An Institutional Anatomy of the EU

by Marc Geddes

Please note that this article was written for, and originally appeared in, Canvas, a student politics journal for which I was the Founder and Editor between 2010 and 2012. The article is available here.

The European Union has been derided by commentators and politicians alike as a bureaucratic storm, a tonne of bricks haemorrhaging national polities and an ugly bile determined to corrode democratic domestic politics. Colourful language about the Union is widespread, but unfortunately offers little substantive analysis of the EU. This often creates misguided rhetoric regarding the EU, which, despite its many flaws, remains a project that has had a preponderance of positive impacts, the single market to name just one. The focus of this short article is not to offer a defence of the EU’s historic record, but rather to shed some light on the idiosyncratic institutional dynamics at play across the decision-makers of the European polity. More specifically, the argument raised here seeks to challenge the rhetoric that the EU is encroaching on national sovereignty, and alternatively suggests that European institutions play a part in an increasingly multi-level governance framework. [1] There are various ways in which institutions play a role in European policy-making, but this discussion will limit itself on specifically two ways in which the EU exercises power: decision-making and agenda-setting.

The Council of the European Union is, arguably, at the heart of the decision-making process of the EU. [2] It has played a dominant part in much of European history, yet only formally recognised in 1986 and its role only institutionalised with the recent Lisbon Treaty. [3] Regardless, the Council is pivotal in almost all important decisions: the entire Economic and Monetary Union was led by the then 12 member states during the 1980s, something which has returned now with the seemingly copious summits to overcome the ongoing eurozone crisis. [4] In this sense, Europe is led by its democratic leaders, who are the ultimate decision-makers. At this point, the elephant in the room seems to be the European Commission. Indeed, its role is often used to justify the rhetoric of bureaucratic misdemeanours in Europe. However, the Commission does not offer leadership nor does it make executive decisions. It builds consensus and coalitions of national ministers and permanent representatives to construct policies. The Commission is a delegated authority that oversees the implementation of directives that proliferate from the top (i.e., the European Council and the Council of Ministers). Whilst the powers of the Commission remain pervasive in order to fulfil this role, this means it is also heavily dependent on inter-institutional negotiations and co-operation. [5] Its powers over legislation are slowly eroding, especially since the inception, and now ordinary legislative procedure, of ‘co-decision’ (which essentially means that the European Parliament (EP) and Council of Ministers decide on the content of policy, even if the Commission formally initiates it). [6] If anything, then, the Commission acts as lubricant to ensure a well-functioning Council, which is tasked with strategic leadership, future orientations and all political actions of the Union. [7]

A final reference to the very national sense of decision-making in Europe is the Council of Ministers, made up of national ministers depending on portfolio. This has been the second-most dominant institution in Europe, traditionally leading much sectoral policy that the European Council (by nature) cannot. Since the Lisbon Treaty, it does so in conjunction with the EP. So for example, the EU budget is originally proposed by the Commission, but then re-drafted by both the Council of Ministers (i.e., the 27 finance ministers of all member states) and the EP. The Council and the EP are mutually co-operative in nature (less than 25 per cent of policy-making needed a conciliation committee) and suggests that the Commission’s role has been further curtailed. [8] Does this indicate a secession of sovereignty for member states? Far from it. Admittedly, this is only a brief point, but the point remains: participation by member states keeps the Union going.

Taken together, the European Council, the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament offer territorial representation, policy expertise and ideological commitment, which the above argument largely supports. Turning our attention to agenda-setting, or the informal power networks at play, condemnation of hidden circumvention of liberal democracy reach their screeching heights. With some (although often exaggerated) justification, the Commission plays an exclusive role as agenda-setter for policy implementation. [9] The Commission, as pointed out above, initiates policy and can therefore influence the direction of debate (although we mustn’t forget the EP’s power to reject legislation, nor the strategic leadership and policy direction promoted by the European Council and Council of Ministers). The Commission, then, acts as an ‘epistemic community’, that is, a community of experts that delivers policy recommendations. Perhaps one ought to see it as a cross between civil service and think tank. [10] The role of the Commission is to manage policy-making, encourage co-operation and promote debate. The power of the Commission, as such, is nuanced and subservient to the wishes of member states. Self-evidently it has vested interests, but not the extensive set of powers required to advance them.

More broadly and without question, the European Union has its problems, monetary union being the obvious example. Moreover, covered here are only the decision-making institutions. However, the point still stands that the direction of Europe is governed by member states. The unelected aspect of the Commission, whilst lamentable, is far more subtle than many commentators are willing to accept. Notwithstanding the arguments surrounding the overgrown nature of the EU, the substance of this article aims at the power of members to do something about it. What is missing, particularly from eurosceptic nations, is their willingness to engage with Europe. This isolationist nature has led to their removal from the table. That table, as the short argument above has sought to demonstrate, is made up of elected heads of government and an elected legislature.



[1] I. Bache and M. Flinders (eds.) (2004), Multi-Level Governance, Oxford: OUP.

[2] J. Lewis (2010), ‘The Council of the European Union’, in Cini, M. and Borragán, N. (eds.) European Union Politics, Oxford: OUP, p.142.

[3] I. Bache, S. George and S. Bulmer (2010) Politics in the European Union (third edition),  Oxford: OUP.

[4] P. Schoutheete (2006) ‘The European Council’, in Peterson, J. and Shackleton, M. (eds.) The Institutions of the European Union (second edition), Oxford: OUP, pp.45-6.

[5] N. Nugent and W. Paterson (2003) ‘The Political System of the European Union’, in Hayward, J. and Menon, A. (eds.) Governing Europe, Oxford: OUP, p.98.

[6] Bache, George and Bulmer, p.13.

[7] H. Wallace (2005) ‘An Institutional Anatomy and Five Policy Modes’, in Wallace, H., Wallace, W., and Pollack, M. (eds.) Policy-Making in the European Union (fifth edition), Oxford: OUP, p.64; Schoutheete, p.57.

[8] Lewis, p.149.

[9] M. Egeberg (2010) ‘The European Commission’, in Cini, M. and Borragán, N. (eds.) European Union Politics, Oxford: OUP, p.127.

[10] M. Cini (1996) The European Commission: Leadership, Organisation and Culture in the EU Administration, Manchester: MUP, p.146.