Since the ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon, it is safe to say that Europe has been the source of all passion. Notably, the union’s executive branch – the European Commission – has been given many names and definitions depending on which political party view it. In a previous conversation with LREM MP Mickaël Nogal originating from President Macron’s majority, he reminded me that the eurosceptics in Europe -like France’s extreme-right ‘Rassemblement National’ – always point toward Brussels accusing it to steal their countries’ sovereignty; whereas he, a profound European like he calls himself, view the actions of the Commission with the Member States as beneficial for all. But so what is the European Commission? What role does it truly hold and can we truly consider it to be a so-called ‘government’ of the European Union? This is what the following reflections try to answer.

What do we mean by ‘Government’?

To begin with, one should try to first define what will be understood in this piece as a ‘government’. For that, we will combine both the definitions from Hague and Harrop’s dictionary of Comparative Politics and Political Science, and in second, a definition from French Sociologist Jacques Lagroye. The reason behind this decision was out of the purpose to obtain a rather complete portray of what we may consider a government. 

  • Government consist of institutions responsible for making collective decisions for society. More narrowly, government refers to the top political level within such institutions. (Hague and Harrop, 2013)
  •  The particular body which in contemporary states is supposed to make decisions, enforce laws and conduct policies; these are acts which tend to organize and direct life in society. (LAGROYE, 1997)

With these definitions, one would expect from a government to play the role of (1) an agenda-setter capable to independently initiate, make decisions and enforce those. (2) It would also possess a strong leadership, as it represents the top political level of its institutions, capable to steer the decision-making of its regime. Additionally, (3) a government could be expected to take the form of an executive-type cabinet, with ministers each in charge of an area of expertise and expected to present policy proposals to a legislative chamber(s), in charge of approving or rejecting those.

If there were any resemblance between the structure of the Commission and those of a national government, it would therefore be found first in its constitutional definition; which the latest was amended with the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon amending both the Treaty on the European Union (TEU) and Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). Viewing the article 17 of the TEU, we can observe that the Commission is being defined as an organ much more powerful than a simple international organization Secretariat: “Completely independent”, the Commission is firstly in charge of ensuring “the application of the Treaties and the measures adopted by the Union”. It is tasked to “promote the general interest of the Union” and as such, to “take appropriate initiatives to that end”. Moreover, with the exception of circumstances where the treaties may provide otherwise, the TEU grants the Commission with a monopoly on initiating policy proposals. As such, the constitutional definition of the European Commission seems to present it as a strong and independent executive within the union; not to forget that this Commission is a collegial body, structurally organized in the form of a cabinet, with Commissioners holding on specific portfolios. The legislative proposals from the college are then voted by two institutions playing the role of the union’s legislative body – one of them (the parliament) capable to dismiss the Commission. At first glance, it could then be argued that the post-Lisbon constitutional structure projected onto the European Union and its Commission is in fact familiar to those of our national governments; as in it, the Commission could be considered as a form of central executive, with strong political powers.

However, it may yet still fail to fill the complete definition of a ‘government of the European Union’: Indeed, viewing the previous definitions cited above from Hague and Harrop’s, it mentions that a government also represents “the top political institution” of its regime, but reading on the TEU, though it seems the Commission is granted with important executive powers this particular function of highest political institution seems to be given to the European Council. Composed of the Union’s Members States, it is constitutionally tasked to “provide the union with the necessary impetus for its development” as well as “define the political directions and priorities” even though it does not formally exercise any legislative functions. As such, a second view to this constitutional ambiguity would argue that the Commission resemble more to a General Secretariat than a government: a form of agent to whom the principal political actors, the Member States, delegate some of their powers only for the second to better translate the decisions the Member States made, something which can be too much resource and time-taking for them. A further element supporting this view would also be the fact that, although the Commission possesses strong executive powers, only the national governments possess both the power to first define the political direction of the union, through the European Council, and to approve or not the legislative proposals laid by the Commission, this time, informally through the Council: Both institutions at the beginning and the end of the decision-making process of the European Union are of intergovernmental nature, giving to the Member States a much stronger power than one would expect in a framework where the Commission would incarnate a ‘government’ of the EU.

Nonetheless, the political role of the Commission in this previous element may have been understated: although the council – and through it, the Member States – is the one in charge of making the final decision, it is the Commission who still holds monopoly over policy initiatives. In being the only one able to make legislative proposals to the council of Ministers, the Commission can submit to the Council its solutions and preferences, making it, if not the, a primordial actor in the agenda-setting process of the Union. Hence, although the Member States still hold sovereignty over the decision-making, the Commission succeeds to mold over it, by influencing the outcome through its right of initiative, and by controlling its implementation hereafter as constitutionally defined. The Commission truly represents a strong executive within the European Union framework, but its constitutional characteristics does not fully give it the form of a government of Europe. Similarly, although it does possess elements similar to those of Secretariat General, an administrative body as well as a set of constitutional rules relying it to either of the intergovernmental institutions, the Commission remains an actor much more determinant in the decision-making process. In other words, our assessment of the constitutional definition of the Commission does not allow us to describe it either as a government or an administrative body. It fails to correspond to either of the established categories.

What does it mean in practice?

The capacity of the Commission to act in practice, as a form of “Government” of the European Union in state-like political areas remains to be evaluated. It is widely agreed that one of the EU’s most integrated policy area is trade; and with the ratification of the Treaty on the European Union, the article 47 of the treaty declares that the Union is now being granted a “legal personality”. Therefore implying that the Union would then possess a state-like recognition in the domain of international relations, allowing it to join international organizations such as the UN or also the WTO and more importantly, granting the EU with the ability to conclude any international agreement on its own. Most importantly, both the TEU and the TFEU plan that the Union’s external representation, with the exception of the Common Foreign and Security Policy, would be ensured by the Commission, and that the external negotiations concerning international trade agreements would be conducted by the same body. Hence, granting the Commission with a state-like capacity to represent, conduct and negotiate agreements for the Union with foreign actors; as we have seen see for example, with the 2018 meeting between Commission President Jean Claude Juncker and US President Donald Trump to avoid further tariffs from the US on European products.

