Is the European Commission becoming less independent?

By Jamie Millar

As the steady enlargement of the European Union continues, the issue of its main executive arm’s independence and politicisation persists. But just how well-founded are these claims that Commissioners are losing autonomy? Is it a merited cause of concern for the overall strength of the Union and for its smaller member states like Ireland? In this blog post it will be argued that the line between impartial bureaucracy and party politics is becoming increasingly blurred within the workings of the Commission, with particular attention paid to recent case studies. It will be argued that this independence was always doomed to be a challenge to maintain, and the basis behind this will be addressed as well.

Without doubt, the European Commission is a unique organisation. To many, it seems to hover in the middle of being a political entity and being a technocratic one – that is, one made up of nonpartisan experts who separate decisions from career ambitions (Alexiadou 2018). Not quite a government and not just a secretariat either, the Commission boasts just as many supranational features as it does intergovernmental ones – leading some to wonder whether the institution is as independent as it likes to proclaim (Egeberg 2019, p. 144). After all, in essentially every decision the Commissioners must take, party politics is never far away. Formerly it was more common to imagine the commission as “an insulated elite”, technocrats impervious to political pressures – but of course the Commission has come a long way from the days of merely “monitoring the dreary business of coal and steel production” (Robinson 2020).

The Commission, in its role as agenda-setter and policy-maker, drafts legislation and takes decisions every day that directly impacts the politics of member states. While Commissioners should in theory identify only the European interest and keep that in mind, the nature of the decisions themselves makes that a difficult task. Commissioners are not supposed to take any outside instruction – they do not represent national governments and indeed they take an oath of office promising to seek European solutions to problems, rather than try to balance opposing national interests. Similarly, they must be seen to be completely immune to “the vagaries and passions of politics in their country of origin” yet, of course, it can’t be forgotten that they are the ones nominated by them (Bruton 2020). And so, this independence quickly becomes no easy task with the myriad of role expectations put on them. Egeberg (2019) writes that:

At one and the same time, they are supposed to feel some allegiance … to the geographical area from which they originate, to champion Commission interests, to advance their own portfolio, and to assume a party-political role (p. 149)

Certainly then, party politics plays a role in the acts of Commissioners and in the work of the apparently-impartial Commission as a whole. But is this diminished level of independence worsening in recent years? Looking at executive selection in the College of Commissioners is a start, argues Wille (2012). The influence that member states and national politics has on the appointment procedure of the Commission is growing, and the politicisation of the makeup of the College itself is increasing as well. Towards this end, recent papers have shown a growth in the number of commissioners that have hitherto held political rather than administrative positions (p. 387). Indeed, some recent appointees have been exceptionally prominent politicians – with former prime ministers even among the ranks at present. Member states these days rely “extensively on candidates who have high political visibility”, signalling a departure from a wholly independent and nonpartisan institution (p. 391).

Similarly, the required experience of a Commission President has changed to become at the very least a ‘political heavyweight’, with the last five officeholders having all been prior heads of government (p. 393). The selection process of the President has also experienced growing party-politicisation ever since Parliament decreed that the results of European elections should determine the appointee. Then-president Juncker was nominated and chosen in 2014 on these grounds, leading to protestation from some camps and celebration from supranationalists (Egeberg 2019, p. 148). Indeed, this is just one symptom of the increased control the European Parliament holds over the Commission and commissioner selection process, further calling into question its ability to act freely (Wille 2012, p. 388).

Since 2005, Parliament’s power of dismissal in commissioners has increased, and this too has contributed to the politicising of the office in terms of deselection as well as selection (p. 391). In a recent case closer to home, concerns over commissioners’ independence were raised on the occasion of Phil Hogan’s resignation as Commissioner-designate for Trade. Calls by the Irish Government for Hogan to resign in the midst of a domestic controversy climaxed in President Von der Leyen virtually withdrawing her support for the commissioner (Bruton 2020). It is wondered whether this heeding of the Irish Government’s calls damaged the independence of the Commission. Article 245 of the Lisbon Treaty calls for member states to respect the independence of the members of the Commission – even (and particularly) those that they themselves nominated (EUR-Lex 2008). By politicising the Commission and its principles of due process, I contend that Ireland did not respect Article 245 by publicly insisting on Hogan’s resignation. Bruton (2020) writes that in this case, the “weakening of the institutional independence of the commission is very damaging to European integration and to the interests of smaller EU states” and this blog post strongly concurs.

In sum, the continuing politicisation of the Commission is a legitimate cause of concern. It is feared that the parliamentarisation of the institution decreases efficiency in advancing European integration and compromises its independence – while undermining Monet’s original intentions in preventing power falling to corruptible politicians. While I laud the technocratic insulation that the Commission was built on, it must be conceded that a slippery slope to politicisation was inevitable. The Commission is supported by a political majority, and it lies accountable to the European Parliament. In this current era, to call the Commission a political body is a statement of fact (Moscovici 2019). It is inescapable then, that the decisions or proposals of the Commission will be politicised ones. Whether or not its officeholders choose to defend the Union’s principles while maintaining this consciousness is up to them.


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