Wednesday, June 19, 2024

The Comeback of the European Commission

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Since the outbreak of the eurozone crisis in 2009, the European Union (EU) has been in permanent crisis-management mode. That challenge was followed by mass inflows of refugees and migrants in 2015 and 2016, Brexit, tensions with the United States following the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president, the rule of law crisis in Hungary and Poland, the coronavirus pandemic, and the Russian aggression against Ukraine. All of this has taken place against the background of global warming, possibly the greatest threat of all. Confronting a series of major challenges has changed not only how the EU functions but also the relationship between the EU’s institutions, in particular the European Council, the Council of Ministers, the European Parliament (EP), and the European Commission.1 The European Council has become “the room where it happens,” the place where key decisions in the EU’s crisis responses are made, partly to the detriment of the role of the Council of Ministers. The EP—previously seen as the ascendant institution—has lost ground, as it was sidelined in most of the crisis-management work. By contrast, the European Commission has staged a comeback after several years in the doldrums; under the pressure of crisis, the EU needs to combine rulemaking with executive action, and the European Commission’s operational capacity and expertise have become indispensable. Its rise remains fragile, however, as some member states accept it only grudgingly and populist politicians across the continent are determined to fight it. There is always risk of a backlash. But in the longer term, the European Commission remains the most plausible source of leadership in an ever more complex and heterogeneous EU.

The Institutional Landscape After the Lisbon Treaty

At the beginning of the era of crises, the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty in December 2009 reshaped the institutional architecture of the EU. The treaty enhanced the powers of the EP by ensuring its equal participation in most of the EU’s legislative work, by upgrading its budgetary competencies, and by strengthening its role in electing the president of the commission. The European Council, which already for decades had played an increasingly important role, was formalized as a full-fledged institution charged with providing “the necessary impetus for the EU’s development” and defining its “general political directions and priorities.” An elected president instead of the rotating presidency, which changed every six months, is now leading the European Council’s work. The Lisbon Treaty also provided for more decisionmaking by qualified majority in the Council of Ministers instead of unanimity. In the areas of foreign and security policy, the treaty gave the high representative additional powers and established the European External Action Service, an embryonic EU foreign ministry.

The European Commission was less affected by the Lisbon Treaty’s reform but was at the time widely perceived as having lost authority and prestige. After years of accusations of regulatory overreach, the second Barroso Commission curtailed its legislative initiatives. Jean-Claude Juncker came into office pledging to “[do] less more efficiently.” The commission’s agenda-setting role waned as the European Council increasingly controlled the shaping of policy. The EP’s growing authority over the European Commission was mirrored by reduced confidence in it from member states. And critics remarked that following the enlargements of 2004 and 2007, the commission had more members than serious jobs.

As had been the case with earlier treaties, the institutional reform of the Lisbon Treaty was a difficult compromise between those favoring deeper integration and those trying to preserve as much national sovereignty as possible. Nobody saw it as the final word on the organizational structure of the union. The treaty entered into force in 2009, just as the era of crises began. Over the following years, as one emergency followed the other, the EU leaders had neither the time nor the bandwidth to engage in another long and complex treaty amendment process. But responding to the challenges required significant changes in the way the EU operated and new roles and tasks for its institutions. Absent treaty change, these modifications came about through secondary legislation, new financial instruments, soft law, and, in some cases, intergovernmental treaties. As long as member states agreed, much was possible through a creative interpretation of the EU treaty. Altogether, the EU has undergone a deeper transformation during the years of crisis than it did during the previous decade, even though that decade saw two new treaties (Nice 2001 and Lisbon 2007).

The Impact of Crises

The European Council: “The Room Where It Happens”

With every crisis, the central role of the European Council, which includes the top decisionmakers of the member states and the European Commission president, has become more evident. The council alone possesses a critical asset in emergencies: the political authority to improvise. It is also the only forum that can pull together different EU institutions and assemble various instruments behind joint action, ranging from military missions to financing tools. Crucially, it can also underpin EU-level action with the policies and capacities of the member states. As a forum that decides by unanimity, it is also uniquely positioned to forge compromises and package deals between opposing interests.

These unique qualities of the European Council have been often on display during the past fourteen years. However, the crisis years have also revealed a number of weaknesses. Even though, under the pressure of crisis since 2009, the number of meetings has risen from four per year during the previous decade to more than seven per year, the European Council still resembles a series of conferences more than a permanent body. The tendency in recent years to push all types of difficult decisions to the top level confronts prime ministers with technical issues (such as vaccines and energy) for which they are not well prepared and sometimes entangles them in legislative processes in which the European Council should not be involved.

