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Institutions of the European Union

Institutions of the European Union (4th edn)

Dermot Hodson and John Peterson
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p. 1085. The College of Commissioners: Supranational leadership and presidential politicslocked

p. 1085. The College of Commissioners: Supranational leadership and presidential politicslocked

  • John Peterson


This chapter examines the normative question of what kind of organization the College of Commissioners, the European Commission’s most political level, should be: a policy entrepreneur, an honest broker, a manager of decisions taken by others, or an engine of integration. It first traces the origins and history of the College of Commissioners before discussing its structure, focusing on the President, the college itself, and the cabinets. It then considers the Commission’s powers and its influence over most ‘history-making’ decisions about the broad sweep of European integration. The chapter also explores the politics underlying the Presidency by looking at the case of two controversial presidents of the Commission, Jacques Santer and Jean-Claude Juncker. It argues that the Commission and most of what it does have always been highly politicized despite its ambitions to be an honest broker between national interests and an independent guardian of the European Union’s Treaties.


No other institution—national or international—closely resembles the European Commission. It is a distinct hybrid: the largest administration and main policy manager within the European Union (EU), but also a source of political and policy direction. This chapter focuses on the college of Commissioners—the Commission’s most political level. Yet these Commissioners—who form a ‘college’—are unelected, independent (in theory) of member governments, and often portrayed as unaccountable technocrats. The Commission seemed to be in a permanent state of decline after 1999, after being headed by presidents who were perceived as weak, ineffective, or both. The appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as President in 2014—according to an unprecedented and highly contested process—produced fresh debates about what it p. 109might mean for the EU to have (in Juncker’s words) a ‘political Commission’. Whatever comes of the idea, the fact that the EU faced multiple and vexed political crises during Juncker’s early years in office revealed the ways in which the Commission’s fate is largely determined by factors over which it has little or no control.


The European Commission may be the strangest administration ever created. Despite brave attempts to compare it to other bureaucracies (Page 1997), the Commission is in many respects a sui generis institution. Legally, the Commission is a single entity. In practice, it is a unique hybrid. It is given direction by a political arm—or college—of Commissioners. But the college is unelected, which (for example) made the Commission an object of ire for the ‘Leave’ camp during the 2016 referendum campaign in the United Kingdom (UK). Commissioners act independently of the states that appoint them (at least in theory) and even swear an oath of independence. The college exists alongside a permanent, apolitical administration—what are known as the Commission’s services, or Directorates-General (DGs). This book squarely confronts the Commission’s duality by focusing here on the college and devoting a separate chapter to the services (see Chapter 8).

Even if they are unelected, Commissioners ‘are appointed via a highly politicised process … are almost invariably national politicians of senior status, and are expected to provide the Commission’s political direction’ (Nugent and Rhinard 2015: 2–3). At times, the college—the President, Commissioners, and their advisers—has provided political direction to European integration, particularly during the earliest days of the European Economic Community (EEC) and again in the 1980s. More recently, it has become almost accepted wisdom that ‘the decline of the Commission … has continued … and there seems little possibility that the situation will be reversed’ (Kassim and Menon 2004: 102).1 The Commission has always been powerful as a designer and manager of EU policy. But its role has never been uncontested (Spence and Edwards 2006; Kassim et al. 2013). The central theme of this chapter is that the Commission and most of what it does have always been highly politicized despite its ambitions to be an honest broker between national interests and an independent guardian of the EU’s Treaties.

The origins and history of the college

The forerunner of today’s European Commission was the High Authority of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). Its first President was the legendary Jean Monnet (1978).2 Provisions in the 1951 Treaty of Paris that gave the High p. 110Authority significant independent powers to regulate markets for coal and steel bore Monnet’s own fingerprints. The ECSC thus established that common European policies would be managed, and European integration given political impulse, by a non-partisan central authority.

The High Authority’s own college was larger than Monnet wanted it to be: nine members—two from France and West Germany, and one from all other member states (plus a co-opted ninth member). Thus a precedent was set for national representation in what was meant to be a supranational administration. Over time, the High Authority became much less nimble and more bureaucratic than Monnet wanted it to be (Nugent and Rhinard 2015: 24–5). Partly in protest, Monnet resigned before the end of his term.

The design of common institutions for the new EEC was one of the most difficult issues in negotiations on the Treaty of Rome. A Dutch proposal sought a supranational EEC administration that would be even more independent of member governments than the ECSC’s High Authority. However, it ran into opposition, particularly from France, and ended up being ‘almost the reverse of what was finally decided’ (Milward 1992: 217–18). Compared to the High Authority, the new European Commission (the label ‘High Authority’ was discarded as too grandiose) was balanced by a more powerful intergovernmental institution in the form of a Council of (national) Ministers.

The Treaty assigned three basic functions to the Commission:

overseeing the implementation of policies;

representing Europe in external trade negotiations; and

most importantly, proposing new policies.

The Commission’s monopoly on the right of legislative initiative, along with its prerogative to formulate recommendations and deliver opinions, gave it licence to act as a sort of engine of integration, or a source of ideas on new directions that the Community might take. Alongside the Court of Justice, the Commission was also designated guardian of the Treaty, and tasked with ensuring that its rules and injunctions were respected.

The early Commissions were small (nine members) and united by a ‘dominating sense of team spirit’ (Narjes 1998: 114).3 Between 1958 and 1967, only fourteen different men4 served as Commissioners, supported by two cabinet advisers (with four advising the President). Walter Hallstein, foreign policy adviser to the first West German Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, became the Commission’s first President. Hallstein was both a political heavyweight and a forceful leader, repeatedly referring to himself as the equivalent of a ‘European prime minister’. The Commission achieved considerable policy success during this period, laying the foundations for the common agricultural policy (CAP), mere agreement on which was considered a success, representing the Community in the successful Kennedy Round of world trade talks, and convincing member government to accelerate the timetable for establishing the EEC’s customs union.

p. 111A watershed in the history of the Commission was reached in 1965. A year from a scheduled extension of qualified majority voting (QMV) as a decision rule in the Council, the Hallstein Commission proposed a new system of financing the CAP through ‘own resources’, or revenue directly channelled to the Community rather than cobbled together from national contributions. The plan proposed to give new budgetary powers to both the Commission and the European Parliament (EP). It became a pretext on which French President Charles de Gaulle would pull France out of nearly all EEC negotiations for more than six months. De Gaulle’s hostility to Hallstein’s federalist rhetoric and actions, which included receiving foreign ambassadors to the EEC with a red carpet, was highly personal, but also reflected deep French anxieties about a resurgent Germany (de Gaulle 1970: 195–6).

The so-called empty chair crisis ended and France returned to EEC negotiations after the Luxembourg compromise was agreed in 1966 (with Luxembourg holding the Council presidency). The agreement, made public only in the form of a press release, stated that ‘where very important interests are at stake the discussion must be continued until unanimous agreement is reached’ (Council of Ministers 1966). Any member government could invoke the compromise in any negotiation if it felt its ‘very important interests’ were at risk. The upshot was to give political blessing to unanimous decision-making in the Council and generally to hobble the Commission.5

De Gaulle insisted that Hallstein be replaced as President of the Commission, which itself became a single integrated administration for all three previously distinct ‘Communities’—the EEC, ECSC, and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom)—in 1967. Headed by the low-key Belgian Jean Rey, the new Commission initially contained fourteen members (reduced to nine in 1970). The next decade was a lean time for the Commission, because of both weak presidential leadership (Nugent and Rhinard 2015: 37–8; see also Table 5.1) and the EEC’s more general lack of dynamism. In retrospect, the Community may have actually achieved more in the 1970s than it appeared at the time. Still, Western Europe suffered through a series of economic crises and the Community itself was widely seen as dilapidated.

