Despite their claims of neutrality, Commissioners in the European Union (EU) tend to encourage spending on their home country. That is the central finding of research by Kai Gehring and Stephan Schneider, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society''s annual conference in Brighton in March 2016.
The study looks at the European Agricultural Guidance and Guarantee Fund (which takes up the largest share of the EU budget) and where it is spent compared to where the responsible Commissioner comes from. It finds that when a country gets to appoint the responsible Commissioner, its share of the EU''s overall budget rises by one percentage point – around €500m a year. The authors comment:
''The number of Commissioners should be based on choosing the right people rather than linking them to a country. For the Brexit debate, it would be in everyone''s interest for the British to use their current position to demand reforms that will help the whole EU, not just themselves.''
In the recent discussions revolving around EU reforms and a potential Brexit, those arguing for a closer and more democratic union want to extend the competences of the European Commission (EC) and transform it into a ''real'' executive. This study abstains from discussing the need for further integration steps in a normative way, but rather examines whether the EC adheres to its own principles in a way that is sufficient to provide it with more competences. The researchers show that the nationality of EU Commissioners continues to matter and influences budget allocation decisions in favour of their country of origin.
The Commission''s noble claim of complete independence from any government or other institution and its detachment from the Commissioners'' nationalities has been hard to verify due to a lack of transparency and data. Still, it seems that member states strongly lobby to obtain valuable portfolios for their candidates.
Many examples document that nationality still plays an important role. In the discussion about limits on carbon dioxide emissions, for example, the German Commissioner infamously lobbied for lower thresholds to protect the car industry and managed to weaken the initial proposal. Similarly, the current French Commissioner, Pierre Moscovici, was one of the first to sign a request from the French Socialist Party for communitisation of national government debt at the European level.
To move from anecdotal evidence to a systematic quantitative assessment of the role of the Commissioners'' home countries, this research examines the allocation of EU funds instead of individual Commissioners'' budgets, which cannot be disentangled by country.
The European Agricultural Guidance and Guarantee Fund (EAGGF) accounts for the highest share of the EU budget, and is the exclusive responsibility of the Commissioner for Agriculture. This makes it possible to draw a direct connection from the Commissioner''s nationality to a specific annual budget allocation decision.
The results show that when a country gets to appoint the Commissioner its share of the overall EU budget suddenly increases by about one percentage point, which corresponds to half a billion euros per year. The study demonstrates that this relationship cannot be explained by factors like changes in the respective country''s agricultural sector, surges in unemployment or EU scepticism or by certain countries selecting into this particular Commissioner post.
While Commissioners certainly take common European targets into account as well, this is clear evidence that national background continues to matter. It suggests that other Commissioners, where a lack of data impedes a quantitative test, also use their position to benefit their home country.
In some respects, the current system that allocates one Commissioner per member state implicitly institutionalises such a system of promoting national interests. This should raise awareness for the need to modify and adapt the political structures and the institutional relationship between member states and central authorities before centralising further competences.
Reforms should aim at designing mechanisms that minimise common pool problems and the ability of countries to exert their influence over-proportionally. The number of Commissioners should be based on efficiency concerns, and selection be decoupled from national origin and based on the quality of the candidates.
To regain lost confidence, the EU can further increase transparency about voting patterns and internal decisions, so that citizens, media and science are able to provide the checks and balances necessary in a democratic system. Relating to the Brexit debate, it would be in the common interest that the British use their current position to demand mutually beneficial reforms, such as a reinforcement of the subsidiarity principle, instead of only bargaining for unilateral benefits.
''Towards the Greater Good? EU Commissioners'' Nationality and Budget Allocation in the European Union'' – Kai Gehring, Stephan A. Schneider (University of Zürich and Heidelberg University)