Two key factors have impacted continuity and cohesion: the growing volatility in national politics (shown by the fact that, between 2019 and 2022, representation in the European Council changed in eighteen countries) and the decline of the “grand coalition” of the traditional center-right (the European People’s Party) and center-left political party groups (the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats). The twenty-seven leaders today probably know each other less well than their predecessors in earlier decades did. The deep divisions created by the crises (primarily along north-south lines during the financial crisis and east-west during the migration crisis) and the emergence of political outliers such as Hungary and Poland all complicate consensus-building.

The European Council also suffers from a leadership problem. It is not evident that the introduction of a permanent president of the European Council has greatly increased the body’s effectiveness. The president certainly plays an important role in setting the agenda but often lacks the necessary authority to knock heads together in order to get a deal done. Also, coordination with the European Commission’s president is often difficult—particularly so in the era of Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen, current presidents of the council and commission respectively, who consider each other more rivals than partners. During much of the crisis era, it was the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who acted as the de facto leader of the European Council. Since her departure, decisions are usually shaped by a small group of leaders of bigger countries, together with the two presidents. The German-French axis remains important but is less central now than in earlier decades. Today, initiatives can come from various quarters; there are many different coalitions and potential blockers.

None of these weaknesses, which also affect other EU bodies, puts the European Council’s role as the EU’s “crisis manager in chief” in doubt. On the contrary, experience has shown that genuine emergencies galvanize EU leaders into overcoming these obstacles and arriving at the necessary decisions. And this sudden forging of a collective European will in the face of adversity can only happen at the very top.

The Council of Ministers: “In the Shadow of Prime Ministers”

Together with the EP, the Council of Ministers acts as the main legislator of the EU. Legislative activity overall has declined since 2010, but apart from a brief dip in 2020, it continued even through the disruptions caused by the pandemic. The duration of legislative processes increased between 2012 and 2016 but decreased in the following years, probably because of the urgency of pandemic-related measures. Although the Lisbon Treaty expanded the areas in which decisions can be taken by qualified majority vote, in practice voting remains rare and the great majority of measures continue to be adopted by consensus. This is also due to the fact that difficult issues are increasingly pushed to the European Council. Parties that are in a minority prefer this forum, as the need to achieve unanimity enhances their leverage. In earlier decades, some of the formations of the Council of Ministers, such as the finance, foreign, or interior ministers, had considerable authority in their own right. Today, the Council of Ministers sometimes fills the gap between meetings of the European Council and otherwise implements decisions taken at the top level.

The European Parliament:“Pushed to the Sidelines”

Crisis situations usually require urgent operational action and thus generally tend to shift power to executive leaders, whereas parliaments risk being sidelined. In the decade preceding the crisis years, the EP had been considered to be gaining influence, since a series of treaty reforms had significantly expanded its powers. But during the financial crisis, the EP found itself at the margins of European politics, as the relevant decisions were taken by the European Council and the European Central Bank.

In the aftermath of the EP elections of 2014, however, the EP scored one significant success. It coerced a reluctant European Council to nominate the lead candidate of the biggest party group, Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker, as president of the European Commission. This conformed to the view—supported by the EP majority but resisted by several governments—that, similar to a prime minister in a member state, the president of the commission should be chosen by the Parliament and be primarily accountable to it.

During the turbulent years that followed, which were marked by the migration crisis and Brexit, the Parliament again played only a secondary role, commenting on ongoing developments through its resolutions and processing legislation based on decisions taken elsewhere. However, the prevailing sense of crisis and contestation also renewed public interest in the EU, leading to an 8-percent increase in turnout at the EP elections in 2019, which reversed a long-term decline in participation. But this positive development was followed by a bitter defeat. The failure of the main party groups to agree on a common candidate for European Commission president allowed the European Council to make its own choice, nominating von der Leyen, who had not been the lead candidate of any group prior to the elections. The EP finally assented to this choice, but did so reluctantly and with a narrow majority.

Among the various challenges confronting the EU in the following years, the EP acted as a major player only on the rule-of-law crisis in Hungary and Poland. In line with its long-standing emphasis on values, the Parliament pushed the council and commission to take a tougher stance and insisted on strong rule-of-law conditionality regarding access to EU funding.

Although overshadowed by the crisis management of the European Council, the EP performed throughout the crisis years as an effective co-legislator. Following the elections in 2019, reaching a majority has become more complicated as it now requires the support of three (instead of two) of the major party groups, but the pro-European groups generally cooperate well with each other and are mostly in sync with the European Commission and the mainstream of member states. The significant contingent of Euroskeptic parliamentarians has hardly impeded the Parliament’s work.