By the late 1970s, a critical mass of member governments was persuaded that the Commission should be led by a political figure who was a potential prime minister in his or her own country. Thus Roy Jenkins, a senior figure in the UK’s then-governing Labour Party, was appointed as President in 1977. Jenkins was the first President to be nominated in advance of the college as a whole, thus giving him scope to influence the composition of his team.

Jenkins’ record was ambiguous (Ludlow 2016). On the one hand, member governments frequently disregarded his advice. There is little dispute that he ‘was not a great success at running or reforming the Brussels machine’ (Campbell 1983: 195). On the other, Jenkins raised the external profile of the Commission by insisting (against French resistance) that the Commission President should attend Group of Seven (G7) economic summits. Jenkins also worked tirelessly with German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and French President Valéry Giscard-d’Estaing to p. 112

Table 5.1 The presidents of the Commission

Presidents (nationality*)

Period of tenure

Walter Hallstein (German)


Jean Rey (Belgian)


Franco Maria Malfatti (Italian)


Sicco Mansholt (Dutch)


François Xavier-Ortoli (French)


Roy Jenkins (British)


Gaston Thorn (Luxembourger)


Jacques Delors (French)


Jacques Santer (Luxembourger)


Romano Prodi (Italian)


José Manuel Barroso (Portuguese)


Jean-Claude Juncker (Luxembourger)


* Note that the presidency has been held by a non-national of one of the original EEC-6 only twice.

build support for the European Monetary System (EMS). The EMS helped to keep European currency values stable in the 1980s after enormous exchange rate turbulence in the 1970s. It was an important forerunner to both the freeing of the Community’s internal market and, later, monetary union.

Before the 1979 election of Margaret Thatcher as UK prime minister, Jenkins seemed a candidate to be the first Commission President since Hallstein to be reappointed to a second four-year term.6 However, reappointing Jenkins became politically untenable when Thatcher doggedly pursued the so-called British budgetary question (arising from the size of its net EU budgetary contribution), which preoccupied the Community for no fewer than five years. It cast a dark cloud over the Commission presidency of former Luxembourg Prime Minister Gaston Thorn, whose tenure marked a retreat in the direction of the lacklustre post-Hallstein Commissions.

Thorn was replaced in 1985 by former French Finance Minister Jacques Delors. Thatcher accepted the nomination of Delors, a French Socialist, on the strength of his role in France’s economic policy U-turn of the early 1980s, when it abandoned protectionism and increased public expenditure in favour of market liberalism. Delors carefully reflected on how the Community could be relaunched via a headline-grabbing political project. Working closely with Lord (Arthur) Cockfield (1994), former British trade minister and Commissioner for the internal market, Delors p. 113opted for an integrated programme to dismantle most barriers to internal EU trade by the end of 1992. Seizing on converging preferences amongst the EU’s largest member states for economic liberalization (Moravcsik 1991), as well as the strong support of the European business community, the 1992 project gave European integration renewed momentum. A substantive overhaul of the Community’s founding Treaties was agreed in the 1986 Single European Act (SEA), which empowered the Commission, notably by extending the use of QMV in the Council.

Delors then convinced European leaders, despite the scepticism of many, to allow him to chair a high-level committee of (mostly) central bankers and to relaunch long-dormant plans for economic and monetary union (EMU). Progress towards EMU was uninterrupted—and probably accelerated—by the geopolitical earthquakes that shook the European continent in late 1989. German unification was handled with skill and speed by the Delors Commission (Spence 1991; Ross 1995), which also stepped forward to coordinate Western economic aid to the former Warsaw Pact states. By spring 1990, with a round of Treaty revisions to create EMU on course, French President François Mitterrand and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl threw their combined political weight behind the idea of a separate, parallel set of negotiations to create a political union. By this point, Delors was accepted by Kohl, Mitterrand, and even Thatcher as a political equal in the European Council.

The second half of Delors’ ten-year reign was a far less happy time for the Commission. Member governments agreed mostly intergovernmental mechanisms for making new internal security and foreign policies via the (Maastricht) Treaty on European Union (TEU), denying the Commission its traditional prerogatives in these areas. Delors also shouldered some of the blame for the 1992 Danish rejection of the new Treaty, after suggesting that the power of small states would inevitably be weaker in a future EU (Nugent and Rhinard 2015: 46–7). By the time Delors left Brussels in 1995, most EU member governments wanted a less visionary successor.

After a tortured selection process,7 Jacques Santer, prime minister of Luxembourg, was chosen to replace Delors. Santer promised that his Commission would ‘do less but do it better’. Yet it inherited a full agenda, including the launch of the euro, eastern enlargement, another round of Treaty reforms, and negotiations on the Union’s multi-annual budget and structural funds for regional development. The Santer Commission generally handled these issues well. Its stewardship of the launch of EMU in particular seemed ‘enough to earn any Commission President a proud legacy’ (Peterson 1999: 61).

In fact, Santer’s legacy was hardly a proud one. For all of the dynamism of the Delors era, the Commission had become far more focused on policy initiation than on effective management. Santer presided over an administration that had become inefficient and sometimes chaotic; the Santer era culminated in the dramatic mass resignation of the college in March 1999 after the publication of a report of a Committee of Independent Experts (1999a), convened by the EP, on charges of fraud, mismanagement, and nepotism (see Box 5.1).p. 114

Box 5.1 The fall of the Santer Commission

Jacques Santer’s troubles began in earnest in late 1998 after the publication of a damning Court of Auditors’ report, which suggested that large amounts of EU funding had gone missing. Around the same time, press reports appeared alleging that Research Commissioner (and former French Prime Minister) Edith Cresson had given plum advisers’ jobs in the services to unqualified personal cronies (including her dentist). Characteristically, Cresson dismissed them as part of an Anglo-German ‘conspiracy’. A motion of censure tabled under the EP’s Treaty powers to sack the entire Commission was defeated (by 293 votes to 232) after Santer accepted that a Committee of Independent Experts would investigate charges of fraud and mismanagement within the Commission. At this point, according to Leon Brittan (2000: 10), a veteran of the Delors and Santer Commissions, the Commission began ‘to sleepwalk towards its own destruction’. Santer told the EP that the college would implement the recommendations of the Experts’ report, regardless of what they were, in a sign of the Commission’s political weakness.

The Experts had only five weeks in which to investigate the Commission, yet produced a report that was painstaking in detail. Its most serious charges—leaving aside those against Cresson—concerned improprieties that had occurred during the Delors years. Bitter animosity between Delors and the Experts’ chair, former head of the Court of Auditors André Middlehoek, was palpable in the report, which drew conclusions that seemed to go well beyond its evidence. It built to a crescendo with the devastating charge that it was ‘becoming difficult to find anyone who has even the slightest sense of responsibility’ for the work of the Commission (Committee of Independent Experts 1999a: 144). The EP’s largest political group at the time, the Socialists, announced that it would vote to sack all twenty Commissioners, thus making the outcome of any vote all but inevitable.

