Friday 15 May 2009

EPIN: Weak Barroso Commission

The European Policy Institutes Network (EPIN) has published a working paper: The European Commission 2004-09: A politically weakened institution? Views from the National Capitals (No 23 / May 2009; 20 pages), which compiles the views of 26 EU researchers.

The main findings are devastating for the Barroso Commission and worrying with regard to the European general interest:

“First, the Commission remains at the centre of European decision-making process. At the same time however, its political position seems to have weakened since 2004. The national capitals’ perception is that it has lost out vis-à-vis other institutions, especially the Council of Ministers. Within the Council the Commission is perceived as being largely dependent on bigger member states. This view is shared by both the bigger (especially France and Germany) and smaller nations.

Second, the Commission seems to be losing political leadership in the Union. It is more and more perceived as serving the interests of the larger member states, sometimes even at the expense of smaller ones. The dominant perception is that among the European institutions the lowest common denominator is no longer determined as it was by the Council, because the Commission is increasingly anticipating national positions at an earlier stage and taking them into account at the preparatory level. Hence, it is no longer the institution that seeks the higher standards of ‘Community interest’ – this may well be the role for the new European Parliament.

Even if not all countries share these perceptions, there was not a single member country claiming that the Commission is gaining (rather than losing) ground vis-à-vis the other institutions; that it has improved its independence record against the larger nations or that it seeks higher standards rather than the lowest common denominator. “


Successes and failures

For those who care to read the report, it contains an overview of the Commission’s perceived successes and failures during the last five years. In this way, it serves as a reminder of the major European policy issues, including bilateral questions between the Commission and individual member states.

The Commission’s (lack of) response to the financial and economic crisis was seen as its greatest failure.

The institutional shift came next:

“The second single most popular feeling in national capitals is that the Barroso Commission lacks political leadership. There is an argument put out across the Union that the Commission’s dependency on member states has increased to such an extent that it challenges

1) the inter-institutional balance;

2) the balance between the big and small members;

3) the institution’s capacity to uphold and guard the prerequisites of the acquis communautaire, notably vis-à-vis the bigger member states;

4) the Commission’s collegiality and

5) [the] its future effectiveness. “


New Commission

There is an Annex, where probable renewed mandates and exiting Commissioners are presented, based on information from the capitals.



This blog has argued that the European Union has become increasingly intergovernmentalist, with the European Council (heads of state or government), especially from a few larger member states, taking over more and more of the lead role (including failures to act), in tandem with the Council (ministers). In parallel, the Barroso Commission has been weak(ened).

The EPIN report supports these observations, although it refers only to increased intergovernmentalism and the role of the Council of Ministers, without discussing the European Council. The role of the heads of state or government, especially in the greater member states, would have merited special attention.

Effective and legitimate government?

Outside the scope of the report, the weaknesses of the existing institutional framework, including the incremental reforms by the Lisbon Treaty, require critical discussion. Effective and legitimate European level government won’t be found inside the box.

Done deal?

Politically, ahead of the European elections, the report questions the wisdom as well as the motives of heads of state or government to support a new term as President of the Commission for José Manuel Barroso. The failure of the Europarties to field alternative candidates is a lamentable loss for European level democracy.

Ralf Grahn


  1. To me, one of the main reasons why so many leaders support Barroso's re-election is his very failure as a Commission President. They like a weak Commission and even more a weak President. The EPIN findings support this view.

    From the start the member governments of the EU have always been unwilling to give the EU institutions such as the Commission the freedom they need. Having said that, an unelected body such as the Commission does need some check on its activities: why not the EU Parliament? However, here again the EU leaders have been unwilling to allow Parliament too much freedom.

    Useful though the ENIP report is, I doubt that it will upset many EU leaders - who will simply see it as a simple revelation of their real power.

  2. French Derek,

    Political leaders come in for a lot of criticism, so they tend to take it in their stride, if they even notice.

    But informed debate about the European Union, by thinktanks among others, is perhaps even more important than at the national level, precisely because the Euroepan Council and Council tandem is not accountable to anyone, the European Parliament has been left weak and ordinary citizens are neither overly interested nor sufficiently knowledgeable.

    Interestingly though, EU citizens in general seem to understand the basic needs for "more Europe" in world affairs, security, climate change, energy... although they have not been told by their national leaders what this would require institutionally, nor have they figured that out for themselves.


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