Send the most stupid

Anand Menon writes in defence of the European Commission

Many in Britain will have welcomed the recent humiliation of the European Commission. Usually seen as embodying all that’s bad about the EU, it’s unelected, arrogant and provenly corrupt. The demise of the Santer Commission was thus for many good news. On the other hand, none of the Commissioners was found to have benefited financially from the numerous cases of fraud, irregularity and mismanagement within their departments. This in itself means it wasn’t like corruption scandals in many, if not all, the member states. One might wonder what drove the French Commissioner to do favours for her dentist, but then people in positions of power tend to do good turns for their chums. British quangos are stuffed full of the wives or associates of MPs, and the numerous special advisers with whom our Government chooses to surround itself certainly aren’t chosen by competition.

To understand what the problems facing the Commission are, one needs to ask what exactly it is for. At the end of World War Two, Western European countries, France and Germany in particular, came to realise that a new pattern of international relations, based on co-operation, should replace the one that had given rise to centuries of conflict. Once the notion of a Community responsible for implementing economic policy was decided on, the Commission was created to act as a kind of referee, dealing with issues that no member state wished to entrust to the others. Rather than risk any one member hogging the agenda, the Commission alone was given the right to initiate legislation. Rather than leave it up to individual countries to decide which EU legislation to implement, and thus allow them to shy away from implementing measures they opposed, the signatories of the 1958 Treaty of Rome gave the Commission both direct and indirect powers (and a Court to back them up). These included the right to pronounce on certain issues of competition policy such as mergers and state aid to industry. Finally, so that the whole project did not grind to a halt in bickering between members, the Commission was also entrusted with the task of acting as the ‘conscience’ of the EU, with finding compromises between the often conflicting interests of member states and with ensuring that the integration process maintained its momentum.

The Commission’s powers do not extend to actual legislation. It does not, indeed cannot, decide to ban the British sausage or to question the chocolateness of our chocolate. It is the member states who negotiate first, and then vote on, legislation in the Council of Ministers – on which they are all represented. Having proposed legislation, the Commission is responsible merely for enforcing, or trying to enforce, the decisions taken by the Council. Attempts to define chocolate in terms of its chocolate content – which created outrage in this country, where ‘chocolate’ is really nothing of the sort – were not a Commission-inspired plot to undermine ‘Britishness’, but an initiative undertaken by countries such as Belgium, whose chocolate-makers use large quantities of cocoa. It was a classic case of one country seeking to promote its own producers against its rivals’.

The scope and complexity of the Commission’s tasks have grown rapidly in recent years, particularly between the mid-Eighties and the early Nineties, during the Presidency of Jacques Delors. The single market initiative, designed to remove all barriers to trade between member states, was launched in 1985 and spawned a tremendous growth in legislation: 270 measures were included in the Commission’s initial proposal. Along with this the EC’s capacity to deal with economic disparities between its members was increased. The poorer members, anxious that their most efficient businesses might start migrating to some putative ‘core’ around the Rhine, demanded additional funds to ensure the ‘cohesion’ of EC economies. The Commission found itself responsible for managing these funds. As if this were not enough, the unexpected collapse of the Berlin Wall led not only to a need to provide aid to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, but also to the opening of discussions concerning their eventual membership of the Union.

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