A series of efforts were mounted by individual Commissioners to isolate Cresson, including a bid by Santer to convince French President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to ask her to step down. None succeeded. Thus Santer insisted that the entire Commission, as a collegial body, had to resign. The President was defiant in a subsequent press conference, claiming that the Experts’ report was ‘wholly unjustified in tone’.8 Whether or not Santer’s combativeness was ill-judged, his fate was sealed by bad luck: an English interpreter mistakenly communicated Santer’s claim (in French) that he was blanchi, or exonerated, from personal charges against him to the non-French press as a claim that he was ‘whiter than white’. It became seen as a political necessity that Santer had to go, and quickly.

Ironically, the Commission under Santer had undertaken reforms that made it—on balance—better-managed than it had been under Delors (Peterson 1999; Metcalfe 2000; Nugent and Rhinard 2015: 48–9). But the efforts were far from enough to cure the Commission of pathologies that had festered under Delors. The Experts’ report exposed the Commission as everyone’s favourite scapegoat in Brussels. More generally, the fall of the Santer Commission showed, in the words of one of its members, that ‘in economic and monetary terms Europe is a giant in the world. But politically we are very young.’9

p. 115Santer’s resignation in spring 1999 came at a particularly difficult moment. The Berlin summit, at which a series of major decisions needed to be made on the EU’s seven-year budget, structural funds, and agricultural reform, was about a week away. A political crisis over Kosovo was deepening. The German Council presidency thus undertook a whirlwind tour of national EU capitals to seek a swift decision on replacing Santer. In Berlin, after ten minutes of discussion, the European Council agreed that the new Commission President should be former Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi.

Prodi was by no means free to choose his own college. Nevertheless, armed with new powers granted to the Commission President by the Treaty (see ‘The structure of the college’), Prodi had more influence over its composition than had most of his predecessors. He ended up with a less charismatic college than Santer’s, but one in which expertise was matched to portfolio to an extent unseen in the Commission’s history.

One EU ambassador spoke for many in Brussels in claiming that Prodi’s economic team was ‘collectively the best the Commission has ever had’.10 One of two Vice-Presidents, Neil Kinnock, was charged with implementing an ambitious series of internal reforms of the Commission (Schön-Quinvalin 2011). Prodi himself helped to shift the debate on eastern enlargement to the point at which EU governments—at the 1999 Helsinki summit—decided to open accession talks with twelve applicant states on a more or less equal basis.

Yet Prodi’s weakness as a political communicator was probably his Commission’s most glaring liability (Peterson 2004). Kinnock’s administrative reform programme encountered resistance in the services, where morale seemed to sink ever lower. The Commission was marginalized in the negotiations that yielded the Treaty of Nice. It appeared chaotic in the 2002–03 Convention on the Future of Europe that drafted a new Constitutional Treaty, with Prodi unable to contain divisions in the College about what the Commission’s strategy should be and doing little or nothing to ensure that Commission staff working on the Constitutional Treaty—numbering more than the Convention’s own secretariat—worked together (Norman 2003: 267). The most charitable comments that could be made about Prodi himself were that he mostly avoided interference in the work of a highly competent college.

The leading candidate to replace Prodi in 2004, Belgium’s Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, received powerful Franco–German backing, but was opposed by the UK, thus reawakening divisions over the previous year’s invasion of Iraq. Eventually, Portuguese Prime Minister José Manuel Barroso emerged as a consensus candidate to lead a new, expanded college, with each of (now) twenty-five member states appointing one member. Barroso’s allocation of powerful economic portfolios to economic liberals and previous support for the Iraq War were both controversial. Barroso found himself on the sharp end of muscle-flexing by the EP, which threatened to reject his Commission after the initial Italian nominee, Rocco Buttiglione, outraged MEPs by airing his conservative views on women and gay men (see Box 5.2). By most accounts, Barroso handled the affair badly, before finally securing p. 116the EP’s approval of a redesigned college. Hopes that Barroso could restore the Commission’s position sank—and fell yet further when French and Dutch voters rejected the Constitutional Treaty in May 2005 referenda.

Barroso’s first term in office focused on the Commission’s buoyant policy agenda, but launched no new major initiative besides deciding to recommend Bulgaria and Romania as the EU’s newest member states (they joined in 2007). Barroso himself dominated the College as perhaps no other President previously had, transforming the Commission’s Secretariat-General—its service responsible for management of the Commission—into almost an extension of his private office. A survey of Commission officials in 2008 found widespread agreement that the ‘Sec-Gen’, as it is known in Commission parlance, had become both more ‘political and influential’ in the life of the Commission (see Figure 5.1). Despite resentment of his personal dominance of the Commission and allegations that he lacked ambition (Hodson 2013a), Barroso worked to ensure the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, showing considerably better political communication skills than had Prodi. Barroso was renominated for a second term by member states in 2010, thus becoming the first Commission President since Delors to serve two terms.

Inevitably, Barroso’s second term was consumed by the fallout from the worst global recession since the 1930s, with multiple (southern) EU member states requiring large rescue packages policed in part by the Commission. Under Barroso, the Commission acquired new powers to scrutinize national draft budgets and supervise EU banks. Ultimately, however, the Barroso decade saw the Commission occupy a considerably more modest role than it had under Delors, the only other President in EU history to serve as long.

Figure 5.1 The Barroso Commission and Secretariat-General

Source: Kassim et al. (2013): 194.

p. 117The choice about Barroso’s successor became highly politicized. It became caught up with both the UK’s renegotiation of the terms of its membership (and subsequent referendum) and new provisions in the Lisbon Treaty that EP party groups interpreted (controversially) as giving them the right to nominate Spitzenkandidaten, or nominees to head the Commission that led their 2014 EP election campaigns, with the Commission presidency then awarded to the leader of the group that had won the most seats. When the centre right European People’s Party (see Chapter 15) emerged as largest party group, its Spitzenkandidat—Jean-Claude Juncker, former Luxembourg prime minister—was presented by the EP as the logical choice for Commission President. The UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron was infuriated and accused the EP of a ‘backdoor power grab’ for foisting Juncker on the European Council in a form of ‘stitch up’.11 Yet Angela Merkel returned from a Brussels summit at which she appeared to back Cameron to a pro-Juncker firestorm in Germany (Peterson 2016). Subsequently, the European Council approved Juncker with its first-ever formal vote to choose the Commission President. Only Hungary’s Victor Oban joined Cameron in voting ‘no’, before the EP predictably confirmed Juncker.

The structure of the college

The Spitzenkadidaten controversy—and Juncker’s subsequent structuring of what he called a ‘political Commission’ (see Box 5.3)—marked rare departures from basic norms established over fifty years to govern appointments to the college and the relationship between its three basic elements: the President, the college itself, and Commissioners’ cabinets.

The president

A biographer of Roy Jenkins starkly concluded that:

The Presidency of the … Commission is an impossible job. Indeed it can hardly be called a job at all—the President has a number of conflicting responsibilities, but no power. By no stretch of the imagination does it resemble the Prime Ministership of Europe.

(Campbell 1983: 181)

The claim initially seemed to be challenged by the appointment of Prodi, the first former prime minister of a large member state. Yet, less than a year after his appointment, Prodi was denying rumours that he was considering leaving the Commission to fight a forthcoming Italian domestic election. The only other Italian to have been Commission President, the barely remembered Franco Maria Malfatti, had done p. 118precisely that and left Brussels early in the 1970s. Had the Commission gone back to the future?

