore can no longer be primarily considered as a process of delegating powers with the ultimate executive decision-making vesting in the EU institutions.

Puetter starts with the observation that since the 1991 Maastricht Summit the Member States have signed three treaties, but on each occasion rejected the idea of new major transfers of decision-making to the supranational level. At the same time, there seem to be no signs of ‘integration fatigue’; for example the recent emergence of EMU’s economic governance is notable. In other words, the conviction that stronger EU-level action is essential for resolving Europe’s fundamental challenges conflicts with a general insistence on national sovereignty. This institutional dilemma is referred to here as ‘the integration paradox’.

The conceptual and empirical consequences of these institutional changes are addressed here with considerable insight. The framework for understanding this particular phase of integration and institutional change is called ‘deliberative intergovernmentalism’. It is characterised by permanent consensus seeking and by informal arrangements. This analytical framework is especially useful for the study of the European Council, the Euro Summit  and the Council of Ministers.

The shift to the intergovernmental approach after Maastricht is seen as a watershed. This point of view overlooks the fact that from the 1984 Fontainebleau meeting the European Council was already the Union’s Community minded initiator and problem solver. Consensus seeking on the basis of unanimity is seen by Puetter as typical for the European Council. This overlooks the fact that the supranational Commission, according to its former president Barroso, has voted only five times in a ten year time span. These reflections do not, however, change the fact that Puetter presents a timely and telling contribution to that old debate about supranationalism versus intergovernmentalism in Europe. 
JAN WERTS, Montesquieu Institute, The Hague.

Jan Werts, co-author of:
An Impossible Job? Presidents of the European Commission 1958-2014 
London, 2015, John Harper Publishing, ISBN 978-0-957-1501-6-4



Editors Gerrit Voerman and Jan van der Harst worked on the publication of the Presidents of the European Comission in the period of 1958-2014.

For most of its history, the public figurehead of what is now the European Union has been the President of the European Commission. In this volume, the editors have for the first time assembled a complete collection of specially written concise political biographies of all eleven of the Presidents from Walter Hallstein (1958-1967) to José Manuel Barroso (2004-2014), exploring their successes, failures, impact and legacy. This portfolio of mini-biographies is written by a group of professional historians originating from various EU-countries. It makes fascinating reading in its own right, and to this the editors have added a thematic overview, drawing out the many similarities and contrasts between the Presidents and providing some general conclusions about what one President, Roy Jenkins, termed ‘an impossible job’.
The volume includes a general introduction on the European Commission written by Jan Werts (Author of The European Council, London, 2008, and Amsterdam, 1992).

Introduction of my contribution page 1-25.
Jan Werts


The day-to-day administration of Europe:
The Commission and its President (1958-2014)


‘Without the Commission, the Community could not function even with the limited efficiency that it does today.’

‘The President’s role is fundamental to the operation of the Commission and the coherence of the EU per se. But his is no easy task.’


This introduction outlines the significance of the European Commission in the day-to-day administration of the European Union (EU) and highlights the role of its President.  Our premise is that while the Commission remains an influential body within the Union as a whole, the extensive authority granted to the Commission in the 1950s by the Community’s founders is coming under pressure – a situation that also applies to the position of Commission President. While it is true that additional support has been given to the initiatives of the Commission as a result of its generally smooth cooperation with the all-powerful European Council (involving the leaders of all the Member States), it is also the case that the European Parliament, which has become co-legislator with the Council of Ministers, has strengthened its own position relative to the Commission over the years. Furthermore, there is frequent interference in the work of the Commission by some national governments, as well as, in particular, the President of the European Council (since 1 December 2014, Donald Tusk).

A sixty-year history of working towards a united Europe has nonetheless demonstrated that the Commission is absolutely indispensable to this project. This applies, for example, to its role in creating various forms of policy (from the European Climate Change Programme to the European Monetary Union, with the euro as the common currency). It is also indispensable when it comes to managing and constantly monitoring and honing the 80,000 pages of EU legislation, known as the acquis communautaire. However, it is also true that the Commission is engaged in a constant struggle to assert itself effectively due to its, perhaps inevitable, internal problems. This has given rise to an image of a ponderous bureaucracy, which is probably inescapable in a European Union comprising 28 countries with so many divergent interests, and has also led to the view that the Commission will never make a perfect job of anything it decides to undertake.

Ultimately, the question is: ‘Who holds power in the European Union?’ Europe has struggled with this question right from the start. Resolving the issue is a never-ending process, with national governments, while supporting the Union, keeping an understandably watchful eye on their autonomy. Within this context we can basically identify two schools of thought concerning the structure of cooperation between the states of Europe.

