Are the Council of Ministers and the Commission partners or rivals in European policy-making?

Essay, 2004

15 Pages, Grade: 1,5



List of abbreviations

1. The European Commission

2. The Council of the European Union

3. EU policy-making
3.1. The pillars
3.2. Methods and procedures of decision-making

4. Inter-institutional relationship between Council and Commission

5. Conclusion


List of abbreviations

illustration not visible in this excerpt

The European Union (EU) is a hybrid and unique body, which “(…) does not fit with many of our preconceived notions of how politics is organized.” (Cini, 2003-(a):1) Two aspects contribute to its “distinctiveness”:

First, the EU has a two-level nature: it combines supranational with intergovernmental features.

Supranationalism is defined as “(…) the existence of an authority that is ‘higher’ than that of the nation state and capable of imposing its will upon it.” (Heywood, 2000, 259). Applied to the EU, this definition would only concern the supranational EU-institutions.[1] But supranationalism also refers to the common interests of the Union as a whole, and to most policy-areas, which are under the authority of the EU.[2] The intergovernmental EU-level is characterised by the dominance of state-sovereignty. It relates to some EU-policy-areas and particularly to the special role of the 25 EU-member states, which have considerable influence within the Union.[3] Both EU-levels have been subject to two different EU-integration theories. Neo-functionalism explains the creation and importance of a supranational stage with its core-concept of spillover. Intergovernmentalism is characterized by its state-centrism and focus on sovereignty.[4]

The second unique aspect of the EU, related to the first, is the complex EU-policy-making process. Legislation, developed by the EU-institutions, has to be implemented on a national level. Particularly the European Commission and the Council of the EU are main actors in policy-making. In this process, the Commission explicitly represents the Union’s interests and is thus referred to as supranational. The Council shows strong intergovernmental characteristics. It acts on behalf of the sovereign EU-member states and therefore has considerable influence in policy-making.[5]

Thus it seems, that the Union’s nature bears a certain potential for conflict (between the supranational EU-interests and member states), which provokes the question of whether the Commission and Council are rivals or partners in policy-making.

But this is an inadequate question. The existence/non-existence of a conflict does not necessarily imply a rivalry/partnership.[6] Therefore, this essay can and will only try to prove/disprove notions of conflict between the two institutions and thus will rather examine the nature of their liaison regarding the EU-policy-making process. Part one and two briefly explain the features of the European Commission and the Council of the EU. This is necessary to understand EU-policy-making, since both are main actors in decision-making. Section three then focuses on policy-making and especially on the roles of the Commission and Council in this process. The essay concludes by analysing whether a conflict in policy-making exists and evaluates the result of this analysis.

1. The European Commission

The European Commission[7] is politically independent from the member states and acts as the Union’s driving force with supranational character. It consists of a political and administrative level. The political arm of the Commission relates to the ‘College of commissioners’, the members of the Commission, each responsible for different EU-policy areas and lead by the Commission President.[8] The administrative arm comprises all officials within the Commission’s services or departments. The 23 departments or Directorates-General (DGs) each cover all policy areas and are organized sectorally or functionally.[9] The permanent office of the Commission’s President, the Secretariat General, manages the inter-institutional and external relationships of the Commission.

As the executive body of the EU, the Commission is involved in the whole policy-making process and carries out four main tasks[10]: First, it has a monopoly on the right to initiate legislation and propose it to Parliament and Council. The second role of the Commission is to supervise, manage and implement the Union’s budget (together with the Court of Auditors) as well as policies and programmes adopted by the EP and Council. The third responsibility, related to the second, is to enforce European law. Together with the Court of Justice, the Commission acts as ‘Guardian of the Treaties’ to ensure proper implementation within member states.[11] The fourth Commission-task involves the external representation of the Union and the negotiation of international agreements on behalf of the EU.[12]

2. The Council of the European Union

The Council is “(…) at the centre of EU decision making (…)” (Lewis,2003:149), and represents the national interests of the member states while being the main European legislative body.[13] It can be regarded as a hierarchy of five levels: At the top stands the European Council, consisting of the heads of governments and the Commission’s President, which provide overall strategic guidance for the EU.[14] The ‘Council of Ministers’ comprises 9 different ministerial councils, which are formed by member-state’s ministers, representing their countries in formal decision-making and grouped according to their specific EU-policy area.[15] The Presidency of the Council rotates every six months between member states.[16] The COREPER (permanent country representatives)[17] prepares the Council’s work and is supported by various working groups (national administration officials). The General Secretariat assists the Presidency and ensures the functioning of the Council’s work.[18]

The Council, representing the sovereign EU-member states, has extensive legislative and executive functions. First, it approves legislative proposals, mostly together with the Parliament. Second, it co-ordinates economic policies of the member states (via Ecofin). Third, it concludes international agreements between the EU and other states/organisations. Fourth, jointly with the Parliament, it approves the EU-budget. Fifth, it develops the EU’s CFSP.

