The European Commission: A Natural Ally of Small States in the EU Institutional Framework?

  • Charles-Michel Geurts


The perception of the Commission as “a natural ally” in the EU institutional framework is indeed quite common among EU smaller member states, where the Commission is often considered an indispensable counter-weight to the predominance of large states in the EU supranational system. This perception has traditionally been shared by the Benelux countries ever since creation of the Community with six member states. They supported supranational integration, in which they would enjoy less influence on decision-making than their three larger partners,1 given notably their trust in the Commission’s capacity, through its institutional role, to ensure a fair balance between all interests at stake. This trust remained strong throughout the evolution of the EC and subsequently EU institutional framework. For instance, the joint Benelux memorandum to the last Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) leading to the Amsterdam Treaty reiterated the wish of these countries to see the role of the Commission consolidated and its competence extended, in particular outside Community matters (i.e. Common Foreign and Security Policy2 (CFSP) and Cooperation in the fields of Justice and Home affairs3). In contrast, various ideas to modify the current interinstitutional balance in ways which could weaken the Commission’s position4 were gaining ground within some larger member states.


Member State Small State Qualified Majority European Parliament Maastricht Treaty 


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  1. 1.
    For example, in the Community of six member states, the combined votes of the Benelux countries (five votes) were insufficient to block a qualified majority decision in the Council supported by France, Germany, and Italy (gaining the 12 necessary votes at that time). This type of concern became theoretical, of course, because of application, from 1966 onwards, of the so-called “Luxembourg compromise” (right of a member state to veto any measures if its “vital interests” are said to be involved). As a result, the practice of qualified majority voting in the Council was limited to a dozen cases until 1985. Recourse to qualified majority voting in the Council has increased since then in anticipation of the Single European Act and its “objective 1992” to complete the internal market, and was again extended following the Maastricht Treaty. See notably on these points: Paolo Ponzano (1996): La Prassi del Processo Decisionale nella Comunità Europea. Il Ruole delia Commissione, in: Il Diritto dell’Unione Europea, (vol. I, fasc. 4), Milano (Giuffrè Editore), pp. 1,029–1,048.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The so-called “second pillar” — title V of the Maastricht Treaty on European Union.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    The so-called “third pillar” — title VI of the Maastricht Treaty on European Union.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Notably its right of initiative in art. 152, 189 A, and 212 of the EC Treaty.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Compared with two members for each of the five largest member states. See art. 157 § 1 of the EC Treaty, which states that the Commission consists of 20 Members, and must include at least one national of each of the member states, but may not include more than two members having the nationality of the same state. This provision is applied the following way: Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Spain have two commissioners each, while each of the other member states has one commissioner.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    See the weighting of votes between member states and the threshold for qualified majority decisions, provided for by art. 148 of the EC Treaty. Following the Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty, qualified majority voting in the Council is used in a wide range of issues including the single market and agricultural legislation.Google Scholar
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    See art. 157 of the EC Treaty.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    The co-decision procedure was introduced in the EC Treaty by the Maastricht Treaty and is currently provided for by 14 legal bases in important areas such as the internal market, free movement of workers, services, environment, health, consumers policy, or research. The scope of this procedure has been considerably extended by the Amsterdam Treaty to cover 24 additional legal bases, essentially along the line suggested by the Commission in its report of July 1996, whereby an instrument of legislative nature should be adopted under the co-decision procedure between the European Parliament and the Council.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    The assent procedure is currently required by seven provisions of the EC Treaty, including rules for accession of new member states.Google Scholar
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    The cooperation procedure is currently foreseen in 16 provisions but will disappear in all fields but Economic and Monetary Union issues, to the benefit of the co-decision procedure, when the Amsterdam Treaty enters into force.Google Scholar
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    The simple consultation of the EP, which is of a non-binding nature, currently applies to 19 legal bases in the EC Treaty. In addition, eight legal bases provide for no consultation of Parliament.Google Scholar
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    See the comprehensive analysis of John Temple Lang and Eamonn Gallagher (1995:7): The Role of the Commission and Qualified Majority Voting, in: Occasional paper of the Institute of European Affairs, Dublin.Google Scholar
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    See art. 189 A of the EC Treaty.Google Scholar
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    Except during the phase of conciliation in the co-decision procedure; see art. 189 A (1) and 189 B (4) and (5) of the EC Treaty.Google Scholar
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    Temple/Gallagher (1995:7), p. 17 (see note no. 12).Google Scholar
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    It is important to note in this context that the Council challenges the possibility of the Commission withdrawing a proposal when the Council is about to amend it and, in particular, when the proposal has reached the second reading stage in the co-decision (art. 189 B) or cooperation (art. 189 C) procedures. The Council deems that such a withdrawal would deprive it of the right to amend a proposal (art. 189 A). An attempt to modify the treaty along the lines of this Council position failed during the Maastricht negotiations, due to the firm opposition of the Commission. See on this point: Ponzano (1996), p. 1,038 (see note no. 1), and Jim Cloos et al. (1994): Le Traité de Maastricht. Genèse, Analyse, Commentaires, Brussels (Bruylant), pp. 381ff.Google Scholar
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    Temple/Gallagher (1995:7), p. 23 (see note no. 12).Google Scholar
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    See Temple/Gallangher (1995:7), p. 51 (see note no. 12).Google Scholar