My final conclusion:

The future of the Commission and its President


Where do the Commission and its President stand with the passage of time from the forced resignation of the Santer Commission in 1999? Is it correct to say that the decline that started in the 1990s has continued, with little hope of improvement?  Critics point to the failures of the past decade: two Intergovernmental Conferences (2000, Treaty of Nice; and 2003-2004, Treaty of Lisbon), at which the Commission failed to play a significant role; the ‘Lisbon Process’ and the subsequent ‘Europe 2020’ plans to modernise Europe’s economy; and finally the Union’s intergovernmental foreign policy, where the European Council and the national governments prevail. Over and above these issues, the Member States all want to retain their ‘own’ Commissioner. This means that Member States are opting for a more intergovernmental model. In the context of the rescue operations for the euro, German Chancellor Angela Merkel with French Presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande often (but not always) had preparatory discussions with European Council President Van Rompuy on how to negotiate the most difficult hurdles. The Commission President is not always involved in such discussions. In conclusion, there are many signs that the Member States, by way of the European Council, have taken over policy-making on key questions from the Commission, through the European Council or the Euro Summit.

However, the sovereign debt crisis reversed this trend, clearly strengthening the Commission’s position in the institutional framework. For although the European Council emerged as the leading initiator and decision-maker, and while national interests clearly moved to the fore, it was the Commission which took the central role in the newly developed ‘economic governance’ structure, with the Commission becoming the leading body in the implementation of policies. President Barroso rightly concluded that ‘never in the past so many competences have been exercised at EU level’.  Piotr Serafin, Poland’s Secretary of State for European Affairs said in Brussels that the Commission ‘will step by step become the European policeman’. 
This strengthening of its role brought the Commission a new challenge. During the coming years it will have to prove that besides its expertise it also has the independence required to impose sanctions on Member States which breach the EMU. Since France and Germany have at times ignored unwanted decisions coming from Brussels regarding EMU matters, the Commission must especially prove its independence with respect to the larger Member States.

In the light of these concerns it is difficult to be certain what influence the Commission and its President will have on EU institutions in the future; but we do know that the Commission is the linchpin in the ‘multi-level’ process of European decision-making. Although many of the most important political decisions are made in the European Council, the Euro Summit, the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, the Commission remains absolutely essential in both the preparatory phase and the implementation and monitoring phases.

The Commission is charged with an extensive and ever-increasing set of tasks. Today, Brussels is involved in ‘everything and more’, a fact that sometimes makes the Commission a scapegoat within Europe. Its enormous expertise ensures that it is administratively and politically indispensable. In the twentieth century, the European Commission was sometimes regarded, especially by smaller countries, as a future European government. This description is no longer applicable, with the European Council now being the ‘big boss’. The Parliament has risen to the ranks of a co-decision institution alongside the Council of Ministers, with nowadays these two bodies dealing directly with one another via the Council presidency and COREPER. This development has affected the Commission’s ability to actively participate in the definition of the content of new legislative measures.  However, in areas where the Commission has always wielded considerable power, such as policy on the internal market, international trade, competition and agriculture, its influence remains undiminished.

Moreover, given the upgrading of the European Council in the Treaty of Lisbon, and the creation of the special Euro Summit to deal with the specific problems of the Eurozone, the Commission presidency will face an additional challenge in the years ahead. Since December 2009, two Presidents have had their headquarters near the Schuman roundabout in Brussels: the Commission President and the President of the European Council and the Euro Summit. The situation surrounding the handling of the sovereign debt crisis and the euro taught us that today the President of the European Council and the Euro Summit is entrusted by the heads of state or government with the task of developing politically sensitive proposals and, in a later phase, of preparing decision-making on these matters.

The EU is currently a ship with two captains, which can inevitably lead to rivalry, friction and duplication. At the last review of the EU treaties a proposal was made to merge the functions of the Presidents of the European Council and the Commission into a single post. Such a merger would obviously upgrade the position of the Commission President. It would give the Union a President for whom Washington and Beijing would close their streets for official visits. However, the leaders of the large Member States are afraid that such a high-profile ‘President of Europe’ would detract from their own eminent positions.

Can a Commission President ever really become an unequivocal success? Is the President not charged with a ‘mission impossible’? Today, he or she must be able to get on with the influential President of the European Council and the Euro Summit, and at the same time with the 28 national leaders, each with their own various problems and interests. The Commission President also has to be able to deal with the machinations of the French President/German Chancellor partnership, which has little affection for the Commission. In addition, the President has to maintain positive relations with the European Parliament, with its large and highly diffuse membership, and of course with the 27 other individuals in the Commission – and, finally, to manage the extensive bureaucracy of the Commission itself, which sometimes seeks to pursue its own path and is made up of people of 28 nationalities, all with their own way of working. To what extent can the Commission President find a way to persuade and influence the political and official world, let alone the public and the media, all dispersed across so many countries? All of this demands leadership qualities and a level of political prestige for which the requisite formal presidential authority is lacking. And yet, despite all these difficulties, the position of Commission President has been for decades and still remains a pivotal one in defining the identity, and driving forward the daily work, of the EU. How the role will evolve remains to be seen, but for the moment the Commission President will nonetheless remain at the heart of the European project.