Is the European Commission a Policy Entrepreneur or Simply the Agent of its Principals: The Member State Governments?
At the most recent EU budget negotiations, member countries decided to reduce the 2014 budget by about six percent compared to 2013. This amounted to half a billion less than what the European Commission had sought (BBC, 13 November 2013). Yet, some member countries which wanted even more severe spending cuts were also disappointed. Hence, what is the relationship between Commission and member states? Can the Commission pursue its own agenda, or does it act strictly according to the wishes of its principals, the member states?
This paper will argue that the Commission has ample scope to act as a policy entrepreneur who cajoles other actors, redefines issues and makes use of information and knowledge advantages. While it is confined by its principals to some degree, most indications point towards the Commission’s ability to act independently in many instances. In order to answer this question, the paper will first highlight how member states can control the Commission as an agent, both in terms of its executive as well as administrative functions. Subsequently, it will be outlined how the Commission can act as a policy entrepreneur. Both sections will be prefaced with definitions corresponding to the concepts of the principal-agent framework and the policy entrepreneur.
The Commission as an Agent of the Member States
The Commission is an entity which does not exist apart from the member states. Commissioners are appointed by the member states, the Commission President is chosen by them, and part of the bureaucratic staff is also seconded directly by member states. Thus, the relationship between members states and the EU Commission could be described as one based on the principal-agent concept. The Commission acts as a delegate of the member states, fulfilling tasks at the request of its principals. Below, some of the indications suggesting such a relationship will be outlined.
The principal-agent framework is derived from economic organization theory. Thus, a principal enters into a relationship with an agent in order to delegate a task the agent can potentially fulfill more efficiently or at lower opportunity costs. Specifically, the rationale behind delegation includes the minimization of transaction costs, the overcoming of collective action problems and a solution to incomplete contracting (Kassim, Menon, 2003: 123). Underlying the principal-agent framework is the importance of cost-benefit analyses. Hence, member states contract out a certain degree of responsibility to the Commission. However, the Commission remains bound strictly to the will of the member states. Within the wider body of theoretical literature, this view is associated with intergovernmentalism. The EU is seen largely as a collective which is still controlled to a large extent by sovereign states themselves. For the member states, the Union represents a vehicle for bargaining in order to achieve national gains. This position is most notably advanced by Moravcsik, who states that the EU ‘is best seen as an international regime for policy co-ordination’ (1993: 480). Hence, this perspective is very distinct from the view of the Commission as a policy entrepreneur.
The Commission’s Executive Role
The Commission represents the EU’s executive branch. However, it faces considerable constraints created by the member states. For one, there is the possibility of major treaty changes. When treaties are supposed to be changed or amended, the European Council, representing the member states, is usually taken as the principal actor. Hence, Kassim and Menon point out that member states exercised their power at the Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice conferences in order to reign in some of the Commission’s powers (Ibid: 131). This may be due to the fact that the Commission has less scope to apply its institutional advantages. In the day-to-day politics, the Commission can exercise more powers simply because it is more immersed in the ongoing processes. By contrast, during major treaty negotiations, member states will engage intensively with the process and will also expend energy in collecting knowledge and information. Therefore, member states are in a position to minimize agency loss vis-à-vis the Commission when treaty revisions are scheduled.
A second major factor which allows member states some measure of control over the Commission is the fact that the EU itself does not dispose of any tax raising powers. Therefore, member states are in the driver’s seat when it comes to budget issues. As outlined above, they exercised that power recently by cutting the EU budget for 2014. As a result, the Commission has to be careful not to overstep its bounds, or it will risk a loss of funds and a subsequent loss of flexibility and capacity to generate policies. This point is further underscored by the fact that member states recently agreed to cut the EU’s long term budget by three percent (BBC, 8 February 2013).
Thirdly, the Commission faces a legitimacy problem. It does not have any democratic legitimacy, given that it is an appointed body. While they have to be approved by the European Parliament, citizens have no say over who is sent to Brussels. Therefore, the Commission faces some constraints with regard to the extent that it can act independently of the principals, the member states (Nugent, 1995: 607). This issue is connected to the fact that the Commission has to take into account the public perceptions within the member states. Especially in countries such as the UK and Sweden, Euroscepticism is pertinent, and member states can use these perceptions in conjunction with the persistent legitimacy problem to restrict the power of the Commission.
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- Queen Mary University of London – School of Politics and International Relations
- EU European Union EU Commission Council of Ministers Intergovernmentalism Supranationalism Moravcsik Stone Sweet Policy Entrepreneur Agent Principal Agenda Setting Member States