The European Commission and political representation: one crisis too far?

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Focusing on the European Commission when talking about political representation in the European Union seems a contradictio in terminis. The Commission is not directly elected and does not clearly represent a particular constituency. In this edited collection the Commission is neither mentioned among the 'actors of representation', such as political parties, civil society organisations and citizens, nor among the 'levels of representation', which focus on forms of electoral territorial representation (Council, EP, Committee of the Regions). In this chapter we argue that the European Commission is relevant to political representation in the EU in two ways. Firstly through the interinstitutional positions and relationships between the Commission and those institutions which are the expression of electoral territorial representation and thus retain a conceptualisation of political representation that remains focused on the latter. Secondly, by reconceptualising 'political representation' and take account of the multiple meanings and dimensions that representation can take in the political process and in democratic design.
The first strategy is surely the more traditional option. Most scholarly debate on political representation in the European Union has not attributed any 'representative value' to the Commission as such, but has focused on the Commission's relation, in terms of delegation, degrees of independence and accountability, vis-à-vis the 'representative institutions' that are the Council and the European Parliament. The advantage of this approach is that it offers normative suggestions for (inter-)institutional (re-)design. However, it only provides a very partial picture of the multiple dimensions of representation at work in the political structure of the European Union. This focus on electoral or territorial representation is in no way unique to the debate on the European Union. However, as this edited book also illustrates there is a renewed attention in political theory for the question of representation; including an increasing willingness to unravel the multiple dimensions of political representation, other than through electoral mandate. The most important contribution in the new debate until now has been provided by Michael Saward's 'representative claim-making'. His analysis deepens our understanding of the multi-dimensional nature of processes of political representation, going far beyond claims based on electoral mandate. However, Saward's approach has to be dealt with caution as it also entails risks. If pushed too far it may lead political theory into empiricism; with scholars focusing on the empirical assessment of representative claims made by political actors and the normative ground and assessment being based entirely on the acceptance of the claims by its audience. Similarly, if pushed too far, Saward's approach may lead to 'micro analysis', focusing on certain actors' representative claims rather than on interinstitutional design.
Therefore, to analyse the position of the European Commission in the system of political representation of the EU, this chapter relies on combining the two strategies set out above, but without falling into their pitfalls. We take on board Saward's analysis and in particular conceptualise also other processes of political representation beyond those based on electoral mandate, but our starting point is not the empirical assessment of representative claims but a more normative stand on interinstitutional design in the EU. Hence we will address the Commission's role in the system of political representation in the EU by focusing on the principle of institutional balance.
In the first section we will address the 'traditional use' of the concept of institutional balance by both political scientists and legal scholars and then propose in the second section an alternative reading of institutional balance as a checks and balances system of interest representation that can be used as normative guidance. In the third section, we address the particular role of the Commission in this 'institutional balance of interest representation'. The Commission is identified as the promotional broker of the European interest within the institutional balance.
In the fourth section we address the procedural consequences of this role in relation to the Commission's regulation of interest representation. As institutional broker of the European interest, the Commission is not just a neutral bureaucracy but has a role in ensuring a balanced representation of interests in the policy making process. At the same time, such interaction implies risks of regulatory capture. As a result, the Commission's approach to regulating of interest representation has been hovering between the objectives of ensuring transparency and representation.
In the final section we address the consequences of the economic crisis on the Commission's role as promotional broker of the European interest. We argue that the EU's answer to the economic crisis is based on a combination of intergovernmental crisis management and technocratic management relying on an independent Commission, which undermines the Commission's capacity to act as promotional broker of the European interest in the democratic sense understood by the concept of institutional balance.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPolitical representation in the European Union. Still democratic in times of crisis?
EditorsSandra Kroeger
Number of pages23
ISBN (Print)978-0-415-83514-5
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2014

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