Political Executives or Appointed Mandarins? Two Competing Conceptualizations of the European Commission

Wednesday, July 12, 2017
Gilbert Scott Conference Room - 250 (University of Glasgow)
Bart Joachim Bes , LegGov Program, Lund University
Jan Pieter Beetz , Political Science and Public Administration, VU University Amsterdam
Brexit painfully showed how popular dissatisfaction threatens the stability of the EU-institutions. In response to the more skeptical public and political environment, many innovative proposals have been advanced to transform the EU-institutions into more democratically legitimate ones. The European Commission (EC) is often deemed the object that requires further democratization. For instance, the Commission President should be directly elected to democratically legitimate its decision-making power. These proposals implicitly conceptualize the EC as the EU’s nascent government that is its political executive. In this paper, we contribute a novel conceptual perspective on the EC. We argue that the conceptualization of the Commission as a political executive captures its traditional role in, for instance, the governance of the single market. However, in other policy areas, so we claim, the EC is better conceived of as the appointed mandarins of the EU’s administration. To make this argument, we first introduce the conceptual distinction between politics and administration in democratic polities. We use this framework to reflect on the EC’s role in EU decision-making as evidenced by cutting-edge empirical research. This conceptual clarification yields important empirical and normative insights into possible democratic legitimation of the EC. One empirical consequence is that, against the backdrop of the growing popular dissatisfaction with the functioning of the EU, the role of the EC has, in some policy areas, shifted from a political to an administrative role. Normatively,  the same democratic logic might actually result in different, possibly conflicting institutional proposals depending upon one’s conceptualization of the EC.