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Intergovernmentalism: The Impact on Public Affairs in Brussels

The ECPA Annual Debate 

Intergovernmentalism: The Impact on Public Affairs in Brussels

Debate themes: Synopsis

Is intergovernmentalism on the rise? And if so, should we be concerned and why? The notion of an increasing shift towards intergovernmentalism has risen up the agenda in recent months, and is without a doubt an issue of increasing concern in some quarters. One speaker, who questions the reality of an increasingly intergovernmental approach within the EU, argues that the causes of this concern can be traced to a handful of specific issues and actions, the majority of which were born out of the European Economic crisis, and the detail needs to be examined closely before generalisations are made. Whilst elements of intergovernmentalism are apparent, there are also some myths which can usefully be debunked. It should also be kept in mind that with an institutional infrastructure of the size and complexity of the EU, much can be a matter of perspective. In legislative change, for example, we see a highly tiered structure; an analysis of foreign policy mechanism will show a different perspective again.

It was also argued that if we look at the detail of events surrounding the recent economic situation, there has in fact been no real shift towards a less integrated field. In fact, the Council has reinforced the Institutions as a whole. Yet this should not be misinterpreted as an opportunistic strengthening of powers, but as a reinforcement of existing mechanisms which were brought to bear when needed. If we are to look at the firewall mechanisms now in place, for example, these may at first sight look like new intergovernmental tools. But they do not exist at the expense of anything previously there. They are a relevant interpretation of existing powers.

In this context, we must look at intergovernmentalism itself as a tiered, or multifaceted issue. One speaker described intergovernmentalism as existing in two very different ways which should be examined separately. On the one hand, we have “soft intergovernmentalism”, whereby we see a moving of the cursor towards those who represent the sector specific and national interests. On the other, we have “hard intergovernmentalism”, which is manifested in a desire to do things outside the existing EU framework.

What we have seen in reality is the emergence of hard legislation which is anchored in EU law – and arguably therefore a more solid and tougher regime. But does this really take the EU into new behaviours? What we are seeing is an increasing role of the Commission as the “supercop” of individual member states. This, perhaps, is not always a comfortable position to be in. But recent economic events have driven the hard reality of what actually works on the ground. The Lisbon Treaty may have changed perceptions of the balance of power between member states and the EU Institutions, yet there were in reality no major policy differences. In fact, the Community Method has been proven to be effective, and the overall structure has coped well with recent

However, other speakers were less sanguine about the current state of play. Whilst agreeing that the reality of intergovernmentalism was exaggerated, the opinion was expressed that we should be vigilant about the “direction of travel” we are witnessing. In the aftermath of the debt crisis, the direction, it was argued, has subtly but quickly altered. The position of the President of the Council became more significant more quickly, and the previously straightforward common position became much more complex. The shift in the direction of travel towards an intergovernmental approach is distinct and needs to be quickly wrapped into the EU framework for two overarching reasons: firstly, because it is less open with fewer checks and balances, and secondly because there is a question of efficiency and transparency when actions are taken by civil servants at national level.

Perhaps what we are witnessing is less a rise in intergovernmentalism, but the emergence of a “ 2 speed” Europe, or as one speaker argued, the paradox of EU integration whereby a deepening of the integration process is accompanied by increasing intergovernmental decision making. Strategically, the European Council is in the ascendant and the Commission in the descent – perhaps since the end of the Delors period. This was especially apparent in the recent crisis when the Fiscal Compact emerged as a non-EU treaty.

Questions and concerns were raised by all speakers on two potential aspects of intergovernmentalism: the emergence of national executive decision making and the implications this has for the European Parliament. If we are witnessing faster decision making at a transnational level – the “executive” or “SMS” decision making process as it is sometimes termed – then what role does the European Parliament play? Will we see quantitative success in the European Parliament at the expense of radical ideas and debate? The key test may be the EP elections in 2014; if the resulting balance of power is markedly different from the Council’s, then we
may see a reverse swing away from an intergovernmental approach.

The concern from those in the corporate sector is how and where to find a voice in an environment where decisions are being taken outside of the recognised or familiar frameworks. How do we identify the key policy players and ensure we are in the appropriate dialogue in policy development and the decision making process? It was suggested that in order to be effective, public affairs practitioners must increasingly think in terms of multilevel campaigns; to work on domestic politics in parallel with the EU infrastructure, and to increase activity in influencing national contexts whilst pursuing Brussels interests and maintaining a dialogue with international bodies such as the IMF and WTO. If the policy and decision making infrastructure in essentially becoming more multi-layered, then so must we.


Richard Corbett – Member of Cabinet of Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council
William Sleath – Secretariat General, European Commission
Anthony Teasdale – Acting Director, DG Internal Policies, European Parliament
Professor Alex Warleigh – LackSchool of EU Politics, University of Surrey