In a sense, the legacy of Delors continued to haunt Brussels at the turn of the millennium, both in terms of the aversion of many member governments to a powerful Commission and the reality of a Commission that was irreversibly powerful. The internal market was, if by no means complete, a political fact. The Commission was responsible for policing it, suggesting steps towards its full realization, and representing the EU in international trade diplomacy. The enormously powerful market forces unleashed by open commerce in the world’s largest single capitalist market were often able to overwhelm public power unless it was wielded collectively, with the Commission usually in the lead (Pollack 1997; Peterson and Bomberg 1999: 67). The freeing of the internal market truly transformed the Commission’s institutional position.

Moreover, the EU was increasingly powerful as a player in international politics (Hill and Smith 2011). Over time, the Council Secretariat became a formidable institutional rival and clear superior to the Commission on most questions of foreign policy. Yet the Commission still packed a punch as purveyor of the EU’s programmes for development aid and humanitarian assistance, and particularly through its lead role in international economic diplomacy. After the post-2004 enlargements, the Commissioner for External Trade could plausibly be considered more powerful than perhaps twenty or so prime ministers of the EU’s smaller states. The Commission also remained an honest broker between diverse and competing interests in a system that relied fundamentally on consensus. Arguably, the Commission was empowered in an expanded EU of twenty-eight member states, around three-quarters of which were small states (with about 17 million or fewer citizens), since the Commission had always been the traditional defender of the ‘smalls’.

The days when the President’s job could ‘hardly be called a job at all’ may be gone, but no Commission President ever makes his or her own luck; how much any President can accomplish is determined by a variety of factors over which he or she has little or no control. Even Delors was successful only because of three propitious contextual variables: a (brief) receptivity to European solutions; international changes (especially German unification); and a favourable business cycle from 1985 to 1990 (Ross 1995: 234–7). These factors helped Delors to exert ‘pull’ within the European Council, within which the Commission President is the only member who does not head a state or government. At the time of writing, whether Juncker matched Delors’ influence at the EU’s top table was unclear. But the confluence of multiple crises over the UK’s exit, Greece, and the threat of another refugee crisis, combined with Juncker’s unmatched wealth of experience in the European Council, enhanced his position (see Box 5.3).

In any case, the Commission has become more presidential over time. Successive Treaty revisions gave the Commission President—only ‘first amongst equals’ during Delors’ time—a progressively stronger grip over the college. Prodi tried to focus on broad political themes, giving himself no specific policy portfolio, while also seeking p. 119to expand his own influence by inserting many of his ‘own people’ into key positions of authority within the Commission’s services. The collective identity of the college seemed a secondary consideration, with Prodi declaring, ‘I want each Commissioner to be a star, a big star, in his or her own policy area’.12

Yet few argued that it was also more effective or cohesive. Prodi’s political misjudgements were frequent and his communication skills poor. His inability to form coalitions with (especially large-state) European leaders led to charges that he had failed to reverse ‘the weakness of a Commission that ha[d] not fully recovered from the trauma of the Santer resignation’ (de Schoutheete and Wallace 2002: 17).

Promising that his college would be more policy-focused with a strong presidential lead, Barroso argued that any effort to restore the position of the Commission had to respect the premise that ‘the basic legitimacy of our union is the member states’.13 Yet even after recovering from the Buttiglione affair (see Box 5.2), Barroso’s defence of small and new EU states provoked French President Jacques Chirac to respond to rising Euroscepticism in France (in advance of the failed 2005 referendum on the Constitutional Treaty) by attacking the Commission. Nonetheless, Barroso’s reappointment to a second term was testimony to his skills as a consensus-builder and political communicator. He also ranked well above his predecessors—although (predictably) behind Delors—when Commission officials were asked to rate his performance in an extensive survey of officials (see Figure 5.2).

The college

The appointment of the college is often a fraught politicized exercise. The compositions of the Jenkins and Prodi Commissions were shaped in important ways by the nominees for President himself. Still, provisions in the Amsterdam Treaty that formally lent weight to Prodi’s own preferences in 1999 did not mean that several of his ‘specific requests [for nominees] fell on deaf ears’, even after he toured EU capitals to meet national leaders to try to influence the composition of his College (Nugent and Rhinard 2015: 101).

Barroso did not appear to influence many choices about who was nominated to his first Commission (or his second) until he was forced to ask for fresh nominees following the Buttiglione affair (see Box 5.2). After the EP’s Spitzencandidaten power grab in 2014, most member states made their own decisions about whom to nominate with little input from Juncker, besides a few influenced by his pleas for political or gender balance. The College that emerged contained a large crop of former prime or foreign ministers, but also others with little high-level political experience (see Table 5.2).

The institutional design of the EU gives rise to collective, inter-institutional responsibility for what the Union does. Over time, that has extended to a strengthening of the EP’s right to vet the choice of member governments’ nominees to the college. The Santer, Prodi, and Barroso I and II Commissions all were ultimately confirmed by large margins (of around 300 votes), with the large influx of Eurosceptic MEPs in 2014 reducing Juncker’s margin to 172. Yet the controversy surrounding Juncker’s p. 120

Box 5.2 The Rocco Buttiglione affair

Views on José Manuel Barroso’s prospects fluctuated wildly in the first days after his nomination as Commission President. Barroso was hardly anyone’s first choice for the Commission presidency. Immediately after he was chosen, he was lobbied by France and Germany to designate their nominees as ‘super-Commissioners’, provoking fears of another weak Commission President.

Barroso’s surprise early announcement of the distribution of jobs in his college and his wry comment that he needed everyone in his college to be a ‘super-Commissioner’ temporarily silenced his critics. After offering the powerful justice and home affairs (JHA) portfolio to French nominee Jacques Barrot (who was firm in wanting an economic job), Barroso designated Italian nominee Rocco Buttiglione as JHA Commissioner. An arch-Catholic and close confidant of the Pope, Buttiglione aired ultra-conservative views on homosexuality (calling it a ‘sin’) and women (who ‘belonged in the home’) at his EP confirmation hearing, leading the Parliament’s civil liberties committee to vote to recommend his rejection. Barroso tried to appease MEPs by delegating Buttiglione’s responsibilities for civil liberties to a committee of other Commissioners. Yet opinion within the EP did not shift. Barroso then made things worse, stating that he was ‘absolutely convinced’ that his Commission would be approved since only ‘extremist’ MEPs could possibly vote against it.14 Ultimately, he had no choice but to withdraw his team from consideration by the EP in order to avoid a humiliating rejection.

Barroso’s political instincts seemed to return in subsequent weeks. He was helped by Buttiglione’s decision to stand down, as well as Latvia’s withdrawal of its original nominee, Ingrida Udre, who was dogged by allegations of corruption. Fresh nominations by both states—particularly Italy’s choice of its foreign minister, Franco Frantini, to replace Buttiglione—allowed Barroso to propose a new-look College, which was overwhelmingly approved by the EP. Afterwards, Barroso could claim that ‘we have come out of this experience with strengthened institutions’,15 including a stronger Commission and, of course, an emboldened EP.