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    For instance, the EP may pass a vote of censure against the Commission as such, but not against individual commissioners. Adoption of such a motion by the Parliament automatically results in the resignation of the Commission as a body (see art. 144 of the EC Treaty).Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Art. 12 of the Commission’s rules of procedure.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Art. 10 of the Commission’s rules of procedure.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Art. 11 of the Commission’s rules of procedure.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Except in the case of enlargements, where a certain number of posts are reserved for nationals of the new member states.Google Scholar
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    In particular on compliance to the subsidiarity and proportionality principles (art. 3 B of the EC Treaty); see on this point the Annual Reports of the Commission to the European Council on “Better Law Making” — the last one covering 1997 (COM(97) 626 final).Google Scholar
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    See the “Better Law Making” Annual Reports (see note no. 24).Google Scholar
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    The intergovernmental method (e.g. unanimity for decisions in the Council; co-initiative of the member states and the Commission, absence of right of initiative for the Commission in certain areas; reduced role for the EP) has been applied to the two new areas of cooperation in the field of CFSP and Justice and Home Affairs introduced by the Maastricht Treaty. In its report to the reflection group in charge of preparing the opening of the last IGC, the Commission stressed the weaknesses if not inadequacy of institutional aspects for these two important policy areas, the experience of which has so far been disappointing (see the Commission Report on the Functioning of the EU Treaty, SEC(95) 731 final, Brussels (10 May 1995)).Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    With the exceptions of the French “empty chair” policy in 1965, which led to the “Luxembourg compromise” (see note no. 1), and of the so-called “Ioaninna compromise”. The latter agreement was reached in March 1994 as a compromise, on the one hand, between the UK and Spanish position to maintain the blocking minority threshold in the Council at 23 votes in spite of the accession of Austria, Finland, and Sweden, and, on the other hand, the position of the other member states to extend this threshold arithmetically (to 26 votes) as was done for the previous enlargements. The compromise achieved was a procedural restriction whereby discussions could be prolonged on a given proposal, at the request of a member state, when member states in a minority represent 23 to 25 votes, with the view to obtaining a larger majority than the one provided for by art. 148 of the EC Treaty. In fact, this compromise has found little practical application in the Council and has not greatly altered the recourse to qualified majority voting nor lengthened the decision-making process (see Ponzano (1996), p. 1,045 (see note no. 1)).Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    In the Community of six member states (1957–1972), large states (France, Germany, Italy) accounted for half the membership and close to 71% of the votes in the Council (12 votes out of 17, i.e. just enough to reach the qualified majority threshold). In the current Community (15 member states), large states (Germany, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Spain) account for one third of the membership, and around 55% of the votes (48 votes out of 87), i.e. well under the qualified majority threshold (around 71% of the votes).Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    E.g. the provisions related to the distribution of votes between member states and the threshold for qualified majority in the Council (maintained at around 71% of the votes at each enlargement), as well as to the composition of institutions such as the number of commissioners.Google Scholar
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    See Michel Petite (1997:3): Le Traité d’Amsterdam: Ambition et Réalisme, in: Revue du Marché unique européen, Paris, pp. 51–52.Google Scholar
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    For example, at the conclusion of the Amsterdam Treaty, Belgium expressed, its disappointment at reluctance to reinforce institutions achieved by the new treaty. The declaration made by Belgium on this point, stressing notably the need to extend significantly the recourse to qualified majority voting, was supported by two large member states (France and Italy) but by no small member states. See declaration no. 6 attached to the final act of the Amsterdam Treaty.Google Scholar
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    E.g. the predominance of the large member states in the Council being offset by the Commission’s right of initiative and its capacity to oppose a majority decision in the Council or to withdraw a proposal.Google Scholar
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    See Ponzano (1996), pp. 1,047–1,048 (see note no. 2).Google Scholar
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    Given the political nature of these acts, they require a consensus between member states for their adoption.Google Scholar
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    Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, the Slovak Republic, and Slovenia.Google Scholar
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    See in particular the Commission’s communication (1997:5): Agenda 2000: For a Stronger and Wider Union, in: Bulletin of the European Union (supplement).Google Scholar
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    See Robert Toulemon (1996): L’équilibre des Petits et des Grands Etats dans l’Union Européenne, Futuribles, p. 22.Google Scholar
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    See the Conclusions of the European Council Meeting in Madrid on 15–16 December 1995.Google Scholar
  39. 39.
    Such as: reinforcement of the EP’s role through the considerable extension and simplification of the co-decision procedure, and greater involvement in nominating the President of the Commission; transfer of much of the third pillar (Justice and Home affairs) to the Community sphere of competence (first pillar) and the right of co-initiative granted to the Commission in the areas left in the third pillar (police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters); the extension of qualified majority voting in the Council albeit limited; reinforcement of the operational character of the CFSP (second pillar), and a greater possibility of having recourse to a qualified majority voting for implementing strategies decided by consensus at the level of the European Council in this area.Google Scholar
  40. 40.
    See Bulletin of the European Union (supplement 5/97), p. 13 (see note no. 36).Google Scholar
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    See declaration no. 6 attached to the final act of the Amsterdam Treaty.Google Scholar
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    Toulemon (1996), p. 23 (see note no. 37).Google Scholar
  43. 43.
    Petite (1997:3), p. 52 (see note no. 30).Google Scholar
  44. 44.
    See the internal reforms initiated by the SEM 2000 program (sound and efficient financial management) in 1995, followed by MAP 2000 (modernization of the administration and of the staff policy for the year 2000) in 1997 and broadening by the newly launched “Tomorrow’s Commission” reflections.Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1998

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  • Charles-Michel Geurts

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