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Working Group B, Thursday 28th January 2016, 17-18.15 pm

Speakers: Neil Nugent, Manchester Metropolitan University and Wolfgang Wessels, University of Cologne

Rapporteur: Alina Thieme, University of Cologne


In a roundtable discussion on January 28th, Prof Neill Nugent (Manchester Metropolitan University) and Prof Wolfgang Wessels (University of Cologne) examined the interinstitutional relations between the European Council and the European Commission. The discussion was chaired by Prof Chrsitine Neuhold (Maastricht University) and discussed by Ralf Drachenberg (European Parliamant, Parliamentary Research Services). 

Prof Nugent introduced into the debate by discussing the question whether the European Commission is in decline. According to the literature, the power and the influence of the European Commission has declined since the Maastricht Treaty. First, the Maastricht Treaty strengthened the intergovernmental cooperation between the member states in the second and third pillar of the temple structure where the supranational Commission did not have any power. Second, the Maastricht Treaty created the co-decision legislative procedure which strengthened the relationship between the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union, and thus, weakened the legislative functions of the Commission. Furthermore, the agenda-setting function of the Commission also declined due to the European Council. Prof Nugent, however, argued that the Commission’s position also has strengthened over time as formal powers, like the monopoly of initiative, still allow the Commission to act as an influential and strong institution. Moreover, Prof Nugent stressed that the European Council conclusions also strengthened the Commission’s power by authorizing the Commission to perform tasks. According to him, the legislative volume declined, but the number of non-legislative instruments increased. He further pointed out that the European Commission opened its campaign under the current President Jean-Claude Juncker by launching the Euro 2020 strategy and putting a stronger focus on investment policy. All in all, Prof Nugent argued that the European Commission is far from being declined. 


Prof Wessels then contributed to the debate by discussing whether the European Commission is a principal vis-à-vis the European Council as the power relationship between these two institutions is often discussed. To accomplish this, he presented a typology of three possible power relations by referring to the principal-agent approach. In the first scenario of inter-institutional relation, the European Commission serves as an agent and fulfills the decisions and tasks taken by the European Council. The second type considers the European Commission as a principal as the institution uses the European Council to pursue its own interests. The third type of inter-institutional relationship is characterized by a kind of cooperation between both institutions. Moreover, Prof Wessels put emphasis on the role of the Commission President by discussing how this office fits into the leading strategy of the EU. Before the Lisbon Treaty, he argued, the President of the Commission had a strong leadership role and influenced the finding of consensus agreements within the European Council. However, since the Lisbon Treaty, the Permanent President of the European Council reduces the power of the President of the Commission.

In the following debate, considerable attention was inter alia payed to the leadership role of the Commission President as well as to the argument of decline. Ralf Drachenberg commented on the power relationship between the European Council and the European Commission by referring to the current migration crisis. Both institutions could be seen as joint problem solvers relying on each other. However, he argued that the European Council currently fails at acting as a crisis manager. Instead, the European Commission would have a strong power in the migration crisis as this institution is able to pass legally binding decisions where the European Council has no power. This difficulty was also commented by the audience. Philippe de Schoutheete argued that the Commission’s power had changed over time, but not declined. On the one hand, the Commission had lost political initiatives, but on the other hand, it still has legal initiatives and gained in implementation. Prof Wessels commented on this by asking in which direction the change has taken place. He argued that the decline of the Commission already started with the ‘Empty Chair’ crisis in 1965 and pointed out that the European Council has reinforced the power of the Commission. Moreover, Prof Wessels referred to the question of merging responsibilities. On the one hand, the Commission President and the President of the European Council are in a horizontal fusion process, but on the other hand, they are still in competition. 

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