For their part, religious organizations were outraged, with one insisting that the affair showed ‘how little trust there is at the heart of the EU’.16 Supporters of the Parliament accused Barroso of going too far to try to appease European leaders, particularly Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. A more mundane conclusion was that as long as each state in an EU of twenty-eight or more nominates one Commissioner, any nominee for President will find himself or herself trying to build a team from a large group that includes many (in Barroso’s case, a majority) whom they have never met. In Barroso’s words, ‘it is like a blind date’.17

nomination reflected how the Lisbon Treaty reinforced the formal powers of the EP: it now officially elects the presidential nominee and member states are legally obliged to take account of the results of the most recent EP election in choosing a nominee. Even these changes, however, pose no threat to the basic principle that ‘each national government is free to select a national Commissioner’ (Devuyst 2005: 53).

p. 121p. 122p. 123p. 124

Figure 5.2 Commission presidencies compared

Source: adapted from kassim et al.(2013).

p. 125Collective responsibility is not only built into the EU’s institutional system generally, but also a cardinal principle within the college. All members must publicly support all decisions and actions of the Commission. The principle is often difficult to uphold. In contrast to cabinet governments, the college is never united by shared party political, national, or ideological affinities. In fact, no one has ever really explained what is meant to hold it together besides a commitment to Europe (Coombes 1970).

Formally, the college decides by simple majority votes. In a College of twenty-eight (or twenty-seven, post-Brexit), as many as thirteen Commissioners could vote against a motion, but then have to support it publically. Our knowledge about how often the college votes is primitive18 and frequent voting cannot necessarily be equated with more division in the college. However, when the college votes, it is usually an admission that the majority view must be forced on at least a few Commissioners. By most accounts, voting was more frequent in the Santer Commission than in Delors’, perhaps because the latter was more clearly dominated by its President. In the Prodi Commission, insiders noted ‘a culture of avoiding votes’ in a college whose members were ‘very focused on their own responsibilities and relatively unconcerned with some larger “big vision” ’ (Peterson 2008: 69). Barroso took pride in noting that his first college never resorted to a single vote and that there were ‘probably five votes’ in his second (Peterson 2016).

Barroso’s colleges reflected a new political reality in an enlarged EU—that is, that even if all Commissioners are formally equal, the idea that no Commissioner is more powerful than another is now a fiction. If Commissioners from large member states tend to be more successful or powerful, it may be less because of blatant political activism by their national capitals than because they operate in wider networks of contacts (Joana and Smith 2002). Commissioners from small states can ‘punch above the weight’ of their home country if their performance earns them the respect of their peers and EU member governments. Still, no one pretends that Commissioners from, say, Germany and Malta start out as equals.

To their credit, member governments of the 2004–13 accession states mostly appointed top members of their political classes to the college. Of the first thirteen appointed by new EU states, six were former prime, foreign, or finance ministers, and several others had been European affairs ministers or national ambassadors to the EU. Four of seven of Juncker’s Vice-Presidents hailed from post-2004 accession states (see Table 5.2).

The institutional effects of the twenty-first-century enlargements on the Commission, as well as the rest of the EU, are still bedding down. Yet there were reasons to think that enlargement had been digested more easily by the Commission than other EU institutions, whose numbers were swelled by a relatively larger influx of new and inexperienced members (Best et al. 2008). Enlargement made the Commission a younger, more female, and more economically liberal institution (Kassim et al. 2013: 260–4), with the latter point extending to Commissioners whose states had undergone radical, often painful, reforms to enter the EU. At the level of the college, and even more so within the services, enlargement held out the prospect of revitalizing and renewing the Commission with a new breed of reform-minded Europeans.p. 126p. 127p. 128

Table 5.2 The Juncker Commission

Commissioner (Nationality)


Relevant previous post(s)

Party group (EP*)

Jean-Claude Juncker (Luxembourg)


Prime Minister, Luxembourg

European People’s Party (EPP)

Frederica Mogherini (Italy)

Vice-President and High Representative for CFSP

Foreign Minister, Italy

Party of European Socialists (PSE)

Frans Timmermans


First Vice-President for Better Regulation, Inter-institutional Affairs, the Rule of Law and Charter of Fundamental Rights

Foreign Minister, Netherlands

Party of European Socialists (PSE)

Kristalina Georgieva (Bulgaria)

Vice-President for Budget and Human Resources

EU Commissioner, World Bank

European People’s Party (EPP)

Andrus Ansip (Estonia)

Vice-President for Digital Single Market

Prime Minister, Estonia; MEP

Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE)

Maroš Šefčovič (Slovakia)

Vice-President for Energy Union

EU Commissioner, Ambassador to the EU

Party of European Socialists (PES)

Valdis Dombrovskis (Latvia)

Vice-President for Euro and Social Dialogue

Prime Minister, Latvia; MEP

European People’s Party (EPP)

Jyrki Katainen (Finland)

Vice-President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness

Prime Minister, Finland

European People’s Party (EPP)

Günther Oettinger (Germany)

Digital Economy and Jobs

EU Commissioner

European People’s Party (EPP)

Johannes Hahn (Austria)

European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations

EU Commissioner

European People’s Party (EPP)

Cecilia Malmström (Sweden)


EU Commissioner; MEP, Minister for Europe (Sweden)

Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE)

Neven Mimica (Croatia)

International Cooperation and Development

EU Commissioner

Party of European Socialists (PES)

Miguel Arias Caňete (Spain)

Climate Action and Energy

Minister for Agriculture, Food & Environment, Spain; MEP

European People’s Party (EPP)

Karmenu Vella (Malta)

Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries

Minister for Tourism and Aviation, Malta

Party of European Socialists (PES)

Vytenis Andriukaitis (Lithuania)

Health and Food Safety

Minister for Health, Lithuania

Party of European Socialists (PES)

Dimitris Avramopoulos (Greece)

Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship

Foreign Minister, Greece

European People’s Party (EPP)

Marianne Thyssen (Belgium)

Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility

MEP; leader of Flemish Christian-Democratic Party

European People’s Party (EPP)

Pierre Moscovici (France)

Economic and Financial Affairs, Taxation and Customs

Minister for Economy and Finance, France

Party of European Socialists (PES)

Christos Stylianides (Cyprus)

Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management


European People’s Party (EPP)

Phil Hogan (Ireland)

Agriculture and Rural Development

Minister for Environment, Ireland

European People’s Party (EPP)

Jonathan Hill (UK)**

Financial Stability, Financial Markets and Capital Markets Union

Leader, House of Lords, UK

European Conservatives and Reformists

Violeta Bulc (Slovenia)


Deputy Prime Minister, Slovenia

Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE)

Elżbieta Bieńkowska (Poland)

Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs

Deputy Prime Minister, Poland

European People’s Party (EPP)

Věra Jourová (Czech Republic)

Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality

Regional Development Minister, Czech Republic

Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE)

Tibor Navracsics (Hungary)

Education, Youth, Culture and Sport

Foreign Minister, Hungary

European People’s Party (EPP)

Corina Creţu (Romania)

Regional Policy

MEP; Vice-President, EP

Party of European Socialists (PES)

Margrethe Vestager (Denmark)


Economic Affairs Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Denmark

Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE)

Carlos Moedas (Portugal)

Research, Science and Innovation

Secretary of State to Prime Minister, Portugal

European People’s Party (EPP)

* All twenty-eight Commissioners are members of national political parties that are represented in EP party groups.

** Resigned on 15 July 2016 following the UK referendum vote to leave the EU.

The single most important factor in determining the cohesiveness of the college—regardless of its size—remains the strength of presidential leadership. The Prodi Commission was the first in which, according to the Amsterdam Treaty, the college worked ‘under the political direction of the President’. Nevertheless, one of its members denied ever having a single substantive discussion with Prodi on any issue related to his own (economic) portfolio, adding ‘Prodi got out of the way, but we needed a sort of control tower. We only avoided a lot of plane crashes at the last minute, and some we did not avoid.’19

Barroso appeared to think that his college needed more of a collective identity and more teamwork on actual policy. Yet he very much dominated his college, even though clashes between Commissioners sometimes erupted. There was little evidence that the five ‘clusters’ of Commissioners he created in key areas—the Lisbon agenda, external relations, communications, equal opportunities, and competitiveness—made much difference.

