Jean Monnet Center at NYU School of Law


Staying on the Surface

According to the Commission, solving the legitimacy problem of the Union has to do with finding ways of making the EU decision-making processes more efficient. It also has to do with making citizens better informed about what goes on at Community level: "85the Institutions and the Member States also need to communicate more actively with the general public on European issues".(p.11) The idea that the legitimacy problem can be solved by just increasing the information-flow is, however, somewhat outdated.

The main thrust of the White Paper is, however, concerned with the invention of new management technologies. While starting out with a sympathetic talk about greater involvement of local and regional actors in EU policy-making, it quickly becomes clear that we are back with the old philosophy in which a more efficient European bureaucracy is believed to make the citizens more happy with the Union construct. Clearly, people will respect EU (as well as national) civil servants more if they have a clearer idea of what they do and that it makes a difference. But it is a bit naïve to believe that a better use of new (or old) managerial technology - together with more information - will do the trick when it comes to solving the legitimacy problem in the EU.

Seen in this light, it is worrying that the Commission in its White Paper gives itself such a central role in a reformed EU. It may be that the Commission wants to integrate more actors and levels in the decision-making processes, but when push comes to shove, the main mission of the reform initiative seems to be an underscoring of the centrality of the classical institutional balance with the Commission at the steering wheel. This becomes obvious when the White Paper says that it wants to revive the Community method: "Reforming European governance implies that the Commission must refocus on its core mission".(p. 8) "The Community method guarantees both the diversity and effectiveness of the Union. It ensures the fair treatment of all Member States from the largest to the smallest".(p.8) It is difficult to see much `new thinking' and popular involvement in such a proposal, however. This is further emphasized when the White Paper stresses that: "The open method of co-ordination should be a complement rather than a replacement, for Community action" (p. 22). To this is added that the problem-solving approach that embraces most parts of the text brings back memories of a functionalist logic where the focus is on handling specific tasks and leaving out all talk about end goals and values.

That the Commission seeks to reinforce its own central position is also clear in its rather short debate on comitology. It has long been discussed how one could deal with the fact that the Commission has established hundreds of advisory committees outside democratic control (Joerges & Vos 1999). It is quite obvious that these committees have an increasing impact on Community policy-making because more and more political issues call on the technical know-how that such bodies can provide. When committees are involved, it very quickly becomes unclear to the public - not only who decides what, but also when political arguments are covered up in technical prose. Dealing with sensitive political issues in technical terms has become more and more prominent and has the great `advantage' that it tends to make political argumentation more or less superfluous. The more technical an issue, the less likely it is to become a topic in the public debate - which, in turn, contributes to decreasing democratic control. Or, as Christine Landfried has put it in relation to her study of biotechnology regulation:

"...politicians claim to be dealing with technical rather than political questions since, in such a case, they no longer need to provide detailed reasons why a particular problem may be solved by the executive or administration. The avoidance of complex legislative procedures thus becomes easier"(Landfried 1999: 177).

What the Commission wants to do in order to improve the image of the committee system does not, however, seem to address this problem. The strategy is to reduce the committees to an advisory role and then leave the important decisions - not to the politicians - but to the `neutral' bureaucrats in the Commission. I am far from sure that this is the right medication for the patient in question, but it does tell us something about how the Commission sees itself as a central mediator between technical experts and the political system. It gives us the impression that not only committees but also agencies are political players, whereas the Commission itself is a purely apolitical body occupied with nothing but efficiency and supervisory considerations.

As regards agencies, the White Paper, on the one hand, wants to increase their role and, on the other, makes sure that they do not disturb `the balance of powers between the institutions94 (p. 24). Here again, you get the impression that, while the Commission is willing to grant some power to new agencies so that they can take individual decisions, they are more often regarded as advisory bodies to a Brussels bureaucracy which is trying to keep them on a short leash. Again, it may be a very good idea not to let agencies run their own agendas outside legislative control, but it appears a bit odd that the Commission, which itself has been criticised for intransparency and secrecy, should be granted exclusive supervisory responsibility. The fact that the Commission should not feel completely `safe' or in charge when it comes to managing regulatory bodies is emphasised by Christian Joerges in his study of comitology:

"...they (the agencies) are all auxiliary institutions satiating the Commission's appetite for prepared information. Notwithstanding the success of the Commission's efforts to curtail and limit the autonomy of European agencies, the Commission may enjoy a false sense of security because it has created a regulatory scenario resembling that of Goethe's `Sorcerer's Apprentice'". (Joerges 1999: 8)

Looking at things at a more general level, one of the most striking problems with the White Paper is that it makes only very few specific proposals. It also fails to produce any standards by which any specific reform-initiative can be evaluated. It primarily spells out, in very general terms, which areas have to be reformed in the near future in order to combat the malaise of the `reluctant European'. This could be a deliberate strategy, however. In a speech to the Committee of the Regions on the 20th of September 2001, where the White Paper was on the agenda, the Commission President, Romano Prodi, stressed that: "Our strategy is divided into three phases". The idea is that this three-phase-strategy should reflect the development of the public debate itself. As he notes:

"...the publication of the White Paper launches the first phase, which starts the process of renovating the way our policies are managed and implemented at all levels. The changes will remain even after the basic Treaties are amended; in the second phase, the Commission will shortly be stating its position for the Laeken procedure, `on the basis of the principles already set out in the White Paper'; in the third phase, the Commission will put forward the substantive changes to be made to the Treaties, drawing on the reactions to the White Paper".(Prodi 2001b:3)9

Even though it appears sympathetic that the Commission wants to listen to the `reactions to the White Paper', it is still very unclear how the Commission intends to use the responses it gets and on what basis possible criticism will be incorporated into the final suggestion for reform. In more concrete terms, how does the Commission intend to create the line of confidence between itself and the governed? Due to the vagueness of the document you sit back with only a very weak idea of any concrete policy changes. Not until concrete policy-proposals and new procedures are put forward - and a list of those new actors that have to be drawn into the decision-making process is presented - will it be possible to judge whether the implementation of the White Paper will have any impact on the attempt to reduce the democratic deficit.

9 (2001b).




This site is part of the Academy of European Law online, a joint partnership of the Jean Monnet Center at NYU School of Law, the Academy of European Law and the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute.
Questions or comments about this site?