TEPSA Provocative Column: “The new Juncker Commission needs to unearth its political and institutional potential to make coherence work”, by Simon Stroß

junckerAs a primary goal of the Lisbon Treaty, promoting coherence in EU policies has been high on the Union’s agenda in recent years. In particular the coherence of the EU’s external policies was to increase through the creation of the new post of the High Representative/Vice-President of the Commission (HR/VP) and the European External Action Service (EEAS). While some progress has been made (for instance by issuing more comprehensive regional initiatives such as the Sahel strategy), substantial areas of EU policies are still conducted in an incoherent manner, leading to ineffectiveness and inefficiency of EU action. The new Juncker Commission will be the crucial EU institution for promoting coherence in the coming years and does now have the opportunity to provide much needed fresh momentum. This chance should be used to overcome the two main obstacles to coherent policy-making at EU level: A) the lack of political will and B) the inadequate use of institutional coherence procedures.

The Commission must play the key role in promoting coherence of EU external action for three reasons. First, its agenda-setting and policy formulation competences in a wide range of external policies such as development and trade can have a significant impact. Secondly, the European Parliament does already have a rather good track record of promoting coherence. Its members and sectoral committees have shown readiness to become involved in other policy areas using the opinion procedure and informal consultations. In contrast, the member states acting within the Council think that coherence should first be dealt with in the Commission and secondly in the national capitals and permanent representations. Consequently, coherence procedures that do in theory exist are never applied on the Council’s working party level and there will not be the political will to do so in the near future. Thirdly, empirical research[1] shows the so far patchy picture of coherence procedures in Commission policy-making. This offers a potential that the Commission could tap without having to invest excessive financial and personnel resources.

The past years have seen a Barroso Commission all too often shying away from political conflict among the College of Commissioners. Open discussions on contentious issues which should lie at the heart of the coherence ambition were substituted by a ‘don’t step on each other’s toes’ approach. In addition, clear political guidance from the President and the will to commit the Commissioners to overarching policy goals were lacking. At the same time coherence precepts of the EU treaties such as the demand for Policy Coherence for Development were already available to be promoted in the Commission’s work. The new Commission should now ensure that those agreed cross-cutting political goals are fully supported by its political actors. Policy coherence needs active ‘interference’ also by the Commission President into the work of his College. Controversial meetings at level of the Commissioners and their cabinets and the active engagement of Commissioners into the work of each other are crucial. The new hierarchy of the Juncker Commission with a new level of strong vice-presidents coordinating the work in thematic clusters can be a much needed step in the right direction. In the area of EU external action, the old RELEX group of Commissioners responsible in the field rarely met at all and the former HR/VP Ashton did not show particular interest in becoming involved in the work of her colleagues in the College. The new HR/VP Mogherini has now the opportunity to actively use her role in the Commission by conducting relevant and productive meetings of the External Action Commissioners and better utilising the good working relations between Commission services and the EEAS.

But promoting policy coherence does not stop at the political level. The Commission administration in the Directorate-Generals (DGs) must use their potential to better apply existing procedures for improving policy coherence. The new First Vice-President Timmermans can play a significant role in this regard. Some coherence procedures such as stakeholder consultations already work well in promoting coherence and should be kept and their scope expanded. The application of other procedures should be thoroughly revised. The potentially strong inters-service consultation procedure by which all DGs check the work of the DG in charge of a policy proposal is often a mere ‘tick the box exercise’. Reasons for this are again a lack of will to get engaged into the work of others combined with a lack of knowledge on specific policy items. Encouraging more liaising posts in the DGs with the expertise and explicit task to give substantial input into the sometimes very technical policy formulation of other DGs would remedy this short-coming. Also impact assessments as another potentially strong coherence procedure can be put to better effect by making their underlying coherence guidelines more binding and diversifying the membership of the impact assessment boards.

Combining political will and revised bureaucratic procedures, the incoming Juncker Commission can use the opportunity to provide better support for promoting policy coherence. The EP hearings and the public statement of President-elect Juncker suggest a promising and welcome change towards a more political Commission which can provide new momentum to reach agreed coherence goals.



[1] Stroß, Simon (2014) One goal, many paths. The promotion of Policy Coherence for Development in EU policy formulation. Berlin: Epubli.

Picture source: debatingeurope.eu