For his part, Juncker imposed a radical restructuring of the College, which was split between Vice-Presidents with broad policy remits (see Table 5.2) and ‘portfolio Commissioners’ who reported directly to a Vice-President. Former Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans was made the first-ever ‘First VP’ and given prerogative to veto any Commission proposal. In mission letters that Juncker wrote to all members of his new college, he made clear that Timmermans’ approval was needed for any initiative to have ‘political ownership’ by the Commission.

Collective responsibility has become more difficult to enforce as the college has become, over time, a more politically weighty group of individuals. The Santer Commission reinforced the trend towards ‘increasing politicisation of the college’ (MacMullen 2000: 41), with its inclusion of six former prime ministers, foreign ministers, or finance ministers. Prodi’s college contained more policy specialists, with a majority coming to the Commission after being national ministers for agriculture, finance, European affairs, and so on. The Barroso I Commission pushed back in the direction p. 129of high-powered generalists, with three former prime ministers, five former foreign ministers, and three former finance ministers, although nearly all who had held such high-level posts hailed from small states. Barroso’s second college was more populated by low-key technocrats and thus even easier to dominate by the President himself. Juncker’s team counted four former prime ministers (including himself), a wealth (five) of former foreign or deputy prime ministers, and—perhaps crucially—no fewer than six repeat Commissioners. All seven Vice-Presidents had such high-level pedigree. While the College remained governed by the principle of ‘one Commissioner, one vote’ (when and if the College did vote), the new division between Vice-Presidents and portfolio Commissioners made it clear that some were now even more equal than others.

The cabinets

One of the Commission’s most vexed problems in the past has been the role of cabinets. In principle, cabinets are meant to act as a bridge between the college and the services, and thus between the political and technical. Most national civil services contain some analogue in the form of party-political, temporary appointees to civil services. Yet members of cabinets in the Commission have tended to be vilified as agents of their member state, as opposed to the Commission as an institution. In the past, cabinets were usually (not always) packed with officials—often quite young—who shared their Commissioner’s nationality, leaving aside a few non-nationals. Many were hand-picked by governments in national capitals. Tensions between the cabinets and services were rife, especially during the Delors years. One abiding complaint was that cabinets intervened aggressively in personnel decisions, acting as lobbyists for national capitals.

Prodi himself was accused of violating the spirit of his own new meritocratic rules on appointments by placing hand-picked operatives in powerful posts. Still, Prodi instituted major changes at the level of cabinets, which were reduced to six officials from as many as nine previously (Prodi’s own cabinet numbered nine). Each Commissioner was required to appoint a head (chef) or deputy head (adjoint) who hailed from a member state other than his or her own. Leading by example, Prodi chose as his own chef an Irishman, David O’Sullivan (later to become Commission Secretary-General).

Under Prodi, a significant number of new faces appeared in the cabinets, with only about a third having previous cabinet experience.20 The Commission trumpeted the fact that all cabinets had officials of at least three different nationalities and that almost 40 per cent were women (a big increase on past totals). Cabinets, along with their Commissioners, were moved out of a central office in Brussels by Prodi and into the same buildings as the services for which their Commissioner was responsible, thus making Commissioners more like national ministers.

Barroso brought Commissioners and cabinets back together when the Commission’s Berlaymont headquarters were reopened (after being refurbished) in 2004. p. 130The move was widely expected after complaints that separating Commissioners’ offices made it harder for them to strike deals and build coalitions. However, Barroso stuck with Prodi’s rules on cabinet appointments and the influx of (thirteen) Commissioners from post-accession states made for an unusually large influx of fresh faces at this level. Juncker’s decision to have the Commission’s Secretariat-General ‘service’ his college’s Vice-Presidents, who (unlike portfolio Commissioners) oversaw no Commission services themselves, led to questions about whether Vice-Presidential cabinets—with no service with whom to liaise—might become more like the national agents of old. Yet survey data presented in Kassim et al. (2013: 197–205) suggested that, at least under Barroso, there existed far less animosity between the cabinets and services than had once been the case.

The Commission’s powers

The main source of the Commission’s power has always been its monopoly right to propose legislation. The Commission also has significant independent powers within the CAP, and on external trade and (especially) competition policy. In the latter case, the college often acts as judge and prosecuting attorney—and sometimes jury—on cases of state aid to industry, mergers, and anti-competitive practices by firms. The Commission has considerable powers to set the agenda for policies that flank the internal market, such as cohesion or research policies.

Two important sources of Commission influence—as opposed to power—are its prerogative to deliver opinions on any EU matter and its obligation to publish an annual report on the activities of the EU. Both give the Commission scope to influence policy debates or to steer the EU in specified directions. Generally, however, the Commission must earn its respect by the quality of its analysis, and particularly its judgement of what will play in national capitals and with relevant policy stakeholders (including industry and non-governmental lobbies). To illustrate, the Juncker Commission was criticized heavily by (especially) eastern EU member states for forcing a vote by QMV on the sharing out of migrants during the refugee crisis of 2015 (see Box 5.3).

Over time, the Commission has become increasingly accountable to the EP. Besides its powers to confirm the college (and its President) and to sack the Commission (but only as a whole), the EP retains the informal right to scrutinize the activities of the Commission, with individual Commissioners expected to appear regularly before its policy-specialized committees. The emergence of the codecision procedure (see Chapter 6) as the ‘ordinary’ legislative procedure (OLP) post-Lisbon has had the effect of upgrading the institutional position of the EP at the expense of the Commission. When the EP and Council cannot agree, the Commission risks being marginalized unless it is sensitive to the positions of both of the other institutions and acknowledges their dominance of the procedure. More generally, the Parliament has p. 131

Box 5.3 Juncker’s crises

Almost immediately after the (contested) selection of Jean-Claude Juncker as Commission President, the EU was plunged into crises on a dizzying array of different fronts, to the extent that its very durability became subject to question. As head of a ‘political’ Commission, Juncker—and his powerful chef, Martin Selmayr—were in the thick of nearly all of them. A prime example was the Commission’s politically noxious proposal in September 2015 to share out an estimated 120,000 migrants arriving in Greece, Italy, and Hungary. Despite bitter exchanges between member states, the proposal was approved (although soon overtaken by events). Juncker’s forcing of a vote on quotas, as well as his personal investment in the Greek crisis, led one senior Commission official to contend, ‘this Commission takes political risks in a way Barroso never did … Juncker is far more ambitious. Barroso never would’ve proposed quotas.’21

Juncker pushed hard to expand the Commission’s powers to supervise the euro and European banks, while also (perhaps cleverly) telling the EP that its oversight was crucial: ‘[T]hese are all political decisions that require a political Commission that accounts for its actions before this Parliament.’22 The report of the 2015 ‘Five Presidents’—of the Commission, European Central Bank (ECB), Eurogroup, EP, and European Council—on completing EMU was written mostly within Juncker’s private office, with one cabinet official insisting: ‘Martin [Selmayr] wrote it himself. Dombrovskis [Vice-President for the euro—see Table 5.2], the poor guy, had to present it to the media even though he had nothing to do with it.’