The EP also has not given up any of its institutional ambitions, which are based on its favored federalist model. It continues to advocate for its own right of legislative initiative, for transnational electoral lists, and for more majority voting in the EU bodies. However, such steps depend on institutional reform, and some of them also rely on treaty amendments. The EP’s recent demand for a convention on treaty reform has run into opposition from many member states. Some EU-skeptical governments object to treaty reform as a matter of principle. Others argue that the current situation, with multiple crises underway, is the wrong context for inherently complex and contentious treaty negotiations.

The EP election of 2024 is likely to renew the struggle over the right to determine the next president of the European Commission. The Parliament will again insist that a lead candidate of one of the party groups should be chosen. Many governments continue to believe that the European Council should take the lead in this decision. Again, the outcome will depend on the ability of the major parliamentary groups to unite behind a single candidate.

The European Commission: “Strength Through Adversity”

The constant pressure over fourteen years of crisis has compelled the EU to move beyond its traditional role as a legislative machine and enter the space of executive action. Most of the key crisis-management decisions have been taken by the EU leaders in the European Council. But their preparation and implementation increasingly depend on the European Commission’s expertise and operational capacity. Starting from a relatively weak position in the previous decade, the commission has increased its role and influence throughout the crisis era.

The Eurozone crisis was to a large extent managed through intergovernmental cooperation, usually led by Germany. But the fiscal compact and related legislation adopted during the crisis gave the commission extensive tasks in economic and financial management, including the surveillance of national economic policies and budgetary plans and the right to sanction breaches of fiscal discipline. These powers were further enhanced during the coronavirus pandemic by the adoption of the recovery fund (called NextGenerationEU) in 2020, which almost doubled EU funding for the next four years. By assigning the commission a strong say over disbursements, this decision reinforced the commission’s influence over core areas of national economic and fiscal policy.

A similar strengthening of the commission’s authority over policies that were once considered to be exclusively within the national domain was triggered by the dispute over rule-of-law deficits in Hungary and Poland. In 2020, the EU adopted the Rule of Law Conditionality Regulation, which allows the European Commission to suspend or reduce payments to a country where breaches of rule-of-law principles affect the financial interests of the union. This new mechanism gives the commission considerable leverage over judicial and administrative reforms in the member states.

The European Commission’s record during the migration crisis was mixed. In an area where the sovereignty reflex is particularly highly developed and where competencies and expertise lie primarily with the national governments, the commission struggled to shape the agenda and did not emerge with additional powers. Some progress was achieved on strengthening the external border of the EU, but the commission’s initiatives to reform the broken asylum system have stalled until today.

During the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, when national restrictions caused massive disruptions, the commission found it difficult to promote a coordinated response, though it managed to secure the continued functioning of the internal market. A turning point came with the EU’s vaccine program. Procuring and distributing vaccines on behalf of the EU member countries is probably the most tangible example of the commission’s new executive role. Its leadership on this issue was particularly remarkable, as most of the competencies for health policy remain with the member states.

By contrast, the commission already had strong powers on trade policy and was therefore destined for the lead role during the Brexit negotiations. Still, maintaining the coherence of the union throughout this tortuous process amounted to a significant achievement.

The European Commission’s work on climate policy may not constitute crisis management in the strict sense of the word, but it demonstrated the commission’s continued agenda-setting function. From the very beginning, von der Leyen turned the European Green Deal into the commission’s flagship project. The commission pushed for ambitious targets, such as a 55 percent reduction of emissions by 2030 and climate neutrality by 2050, and followed up with one of the biggest legislative packages in EU history, comprising more than fifty different initiatives. Negotiations on these measures have to overcome clashing industrial interests, uneven dependencies on fossil fuels, and divergent levels of ambition. The EP and the commission cooperate well on the green agenda, but there is considerable pushback from a number of governments. The enduring legacy of the von der Leyen commission will likely be determined by its record in advancing Europe’s climate transition.

Like migration, foreign and security policy was another area where EU members had long resisted active involvement of the supranational European Commission. This has changed gradually over the past ten years. In 2017, the European Defence Fund was set up to support collaborative defense research and development and thus strengthen the European defense industry. Von der Leyen established a directorate-general on the defense industry and space and launched a number of initiatives to support joint military procurement, defense innovation, and military mobility. Funding for these efforts remains modest and there is considerable resistance by member states to taking a European approach to defense procurement, but the long-standing taboo against a European Commission role in this field has been overcome.

