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Which Policy for Europe? Power and Conflict inside the European Commission

0 Comments 🕔19.Feb 2015

The European Commission is considered by many as the heart of the European Union’s (EU) political system. While for some it is to blame for a blatant overregulation of social and economic life in Europe (and even beyond), others see it as the driving force behind the merits of European integration and as the impartial arbiter above nationalist interests. In recent years, a growing number of scholars have empirically analyzed the European Commission’s role, functioning, and composition from an empirical political science perspective. Hartlapp, Metz, and Rauh contribute to this laudable development with their book on “Power and conflict inside the European Commission.”

The book focuses on an extremely important but largely neglected aspect of research on EU decision-making – namely, how are policy proposals crafted inside the European Commission? And, what drives Commission agents: i) the duty of technocratic problem-solving, ii) ideologically motivated policy-seeking, or iii) the desire to maximize organizational competences (as rationalist public policy theories following Downs and Niskanen might suggest)? The Commission – with few exceptions – is solely responsible for initiating legislation in the EU and, as agenda-setter, plays a key role in EU lawmaking. By opening the black box of Commission decision-making and shedding light on the elaboration of policy proposals inside the European Commission, the authors deepen our understanding of extremely important internal processes of policy formation and coordination. It is almost needless to say that they depart from the unitary actor assumption – according to which the Commission would be treated as a homogeneous entity – in order to carefully unveil the decision-taking mechanisms that involve numerous different actors inside this political and administrative organ.

The book starts by broadly reviewing the literature and anchoring its own approach in the academic context. Chapter 2 introduces the book’s analytical framework; the authors eclectically combine different strands of research to generate a broad list of variables that guide the empirical analyses of altogether 48 cases. Four categories of variables are identified as particularly important: First, the legal status quo; second, processes of internal coordination; third, the inter-institutional system; and fourth, additional power resources are considered as key factors for explaining both, the position formation in the Directorates-General (DGs) and the internal interactions across different DGs.

Chapter 3 outlines the research design; the study is based on 48 qualitative case studies spanning across the three policy areas of social and common market policies, research and innovation policy, and consumer policy. The empirical analysis covers the Prodi and Barroso I commissions. The authors combine detailed within-case analyses based mostly on techniques of process-tracing and across-cases comparisons based on a covariational logic. In addition, the investigation incorporates various large-n datasets that link personal characteristics of key actors, such as Commissioners and DGs, with the policy formulation process. Furthermore, information on expert groups but also public opinion is taken into account.

The empirical chapters 4 to 12 first display and then interpret both the dataset and causal process observations. Broadly, the authors find that mono-causal explanations are insufficient for explaining either position-taking or coordination processes inside the European Commission. Also, their in-depth-analyses reveal that problem-solving, the wish to expand individual DGs but also the Commission’s responsibilities as well as political ideology, all matter when it comes to Commission decision-taking. The concluding chapter summarizes and discusses the findings and their implications, and points out venues for future research.

The well-written book is extremely informative about internal European Commission decision-making processes. Without a doubt, the study immensely contributes to our empirical knowledge about the Commission and to understanding EU decision-making more generally. The authors have assembled an impressively rich amount of qualitative and quantitative data, and the book certainly underlines the enormous merits of working together in the social sciences. The three authors have taken great care in analyzing and comparing their cases and in formulating nuanced and balanced positions. While the book’s findings perhaps are not groundbreaking, they are based on solid empirical investigation and presumably would find strong support from practitioners’ point of view.

Strikingly, depending on one’s taste, the book’s strengths can also be considered its biggest weaknesses. While one must applaud the rigor with which the case studies are executed and the great care that has been taken to interpret the data, the reader oftentimes gets lost in too detailed information that is displayed in the empirical chapters. The pluri-theoretical account allows the authors to extract different bits and pieces of empirical information and individual characteristics out of the individual cases. Their decision to refrain from formulating clear-cut hypotheses is understandable, given social reality’s complexity. At the same time, hypotheses can be of great help in structuring the empirical analysis of complex social phenomena.

Working one’s way through 48 detailed case studies can be quite demanding; personally, I would have preferred to get more summarizing information at the start of the empirical chapters. Furthermore, the structure of the empirical part is somewhat puzzling, given that the reader first needs to dig into apparently only loosely connected chapters on the roles of experts and public opinion before actually finding the case studies compared in a systematic fashion in chapter 11.

Moreover, again of course depending on the reader’s view, the authors’ decision not to use spatial models of policymaking can be regretted. While loss of accuracy and information is avoided, a ‘translation’ of the cases and the qualitative policy positions into a spatial framework – as for example suggested by the DEU datasets (Thomson et al. 2012) – could possibly have facilitated systematizing both dependent variables, DG position-taking as well as inter-DG coordination. Conceptually, it remains unclear whether the authors distinguish ‘true’ preferences and strategic positions, or whether they treat these two concepts the same. Clearly, success in bargaining can only be estimated if the actors’ ideal points are known.

Leaving these minor caveats aside, I can strongly recommend reading Which Policy for Europe. Given the growing prominence of EU politics and policymaking in the twenty-first century, substantive knowledge of its key institutions and their functioning is of utmost importance for European citizens. Hartlapp, Metz, and Rauh take the study of the Commission an enormous step forward, and their book is a must-read for all serious scholars of the EU.

Reviewed by Dirk Leuffen, University of Konstanz

Which Policy for Europe? Power and Conflict inside the European Commission
by Miriam Hartlapp, Julia Metz, and Christian Rauh
Oxford University Press
Hardback / 368 pages / 2014
ISBN: 978-0-19-968803-6

Thomson, Robert, et al. 2012. “A New Dataset on Decision-Making in the European Union before and after the 2004 and 2007 Enlargements (DEUII).” Journal of European Public Policy 19 (4):604–22.



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