The European Commission has always been the object of debates and analyses as to what extent the European Union (EU) political structure is democratic, since the structure of the Commission and its relations with the European Parliament have been regarded by many scholars as the main reasons why the EU suffers from a “democratic deficit”.
BY Dr DILEK YIGIT | JULY 2012
After the global financial crisis broke out, measures taken to cope with the implications of the euro area debt crisis and to prevent another potential crisis have renewed the debates on democracy at EU level, in particular on the European Commission’s role in the new European economic governance.
Why has the European Commission been a part of debates on a “democratic deficit” in the EU? The answer to this question is complex and many-faceted. Because the first aspect of this question is related to how the European Union and its executive body Commission can be defined; Is the Commission a sui-generis body of sui generis organisation? or can the Commission be compared with a government in the member states as the EU is becoming more like a state? It can be argued that the EU is becoming more like a state due to the continuous European integration process; nonetheless there is not a clear-cut answer on which scholars agree to the question of how exactly the Commission can be defined or whether it should be a government in the conventional meaning of the term. For example, S. Hix points out that the Commission may be defined as sui generis through stating that “the Commission is neither a government nor a bureaucracy, and is appointed through what appears to be an obscure procedure rather than elected directly by the votes or indirectly after a parliamentary election.”[i] While F. Laursen underlines the similarities between the Commission and a national government by expressing “to a certain extent, the Commission can be compared with a government in the member states. It takes political initiatives, it proposes legislation, it has a bureaucracy at its disposal, it gets involved in policy implementation.”[ii]
The second aspect of this question is related to the democratisation of the European Union. In this context, the question of how the president and members of the Commission should be appointed/elected for a more democratic Union has led to political and theoretical debates so far, and many scholars argue that the democratisation of the European Union through the gradual increase of power of the European Parliament over the European Commission has caused politicisation of the Commission. The Treaty of Lisbon brought about further politicisation of the Commission by defining the role of the European Parliament in the nomination of the Commission President explicitly. Article 17 of the Treaty of Lisbon stipulates that
“Taking into account the elections to the European Parliament and after having held the appropriate consultations, the European Council, acting by a qualified majority, shall propose to the European Parliament a candidate for the President of the Commission. This candidate shall be elected by the European Parliament by a majority of its component members…”
It can be argued that the Treaty of Lisbon provides the Commission with greater democratic legitimacy. Nonetheless, after the Treaty of Lisbon, the Commission is still an executive body that remains unfamiliar to both parliamentarism and presidentialism, which may arise more concerns especially in the light of Article 10 of the Treaty stipulating that the functioning of the Union shall be founded on representative democracy.
Furthermore, measures taken for strengthening fiscal discipline and introducing stricter fiscal and macroeconomic surveillance in the EU due to the euro area debt crisis received serious criticism on the grounds that these measures give greater role to the European Commission in the surveillance of national economic and financial policies, that is the Commission acquires more powers although its democratic legitimacy and democratic accountability have been questioned.
The aim of this article is to try to address more centrally the question of whether the Commission is becoming more powerful due to the measures taken after the euro area debt crisis and if so, why it receives criticism from a democratic perspective. Let’s analyse each measure and what they mean to the Commission in brief.
The European Semester which was approved by the member states on September 2010 for stronger economic governance and coordination at EU level means ex ante coordination of member states budgetary and economic policies, and it starts each year when the Commission publishes the Annual Growth Survey. On the basis of the Annual Growth Survey, member states identify the main economic issues which the EU faces and give policy advices at the Spring Council. The salient aspect of the European Semester is that the European Council and the Council of Ministers provide policy advice before the member states’ draft budget for the following year are finalised.[iii] Although the Commission’s role under the European Semester has received criticism on the grounds that the Commission can give direction to national fiscal policies, the European Council, Council of the European Union and the European Parliament are also given active roles under the European Semester in order to provide legitimacy for this new mechanism.[iv]