The Russian aggression against Ukraine provided another strong impetus to ramp up the commission’s engagement on foreign and security policy. From the start, von der Leyen and High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell were at the forefront of promoting determined support for Ukraine, which included massive economic assistance, connecting Ukraine to the EU energy grid, welcoming millions of refugees, and—for the first time ever—delivering military equipment financed from EU resources. The European Commission took the lead on sanctions policy—an area previously managed by the Council of Ministers—and worked closely with the G7 countries in forging several packages of sanctions against Russia. Von der Leyen’s personal lobbying in favor of EU candidate status for Ukraine was crucial in overcoming the initial reluctance of some EU members. Obviously, the commission will also have a leading role in the postwar reconstruction of Ukraine. All this has enhanced the international profile of the commission’s president. American diplomat Henry Kissinger’s famous (but apocryphal) question as to which phone number he needed to call when he wanted to speak to Europe finally found an answer.

Von der Leyen’s announcement shortly after her appointment that she would lead a “geopolitical Commission” was met with considerable derision. However, global developments since have confirmed the relevance of this approach. The EU’s external relations had evolved in an international context where economic exchanges could usually be assumed to be mutually beneficial. Now, in an age of the “weaponization of everything,” policies in areas such as trade, investment, competition, research, and technology have to take power politics into account and become both tougher and more flexible. Today, the commission is working on enhancing resilience by reducing asymmetric dependencies, diversifying supply chains, building capacity in strategic sectors, and protecting the EU from external coercion. The need to leverage the EU’s economic strength to protect its regional and global interests has never been more important. The traditional division between foreign and security policy as the council’s domain and external economic relations as the European Commission’s remit is no longer adequate. Protecting the EU’s interests requires an integrated approach encompassing both components of external policy.

Conclusion: Crisis Response or Structural Change?

To a large extent, the new institutional constellation in Brussels resulted from the inherent dynamics of crisis management. The European Commission manages most of the crisis tools and mechanisms, coordinates the relevant networks of government officials, and is thus destined to play a prominent role in confronting emergencies. Difficult choices in such situations tend to be made at the very top—that is, in the European Council—whereas the EP is inevitably reduced to a more limited role. The acute pressure of crises renders the age-old ideological divide between intergovernmentalism and supranationalism largely obsolete. In the face of an emergency, the reflex is often to choose “whatever works,” and frequently this leads to a new division of institutional roles in which EU leaders take the important decisions in the intergovernmental setting of the European Council while an empowered European Commission assumes a stronger role both in preparing these decisions and in their operational follow-up.

While crisis management was crucial in shaping the new institutional balance, deeper structural factors also played a role. Enlargement to twenty-seven heterogeneous countries, increasing political volatility in the member states, the fracturing of the European party landscape, and the weakening of the German-French axis have made the leadership deficit in the Council of Ministers and European Council more acute. The European Commission is well positioned to fill this gap. It too is a collective body with twenty-seven members, but the commission doesn’t suffer from the leadership deficit that the other institutions face. Like the presidents before her, von der Leyen has continued to concentrate decisionmaking power at the top. She leverages her presence in the European Council to increase her authority over her colleagues. The twenty-seven commissioners very rarely vote on commission policy. Some vice presidents have been delegated important leadership responsibilities (such as Frans Timmermans on climate policy), but most members of the college have relatively low profiles. Supported by her office and the secretariat general, the president is fully in charge. Naturally, there are downsides to this concentration of power. Von der Leyen’s small team often has to deal with too many complex issues at the same time, which sometimes leads to mistakes or delays.

Still, the commission’s capacity to take the initiative and mobilize instruments and resources rapidly is unmatched in the EU system and might ensure its continued ascendancy even beyond the current era of crisis. But the risk of a backlash should not be underestimated. Some member states—particularly smaller ones that are not regularly or closely consulted by the commission’s leadership—accept its increased influence only grudgingly. Every high-profile initiative, whether on industrial policy, the rule of law, or relations with China, provokes pushback from dissenting governments. Populist politicians across the continent attack the commission as an overbearing and intrusive bureaucracy whose powers should be curbed. A Euroskeptic turn in one of the big member states could bring the commission’s rise to a sudden halt. Such a setback, however, is likely to be temporary. The EU, as a highly integrated and ever more complex multilevel entity, requires dynamic and consistent leadership—and the European Commission remains the most plausible source.


1 This article focuses on the four above-mentioned institutions and not on the European Central Bank or the European Court of Justice.

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