An important characteristic, particularly as it reinforces the inner belief that the Commission would represent the core engine of the European Union, and externally presents it to foreign leaders as a seemingly-like government of Europe acting in its interests, at least in matters of trade. Yet again, though the Commission is being delegated the capacity of a government it does not possess all the characteristics of one in terms of bilateral trade agreement, reducing its capacity to influence the decision-making of the Union. One notable example, is the fact that after concluding the negotiations with Canada in 2016, the Commission was unable to further ratify by itself the bilateral trade agreement (CETA) just concluded: considered a “mixed agreement”, this implied that the CETA agreement could only be partly ratified by the EU (the council and the EP) but needed in order to be put into force, the ratification of all Member States’ parliaments. The capacity of the EU and by the same occasion its Commission may have been put into question, once the Wallonian parliament representing an infinitely small portion of the European voters, temporarily “blockaded” the process by rejecting a treaty between the EU and Canada. Even though it could be argued that the Commission played a role in negotiating concession with Wallonia in order to remove this “veto”, it remains that in terms of bilateral trade agreements, the Commission does not possess to the fullest the main traits of a government in which the President or Prime Minister could ratify the treaties he and his cabinet negotiated. 

Is the Commission externally perceived as a government?

Another element proving the confusion behind the role of the Commission in European affairs can be found in the era following the signing of the Treaty of Lisbon. A period of great importance for the Union, due to its newly defined recognition as a political entity, now capable to be seen as one among equals; but also a great opportunity for the Commission itself to rise and be externally perceived as its seemingly form of executive government. 

Yet in the early days of the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, this perception was not even recognized by the first world power, the United States: In 2010, viewing that President Barack Obama was intended to travel to Europe for an EU-US summit, where he and his cabinet were expected to work with their counterparts from both the Presidencies of the European Commission and the European Council, the US administration declared that they would not travel to Europe. The reason behind this decision was said to be because the summit seemed not to be a good use of the President’s time. But it can also be argued that the complexity in the European organisation after the Treaty of Lisbon, in which the President of the European Council must ensure the external representation of the Union on issues relating to Common Foreign and Security Policy, and where at the same time the President of the Commission is also tasked to ensure the Union’s external representation on all other cases (not to forget a third presidency, this time rotating in the council of the EU), deeply confused the US administration leading to their decision. In short, Washington may have not understood the point of going to a summit to work and shake hands with at least two Presidents of the same organization – already representing 28 different countries – and both representing different parts of the European foreign policy. A situation that all could understand, in view of this unique and potentially confusing form of European governance. And although the Lisbon Treaty reinforced the position of the Commission, this body’s position as “government” or executive of the EU, is found further undermined by the same texts, which externally display the complexity of the EU decision making shared between its different intergovernmental and supranational organs.

A similar dilemma can be found in the organization of the Union’s external action: The entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty led to the creation of a long-term President of the European Council, and a High Representative of the Union on Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HRVP) – a sort of ‘European Minister of Foreign Affairs’ -mandated by the Council to do so. Yet at the same time, this position is found attached to the European Commission as its first Vice President and a member of the college of Commissioners. The confusion has reached new heights, as one can interpret it arguing that the power vested on this HRVP comes from the European Council, and therefore the Member States. Or from a supranational view, arguing that in placing the HRVP as the second of the President of the Commission, this reinforces the collegial structure of the Commission and extends its capacity to influence over the foreign policy decision-making. The second hypothesis would make of the HRVP a form of Prime Minister and Foreign Policy Minister attached to its President, in this case, the President of the Commission, like a nation-state government would normally do.

It could also be supported by the fact that the Lisbon Treaty has led to a “Presidentialisation” of the role of the Commissioner, his role “no longer of organizational nature”: As he/she is tasked to lay down guidelines and decide on the organization of the Commission, independently naming his commissioners (except for the HRVP), he also possesses the power to demand to anyone in the college -his HRVP included- to resign if he so wishes. Nevertheless, the question of the Commission’s hold over the area of the external representation, technically deriving from the European Council, still remains open. It does not however grant to the Commission the capacity to be perceived externally as the government of the European Union. As even today, whether it is concerning trade deals with China or regarding Brexit, the external representation of the EU is not single handedly conducted by the Commission President, but also by the Presidency of the European Council. Once more, it demonstrates how the Commission is first granted by the Lisbon Treaty some strong executive powers, yet to be found balanced by simply being given the role of negotiator for the EU, rather than incarnating the representation of the European Union internationally, as one would expect from a government. This echoes on the words of former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, “who do I call if I want to call Europe?”.

On a final note, the Commission does not represent a government of the European Union. This institution remains, Sui Generis, one of a kind, and just like the EU, the European Commission incarnates this body halfway through the Secretariat General type of an international organisation, and an important government-like executive. In other words, although the Commission cannot be considered a government of the European Union, it remains a particular actor, in a complex system of European governance. Perhaps, in the near future a deep analysis of the Commission’s response to the coronavirus pandemic in contrast with the Union’s other intergovernmental institutions, would further deepen our assessment of this institution and its government-like capacities.


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Published by juliennourian

Founder and President of The Political. Specialised in International Politics and European Studies.

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