Daniel Gueguen

The changes made by the Treaty of Lisbon (making the European Council a proper institution, appointing a permanent EU president) and related practices (electing the Commission President via Spitzencandidaten, systematic use of trilogues at first reading) have reduced the European Union to a big bureaucratic body led by a Commission that takes refuge in low-level combat.

Admittedly, the European Council is made up of political leaders (Merkel, May, Macron) but its role in the institutional balance is ambiguous. It can take decisions, but in reality does so via consensus (unanimity). It is up to the Council-Parliament tandem to legislate. And it is the role of the Commission – with the exclusive right of initiative – to draw up draft laws and regulations.

The College of Commissioners: paralysed and watched over by the European Council

The Treaty of Lisbon coincided with the EU’s entry into a long tunnel of crises: Euro problems, Brexit, immigration, etc. On these issues, the European Council has gradually moved itself to the forefront with a meeting almost every month. But instead of centring around initiatives developed by President Tusk and his services, these ‘summits’ have become happenings where every Member State (the largest ones, at least) seeks not the best solution possible but rather the best media image for its own national electorate.

We cannot blame Donald Tusk for his discreet role because, unlike the Council of Ministers which has a secretariat of 3,000 civil servants, the European Council Presidency has only a few dozen staffers. President Tusk is a lone man confronted with the national interests of 28 Member States. But beyond this functional defect, the more or less clear positions of the European Council and its guardianship role have paralysed the College of Commissioners and President Jean-Claude Juncker. He is merely an observer; a passenger, not the driver of the EU vehicle.

The Commission is becoming the secretariat of the European Council

As the cornerstone of the EU system, enjoying the competence to propose, implement, manage and negotiate, the European Commission is stepping back into the role of secretariat for the European Council. This shift is a terrible thing, as it destroys the proposing power of the EU executive and leads the Commissioners and their President to take refuge in low-level matters, with some recent telling examples: ‘Better Regulation’ (which aims to simplify the complex Lisbon processes), the much-criticised mutation of Martin Selmayr into Secretary General; the glyphosate saga; and the revision of Regulation 182/2011 on comitology. These cases may be caricatured, but they all suggest that the Commission is no longer in charge of the essential, accepting all of this without a fight.

We can also explain the recent wilting of the Commission by recalling the nomination of the current President via the Spitzenkandidaten method, typical of the false solutions we have seen in the EU over the past ten years. The Juncker Commission, supposed to be more political, has in practice reduced the autonomy of the European Parliament by installing a grand Juncker-EPP-S&D coalition. The EU is therefore following a kind of Matryoshka logic, with a dominant European Council, weakened co-legislators and a bureaucratic Commission.

Systematic first-reading trilogues: a step too far

In 2017, 100% of legislative acts were agreed at first reading via the opaque and anti-democratic mechanism of trilogues. The result is a drift from primary legislation (basic acts) towards secondary legislation (delegated and implementing acts). The Commission’s loss of political power here is compensated by a gain in technical power, with almost 2,000 implementing measures adopted by the EU every year. Focussing Commission action on the adoption of technical rules via complex procedures represents the most effective way of pushing the people further towards Euroscepticism.

The Commission’s management of the Brexit file offers a successful counter-example

Because of his long experience, Michel Barnier has gone back to the old pre-Lisbon way of doing things. He pilots the project and validates his positions early thanks to long-standing personal contacts with Member States. Without any big statements, he defines the various stages, setting out the obstacles and the progress made. He benefits from a small and dedicated team, composed of recognised experts who are open to dialogue. He practices what we might call a form of project management.

We can console ourselves by saying that such examples can be replicated. And we don’t lack for good project managers. All we need is to choose the right ones.

Daniel Guéguen


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  1. Entièrement d’accord avec votre analyse. J’ajouterais que la désunion croissante entre les Gouvernements (à ne pas confondre avec les États) et leur stratification en différents groupes (cf. Visegrad) paralyse en fait un Conseil européen théoriquement tout-puissant. Mais je serais moins sévère que vous vis à vis de la “coalition” Juncker/PPE/PSE qui constitue tt de même une sorte de contre-pouvoir face au Conseil européen. D’autre part, la pratique du trilogue – à défaut d’être transparente – a au moins le mérite de l’efficacité. Enfin, sur le système du Spitzencandidaten, il est de la responsabilité des grands groupes politiques de désigner “le meilleur d’entre eux”. JGG

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