And sixth, it co-ordinates co-operation between national courts and policy forces in criminal matters.[19]


[1] The most important EU-institutions are the European Commission, the Council of the EU, the European Parliament (EP) and the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

[2] As addressed later, EU-policy-areas are divided into three pillars. The first pillar is of supranational nature and comprises most policy-fields. The second and third pillar are intergovernmental.

[3] This framework is only a rough, but for the purpose of this essay, useful simplification. Although theses two levels form the Union’s basis, the EU also comprises various other actors on different levels with different aims (i.e.interest groups).

[4] Both theories are regarded as competing since they emerged at different stages of the integration process. Neo-functionalism arose and re-emerged with a flourishing integration process whereas Intergovernmentalism, as a critique of Neo-functionalism, emerged at a point of ‘integration flaw.’ Neo-functionalists argue that co-operation in one policy-area will lead to co-operation in another and thus to further integration. This is referred to as spillover and might also involve the shift of loyalties from nation states to supranational institutions, driven by self-interests of groups and institutions themselves (elite socialization). Over time, supranational institutions would become more independent and triumph over states. Intergovernmentalism holds that if states pool sovereignty and delegate part of it to European institutions, they do so to protect national interests and make commitments more credible. On Neo-functionalism see Jensen (2003:80-92), Peterson and Bomberg (1999:14-16) and Matláry (1997:266-267). On Intergovernmentalism see Cini (2003-(b): 93-100) and Endo (1999:2-3).

[5] Although the Commission and Council are both supranational institutions (in the sense of the definition above), they represent either supranational (common EU)- or member states (intergovernmental) interests in policy-making, respectively. Thus it can be said that they each represent the corresponding (either supranational or intergovernmental) level of the Union’s nature.

[6] If two parties conflict regarding certain issues (the hypothesis in this case is that the institution’s features and interests (in policy-making) cause this conflict), they do not have to be rivals and both could still co-operate. But this, in turn, does not have to mean that they are partners. So the question of a rivalry or partnership seems inappropriate here.

[7] On the Commission see Egeberg (2003:131-147), Nugent (1997:1-26), Cadot (2003) and Christiansen (2001: 501-502).

[8] The college is the highest instance of internal decision-making and operates on the basis of collegiality. (Egeberg, 2003: 136). The President and the 25 commissioners are supported by their own political secretariat. Each cabinet covers all portfolios. They are a source of information for the commissioners and a point of access for the outside world (i.e. national governments). (ibid: 139-140). A new Commission is appointed every five years by member states and Parliament. Since 22nd November 2004 the new President of the Commission is José Manuel Durão Barroso and the College now consists of 25 commissioners, one independent commissioner per country. Until the day of the Eastern enlargement, the College consisted of 20 members. (Council of the European Union (2004)).

[9] Egeberg, 2003: 140-144. Also see European Union (2004-(a). DG’s support the College by devising and drafting legislative proposals and consist of several Directorates, which are headed by a Director-General.

[10] See European Union (2004-(b)), Egeberg (2003: 132-135), Noël (1996: 14-22), Cini (1996: 14-33, 143-163) and Damro (2004). Egeberg (2003: 133) also mentions the function to present legislation to national governments at European Council meetings and Intergovernmental Conferences (IGC’s).

[11] If member states do not meet their legal obligations, the Commission can initiate an ‘infringement procedure’ or call upon the European Court of Justice, which can impose binding penalties on the states. The Commission’s implementation power mainly relates to the first pillar, as decisions are legally binding here.

[12] However, the Commission does not represent the Union in matters of CFSP. International agreements may include trade and aid partnership-arrangements between the EU and third countries. On EU and external relations: See Smith (2003: 230-233).

[13] In this essay the ‘Council of Ministers’ is referred to as the Council of the European Union/Council, comprising the European Council as political authority and distinct component (heads of member states). See Lewis (2003:151-152)

[14] The European Council remains separate from the other EU-institutions. In the past, it has assumed responsibility for institutional reform, budget, enlargement or foreign, security and defence policy. See Lewis (2003: 151), Kohnen (2003).

[15] Lewis, 2003: 150,154-157. On CoM: Edwards/ Wallace, 1977: 4-17, Sherrington, 2002: 26-37, Kirchner, 1992:4-7.

[16] Tasks of the Presidency involve the chairing of Council-meetings, agenda-setting, decision-promotion and mediation between member states.

[17] Each EU-member state has a permanent representation in Brussels, which defends its national interests at EU-level. The heads of the representations, the country’s EU-ambassadors, meet weekly within the COREPER (de-facto (informal) decision-making body). Lewis, 2003: 157/158.

[18] The Secretary-General of the Council (Javier Solana), also High Representative for CFSP, helps the Council to draft and implement legislation, assisted by a Deputy Secretary-General who manages the General Secretariat.

[19] See European Union (2004-(c)).

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Are the Council of Ministers and the Commission partners or rivals in European policy-making?
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Council, Ministers, Commission, European
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Julia Heise (Author), 2004, Are the Council of Ministers and the Commission partners or rivals in European policy-making?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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