The European Commission: Controlled Agent or Uncontrolled Bureaucracy?

Research question/goal: 

For the last 50 years, the European Commission was commonly characterized as the European Union’s (EU) “engine of integration”, whose goals and interests are at odds with those of the member states. Yet, the theoretical discussion on and the empirical knowledge about the Commission are very limited. This research project contributes to filling this gap in EU research. The Commission is conceptualised as a collective actor. In a first step, the Commission’s link to the member states is theoretically captured. Governments nominate at least one Commissioner each and collectively appoint the Commission. Testing theoretical hypotheses deduced from principal agent theory, the empirical analysis of relevant characteristics of all 215 Commissioners nominated between 1958 and 2006 shows that governments (increasingly) try to influence Commission decisions by nominating reliable individuals with similar policy preferences. In a second step, five decision-making scenarios are explicated to conceptualise decision-making inside the Commission. These scenarios make different statements about the relative power and potential for mutual control among Commissioners in Commission executive politics. Empirically these have been tested by analysing the procedural characteristics of all legislative proposals adopted by the Commissioners of the Prodi-Commission. Three case studies supplement this quantitative analysis. The results show that Commissioners control each other in the formulation and adoption of those proposals which threaten to impose high (material and political) costs on member state governments. The theoretical and the empirical analysis of this research project suggest that the common portrayal of the Commission as a run-away bureaucracy constantly violating member states’ interests is misleading: Commissioners have strong political ties to member state governments. The internal decision-making dynamics, however, prevent each government to get its interests recognized in every proposal Commissioners adopt – one reason why existing intergovernmental portrayals of the Commission are inadequate.

Fact sheet

MZES (doctoral program)
2003 to 2006
Data Sources: 
Official documents
Geographic Space: 



Wonka, Arndt (2008): Die Europäische Kommission. Supranationale Bürokratie oder Agent der Mitgliedstaaten?. Baden-Baden: Nomos. [Regieren in Europa; 15] more