Chairing the European Council, Donald Tusk mostly brokered the settlement of the UK’s demands for ‘renegotiation’ ahead of its 2016 referendum on EU membership. But—again—Selmayr was widely expected to take a leading (if backroom) role in negotiating the terms of the UK’s exit from the EU. Only on Ukraine did Juncker (and Selmayr) step back to let Mogherini take the lead in brokering tough EU sanctions on Russia after its 2014 annexation of Crimea. Her successful chairing of talks on Iran’s nuclear programme was widely viewed as revealing her basic competence to be EU High Representative and a Commission Vice-President, while doing nothing to dispel the impression that Juncker’s Commission was truly a ‘political’ one.

Juncker also was unafraid to link the various crises into a single, existential one for the EU, arguing that failure to solve the migrant crisis would have dismal consequences: ‘Schengen is one of the biggest achievements of the European integration process … whoever kills Schengen carries the internal market to its grave … the euro [will] make no sense.’23 Commission insiders admired Juncker’s inclination to ‘work the phones’ and speak directly to EU leaders, implicitly reminding them of his vast experience at the highest political levels as prime minister of Luxembourg for eighteen years and chair of the Eurogroup for eight. One of his top advisers summarized his leadership style thus: ‘[H]e will sometimes lead on process like a Prime Minister. He won’t wait for consensus but will push for it, doing things as a [head of] government does.’

No system of government is very good at solving multiple crises at the same time, let alone one as convoluted as that of the EU. Juncker appeared determined to assert the Commission’s role in finding solutions, even if it risked deep fissures between EU governments. However much capacity the Union had to escape its period of crisis, Juncker was clearly determined that his Commission had to be part of the solutions.

p. 132‘gained a greater ability not only to hold the Commission more accountable, but also to get the Commission to do things it would not otherwise do’ (Stacey 2003: 951).

Historically, the Court of Justice of the EU has usually ruled in the Commission’s favour when it has been asked to settle competence disputes. Several underpinnings of the 1992 project became doctrine as the result of individual Court decisions, which the Commission then used in the design of new policies (Armstrong and Bulmer 1998). However, a landmark case in early 1994 saw the Court rule against the Commission in a dispute with the Council over competence on new external trade issues such as services and intellectual property (Peterson and Bomberg 1999: 100). The Commission also suffered a series of painful Court defeats on its competition policy judgements under Prodi, leading to a sweeping overhaul of the EU’s regime for state aid to industry under Barroso.

The Commission’s most important power may be its right of initiative, but increasingly the Commission’s most important role is that of a manager of policies set by other institutions. The twenty-first century has found the Commission sharing responsibility for more EU policies, often acting as a broker and facilitator within organizational networks linking the member states and other EU institutions. To illustrate, the launch of the Lisbon agenda of economic reform in 2000 granted few significant new competences to the Commission. However, it allowed just enough room for the Commission to catalyse new initiatives to convince Barroso (five years later) that a revamped Lisbon strategy focused on jobs and growth—which lived on in the Europe 2020 strategy—should be his Commission’s top priority. More than ever, the Commission’s work was concerned with advocacy and persuasion within horizontal policy networks, rather than hierarchical compulsion or coercion.

Theorizing the college

The mass resignation of the Santer Commission was clearly a defining event in the life of the institution. Six years later, Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson claimed that the Barroso college still found its position eroded by a ‘pincer movement’: a loss of leadership to the Council and loss of the internal Commission agenda to the services, which had become more autonomous in the void created by the demise of the Santer Commission.24 If the Commission was really so weak, intergovernmental accounts of EU politics—which tend to make three arguments about the Commission—could be marshalled to explain why. First, it makes little difference who is Commission President. Second, the Commission is powerful only when and where national preferences converge. Third, the Commission is empowered only to the extent that member governments want to ensure the ‘credibility of their commitments’ to each other (Moravcsik 1998: 492).25 There is little dispute—amongst scholars, as well as practitioners—that the Commission has traditionally had little influence over most ‘history-making’ decisions about the broad sweep of European integration.

p. 133In contrast, institutionalist theory—arguably ‘the leading theoretical approach in EU studies’ (Cowles and Curtis 2004: 305)—paints a portrait of a Commission that is often powerful in day-to-day policy debates (Pierson 1996). According to this view, policy decisions in complex systems such as the EU are difficult to reverse, and policy often becomes locked into existing paths and is ‘path-dependent’. Thus even as the Stability and Growth Pact, the economic rulebook governing EMU, was rewritten in 2005 amidst frustration over the Commission’s reprimands of governments running profligate budget deficits, the Commission lost none of its existing mandate or authority over EMU (Heipertz and Verdun 2010).

Some variants of institutionalism combine insights from rational choice and principal–agent theories (Pollack 2003, 2008). They hold that the principal authorities in EU politics—the member governments themselves—make rational choices to delegate tasks to the EU’s institutions, which then become their agents in specific policy areas. This body of theory sheds light on the tendency of the EU to make policy by means other than the traditional Community method of legislating (Devuyst 1999), according to which only the Commission can propose. One of the least flattering features of the Prodi Commission was its frequent insistence that the Community method was the only legitimate path to making EU policy, even in areas such as common foreign and security policy (CFSP), where its use was politically unthinkable. There was little dispute that some policy modes—particularly the so-called open method of coordination (OMC), relying on benchmarking, league tabling, and designating the Commission as a scrutinizer of national policies rather than a proposer of EU policies—produced few tangible results (Borràs and Jacobsson 2004; Dehousse 2004). Yet EU principals (national governments) were clearly moving towards new kinds of delegation such as voluntary codes and other ‘soft’ forms of regulation, particularly in line with the Europe 2020 strategy, with the Commission cast as a different kind of agent.

Increased affinity for new policy modes is also reflected in the creation of a variety of new regulatory agencies, some of which have assumed some of the traditional roles of the Commission (see Chapter 10). EU governments increasingly seem to want de novo institutions—not only the Commission—to whom they can delegate cooperative policy tasks. Usually, however, the Commission ‘has had little reason to protest delegation to European agencies … because most operate in areas where the Commission’s powers are weak and most offer resources the Commission both needs and lacks’ (Peterson 2015: 202). In many cases, the Commission still identifies and seeks to solve coordination problems within policy networks of (among others) private actors, consumer and environmental groups, and national and European agencies.

Advocates of multilevel governance have long contended that the Commission enjoys a privileged place at the ‘hub of numerous highly specialized policy networks of technical experts’, even retaining ‘virtually a free hand in creating new networks’ (Marks et al. 1996: 355, 359), especially ones that bring together national regulatory officials. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Metcalfe (2000: 838) argued p. 134that ‘the Commission will have to be reinvented as a network organization adept at designing the frameworks of governance and developing the management capacities needed to make them work effectively’. There is little doubt that, insofar as the Commission provides direction to the EU of the future, it will largely do so as a coordinator of networks that seek to make national policies converge (Kohler-Koch and Eising 1999; Peterson 2009)—as has taken place, say, in competition policy (Maher 2007)—as opposed to replacing them with EU policies.


Any analysis of the Commission must consider the normative question of what kind of organization the college should be: a policy entrepreneur; an honest broker; a manager of decisions taken by others; or an engine of integration?

Increasingly, the Commission has outgrown the last of these roles. It might be argued that there is no other institution that has the independence to identify the new directions that European integration needs to take. Juncker’s designation of his as a political Commission might be viewed as a sign of more boldness than under Barroso at a time when Europe clearly needed radical rethinking. Moreover, there is historical evidence suggesting that the Commission’s declining fortunes can be reversed: after all, it appeared entirely moribund after Hallstein and before Delors.

