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Reforming the European Commission by Emmanuelle Schön-Quinlivan, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, pp. 256, €60.00 hb, ISBN 978 0 230 25257 8

Reviewer: Michael G Tutty*

The title of this book suggests a wide scope but in practice it covers the rather narrow area of the administrative reforms introduced by the European Commission following the resignation of the entire Santer Commission in March 1999.

The author, a lecturer in Politics in the Department of Government, University College Cork, sets out to put these reforms in a historical context of past reforms of the Commission and seeks to explain institutional change in the Commission, using historical institutionalism and path dependency. She sets out three hypotheses:

  1. The Commission’s resignation generated an institutional crisis which was a political opportunity and triggered institutional change in the European administration.
  2. New Public Management (NPM) ideas are at the heart of the White Paper which brought in the reforms and contributed to institutional change in the Commission.
  3. The translation process from Commission-wide to Directorate General (DG) level affected the dynamics of institutional change across the Commission.

The core of the study is 71 interviews, which included Lord Neil Kinnock (the Commission Vice-President in charge of the reforms), members of his Cabinet, Commission officials, MEPs, trade unionists and members of the European Court of Auditors. Three DGs were selected for particular study – the Secretariat-General (SG), DG Transport and Energy (TREN) and DG Regional Policy (REGIO). Apart from Lord Kinnock, none of the people interviewed is named, merely being described as for example “interview with MEP” or “interviews with SG officials”.

Under pressure from the European Parliament, the Santer Commission had set up the Committee of Independent Experts (CIE) to investigate allegations of fraud, mismanagement and nepotism in the Commission. Many of us recall the scandals which led to this, including the French Commissioner Edith Cresson employing her dentist and close friend as a scientific advisor despite his lack of appropriate qualification and failure to produce any relevant reports. The CIE report was damning, particularly a sentence which was added to the report at the last minute: “It is becoming difficult to find anyone who has even the slightest sense of responsibility”.

Rather than have resignations of Commissioners particularly spotlighted by the report, the full Commission resigned and Prodi became the new Commission President. Neil Kinnock was appointed Vice-President and was given responsibility for reform of the Commission. His proposals emerged in a White Paper in 2000.

The author says that previous studies unanimously demonstrate that the Kinnock reforms generated change but her study goes beyond this to look at what explains the change. She shows that many of the ideas at the heart of Kinnock had already been examined and detailed in reports since the 1950s but were never implemented. This illustrates the historical evolution of the reforms but also the crucial significance of the crisis leading to the Commission’s resignation as a political opportunity. This reminds your reviewer of the response given by a former New Zealand Finance Minister, Ruth Richardson (known as “Ruthless Ruth”), when I asked her how to get reforms in the absence of a crisis – “Create a crisis”!

There were five key elements at the heart of the Kinnock reforms - strategic planning and programming, staff mobility, linear career structure, decentralisation and ethics. Decentralisation included the demise of DG Financial Control which previously had to approve in advance all payments from the various DGs. This had always seemed peculiar to me, coming as I did from a different system. But the result of the reform, according to the study, has simply been to re-create the same processes within each DG, though at least the Commission officials feel more responsibility for the expenditures under their control in the absence of DG Financial Control.

The author concludes that the reforms were based on NPM ideas but that there was a gap between the aims and the outcomes when implemented, largely due to the bureaucratisation of the procedures by the organisations during the implementation phase. As an example, she points to the Career Development Review (CDR) process which was to be a merit-based, performance-oriented system with annual reviews. It ended up with a low spread of points being mandated centrally to reviewers, thus rewarding the average official nearly as much as the high performer. This mirrors my own experience in the Irish public service where it has always been difficult to get a good range of results in performance reviews. Invariably the leaning is towards higher than average results which have to be marked down to get a reasonable outcome – no organisation has staff which are predominantly outstanding!

In looking at the implementation of the reforms in the three DGs studied, the author found a mixed picture. The SG had to lead by example but did so without any feeling of ownership, with some of the reforms not being relevant to its horizontal coordinating work. DG REGIO embraced the reforms, particularly to help it in its struggle with the European Court of Auditors on financial management. DG TREN went through the motions of implementation but was headed by a French Commissioner, Lamoureux, who did not support the reforms. The Chapter on DG TREN is entitled “A case study in resistance” compared to the DG REGIO chapter entitled “A case study in adaptation”. But in all cases, the study finds that implementation of the reforms was accompanied by a degree of bureaucratisation which made progress more cumbersome than the authors of the reforms envisaged.

For non-academics like myself, the book becomes more difficult to assimilate insofar as the author places her study in the context of historical institutionalism, NPM, etc. and proceeds to prove her hypotheses. Nevertheless the study gives a valuable insight into the implementation of the reforms in the three DGs studied and is a rewarding read for those interested in this topic. A bigger issue at this stage is whether Jean Monnet’s vision for the Commission can survive in a Community of 27 with the growing role of the European Council, the European Parliament and the bigger member states in initiating and developing policies.