Who sets the European Union’s policy agenda? The complex nature of the EU’s legislative process, combined with the lack of a clear hierarchy among the core EU institutions, means that it is hard to disentangle the policy contributions of different institutions and determine which one is ultimately responsible for the legislative priorities of the Union.
The ever-increasing criticism of the “Euro-bureaucrats” and the democratic deficit in the EU, along with the policy influence wielded by the European Council during recent crises, complicated this picture even further, leading to competition between the EU institutions and their Presidents. This inter-institutional power struggle recently culminated in the infamous “Sofagate” incident in Turkey, exposing the tensions between Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel on the world stage.
Which institution sets the European Union’s policy agenda?
Even though the European Commission has the right of initiative, whether this ‘power of the pen’ gives the Commission a monopoly over the agenda-setting process has long been debated. This is because the Commission, despite its formal status, has often found itself competing with other actors and institutions to determine the legislative priorities of the European Union. In the meantime, the changes introduced in successive treaty revisions between the Maastricht Treaty (1993) and the Treaty of Lisbon (2009) have fundamentally altered institutional dynamics and inter-institutional relationships. While the Commission has retained its formal powers to introduce legislation, it has increasingly lacked the ability to shape the proposal once the process began. On the other hand, both the European Parliament (EP) and the European Council (EUCO) have gained new powers, in addition to the informal opportunities for agenda influence that they already enjoyed. While the EP works with the Council of the European Union (Council) to delay, amend, veto, or adopt legislation as the EU’s only directly elected body, EUCO identifies broad interests and sets general guidelines for the entire Union without any initiative from the Commission or any involvement by the Parliament.
The Commission’s resources, technical expertise, and status as an honest broker in European affairs still enhance its agenda-setting powers, making it possible for the Commission to correctly identify the policy preferences of the EP and the Council and strategically devise policy initiatives that both reflect its own priorities and have a high probability of success. This, however, creates an interesting puzzle: if the Commission must tailor its policy proposals to fit the preference configurations of the other core EU institutions to be successful, can we still talk about the Commission’s autonomous policy influence? Or should we interpret this strategic move as a sign that its independent influence is in decline? If the latter, should the Commission be seen more as a technical agenda-setter than a political one?
Indeed, recent research suggests that the legislative priorities of the Commission are more and more frequently failing to be translated into EU polices by the other legislative actors, and this is especially when these priorities do not reflect the publicly announced priorities of the other core institutions. In fact, the likelihood of Commission priority initiatives being successful drops by more than 30 percent when it acts on its own. This decline is even steeper when the Commission attempts to propose initiatives aimed at introducing new policy arenas into the EU legal sphere, highlighting its strength as a provider of technical expertise, rather than its political agenda-setting capacity.
How much agenda-setting power does the Commission have?
This is not to say that the Commission is entirely dependent on other core EU institutions, however. Nearly sixty percent of the initiatives highlighted in the Commission’s Annual Work Programmes were translated into legislative outcomes between the years 2000 and 2014, which is substantial, though well below that of most EU member state executives to which the Commission is sometimes compared. Perhaps more importantly, almost forty percent of these lacked explicit congruence with the legislative priorities of the other core institutions. Moreover, despite the clear impact of the changes wrought by the Lisbon treaty’s increase in the policy roles of the European Parliament and European Council, the relationship between the Commission and the Council remains the most critical one.
Having substantially more access to policy expertise than the other institutions, the Commission continues to hold a unique position within the EU institutional structure that’s helps it to chart the tumultuous political waters of inter-institutional policymaking within the Union. Nevertheless, because it lacks a direct role in the decision-making aspects of the policy process, is often unable to ensure its priority legislation is adopted.
Together these trends suggest that interpretations of the EU political system that ascribe the role of political executive to the Commission fundamentally misunderstand the Commission’s current role. The combination of an increasingly powerful and independent EP, and the formalization of the European Council, have combined to reduce the need for the unelected, often technocratic Commission to serve this function. While those who hope for a clear parliamentary-style EU with the Commission at its head may find this result dispiriting, perhaps the fact that the Commission is most successful in pursuing its policy objectives when these reflect the public priorities of the democratically elected EU institutions may reassure others hoping for a more democratic and electorally linked political executive.
This blog draws on the JCMS article “Power or Luck? The Limitations of the European Commission’s Agenda Setting Power and Autonomous Policy Influence”
Buket Oztas an Assistant Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Furman University. Her research focuses on the changing institutional dynamics in predominantly Muslim countries, with particular interest in post-Islamism and transnational identities, and includes an ongoing research initiative on the agenda-setting powers of the European Commission.
Amie Kreppel is a Jean Monnet Chair (ad personam), Director of the Center for European Studies and a Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida. She has served as President of the EUSA and has been both a Braudel Fellow at EUI and a Fulbright-Schuman Chair at the College of Europe.
Twitter handle: @akreppel