The Commission spent much of the Prodi era focused on its own institutional position. With its basic role preserved, it can be argued that the Commission now needs to focus on policy, as opposed to grand designs. Yet it has become increasingly difficult, especially in an EU of twenty-eight (or twenty-seven, post-Brexit), to design single policy solutions in Brussels. In this context, the EU’s added value may now be mostly as a laboratory for policy learning and transfer. Logically, the new EU will have to adopt new policy modes and particularly more, and more intensive, exchange and cooperation within networks of national, or even subnational, agencies (Wallace and Reh 2015). The Union’s institutions—including the Commission—will need to embrace more collective types of leadership and advocacy of new policy ideas. Article 9 of the Lisbon Treaty gives a clear political signal that the EU’s institutions must ‘practise full mutual cooperation’ if the Union is to thrive.

In an enlarged EU, the Commission may be even better placed than it was in the past to act as a truly honest broker. It may rarely exercise control over new networks or reclaim its old function as an engine of integration, but it will logically remain at the centre of many EU policy networks. In any event, it will often find itself in a unique position to steer debates in ways that serve collective European interests, as difficult as they may be to identify clearly in the new EU.

Further reading

The most comprehensive works on the Commission are Kassim et al. (2013), based on a large dataset on the attitudes of Commission officials, and Nugent and Rhinard (2015). Spence and Edwards (2006) is also useful. Good on the history of the Commission is Dumoulin (2007), while Delors (2004) offers an insider’s view. Coombes (1970) and Ross (1995) are classics that are worth revisiting. A typically downbeat assessment of the declining position of the Commission is Tsakatika (2005), while Peterson (2015, 2016) offers a view of the position of the Commission within the ‘new intergovernmentalism’ and what a ‘political Commission’ might look like under Juncker, respectively.

Coombes, D. (1970) Power and Bureaucracy in the European Community (London: Croon Helm).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Delors, J. (2004) Mémoires (Paris: Plon).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Dumoulin, M. (ed.) (2007) The European Commission, 1958–72: History and Memories (Brussels: European Commission).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Kassim, H., Peterson, J., Bauer, M., Dehousse, R., Hooghe, L., Connolly, S., and Thompson, A. (2013) The European Commission of the 21st Century (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Nugent, N., and Rhinard, M. (2015) The European Commission (2nd edn, Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Peterson, J. (2015) ‘The Commission and the New Intergovernmentalism: Calm within the Storm?’, in C. Bickerton, D. Hodson, and U. Puetter (eds) The New Intergovernmentalism: States and Supranational Actors in the Post-Maastricht Era (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press), 185–207Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Peterson, J. (2016) ‘Juncker’s political commission and an EU in crisis’, Journal of Common Market Studies, at it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Ross, G. (1995) Jacques Delors and European Integration (New York and London: Polity Press).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Spence, D., and Edwards, G. (eds) (2006) The European Commission (London: John Harper).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Tsakatika, M. (2005) ‘The European Commission between continuity and change’, Journal of Common Market Studies, 43/1: 193–220.Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

p. 137Web Links

The Commission’s own website is a treasure trove that handles millions of ‘hits’ per month.

The sites of Politico (the European, not the American version; formerly European Voice) and the European Policy Centre offer insiders’ insights from Brussels.

It is often useful to see how the Commission’s delegations in EU member states (such as the UK) and non-EU member states (such as the United States) present the Commission’s line in capitals beyond Brussels.


  • 1. See also Dinan (2011: 117–18); Nugent and Rhinard (2015: 382–91).

  • 2. See also Duchêne (1994).

  • 3. See also Dumoulin (2007).

  • 4. The college remained a men-only club for a shockingly long time. The first women Commissioners were Christiane Scrivener (France) and Vasso Papandreou (Greece), who were appointed to the Delors Commission in 1989. By 2014, Juncker’s college consisted of nine women and nineteen men.

  • 5. The Luxembourg compromise was accompanied by a range of new restrictions on the Commission, including a bar on making proposals public before the Council could consider them and the requirement that the Commission could receive the credentials of non-EEC ambassadors to the Community only alongside the Council.

  • 6. It is not clear that Jenkins wished to serve another term. His 1979 Dimbleby lecture (halfway through his term as Commission President) foreshadowed his ambition to form a new British political grouping—eventually, the Social Democratic Party (SDP)—of which he became co-leader three years later. By 1980, even Belgium—which originally favoured his reappointment—decided that the ‘gap between [Thatcherite] Britain and the rest of the Community was so great that the time had not arrived when any Englishman could be President of the Commission indefinitely’ (Jenkins 1989: 601). The Commission’s term in office was later extended to five years by the Maastricht Treaty so as to align its tenure with that of the EP.

  • 7. Santer was literally no one’s first choice, but was chosen after the nominations of Ruud Lubbers (Prime Minister of the Netherlands), Leon Brittan (Commissioner under Delors), and Jean-Luc Dehaene (Prime Minister of Belgium) were all rejected, with the UK under John Major prominently vetoing Dehaene.

  • 8. Santer was not alone in making this claim. Respected Belgian Commissioner for Competition Policy Karel van Miert attacked the Experts’ report as ‘unjust and incorrect’ (Santer and van Miert, both quoted in Financial Times, 17 March 1999). For his part, Brittan (2000: 11) insisted that the Experts had added ‘unnecessary and crude journalistic icing … to what was a perfectly well-baked and freestanding cake’.

  • 9. Unattributed quote in Financial Times, 17 March 1999.

  • 10. This quote (and all others not referenced as otherwise in this chapter) is taken from interviews conducted as part of the research for this chapter between November/December 2000 and October 2015.

  • 11. Quoted in Daily Telegraph, 10 June 2014.

  • 12. Quoted in Financial Times, 19 July 1999, p. 9.

  • 13. Quoted (respectively) in Financial Times, 2 March 2005, p. 6, and 7 February 2005, p. 17.

  • 14. Quoted in Financial Times, 22 October 2004, p. 1.

  • 15. Quoted in BBC News (2004).

  • 16. See Catholic Educator’s Resource Centre, ‘The New Europe: Catholics no longer need apply’, available online at See also National Secular Society, ‘Christian onslaught on EU Parliament continues’, available online at

  • 17. Quoted in Financial Times, 19 December 2004, p. 8.

  • 18. To illustrate the point, one former Commissioner interviewed for this chapter insisted that there were ‘far more votes under Delors and tight votes’; another indicated that ‘voting wasn’t very frequent’ in the Delors Commission. Previous interviewees with experience of successive Commissions estimated that there were more votes taken under Santer than Delors (see Peterson 1999: 62).

  • 19. Quoted in Peterson (2006: 505).

  • 20. p. 136 As is generally the case in the Commission, personnel records on cabinet members are incomplete, making precise comparisons impossible. However, using data presented in Hill & Knowlton (2000) on the Prodi college, a total of thirty-four (out of all 123 cabinet officials) had previous experience working in cabinets, or 28 per cent of the total, compared to seventy-four with no previous cabinet experience, or 60 per cent of the total.

  • 21. This official and others in this box quoted in Peterson (2016).

  • 22. Quoted in Livingstone (2015).

  • 23. Quoted in Irish Times, 16 January 2016.

  • 24. See Mandelson (2005).

  • 25. See also Bickerton et al. (2015a).

© Oxford University Press 2017