Who holds the most power in the European Union? In states like the USA or France, this question is fairly easy to answer. It’s normally the head of state. So unless you believe in conspiracy theories, your answer would be Joe Biden or Macron. The European Union does not have a president. Moreover, while the structures show a lot of similarities with that of a state, the European Union is so distinctive that any comparison falls short. Here I would like to say something about what makes someone powerful in the Union, and then answer the question of who truly holds power in the European Union.
Limits of Power
To understand where power lies in the EU, first one must understand how the various power players and institutions are constrained. The fact that the Union does not have a chosen government creates an instant dilemma for those governing it. The European Commission cannot really on a coalition in either the European Parliament or the Council. This impedes directly their ability to make power moves. Secondly, the European Commission lacks the budgetary arsenal that governments normally dispose of. In fact, as the budget is fixed for seven years, most of the time the European Commission is implementing the budgetary decisions of the previous Commission. Simply put, it can’t throw money at problems to make them go away. The Council has its own problems. First of all the Council consists of 27 member states. To make a common position is an arduous process, whereby the outcome often represents a compromise. No member state in itself yields enough power in the council to push an agenda through. So on a case-by-case basis, a coalition needs to be formed. Apart from that, the presidency of the EU changes every six months (it’s Slovenia now), making sure no country can dominate the agenda for long. But there are two elements that offset the power of the Council and its individual member states. First, they usually deal with a legal text only after the European Commission presents it. But a proposal usually takes a good 1,5 years to make before it is presented. Sure, the countries give input through formal and informal consultation, but the devil is in the detail. Secondly, every member state has capacity problems when it comes to monitoring and influencing legislation. It’s simply a lot for any country to handle. The European Parliament and its 751 members face similar problems. They are not involved in the making of the law until it reaches when the European Commission proposes it. They can of course give input through their own initiative reports, but it is the Commission that decides. For individual Members of the European Parliament, it is very difficult to exert leverage because they have to get enough votes both in their committees and plenary, and that’s before they face the Council. Just like the Council, the European Parliament has capacity issues, but I think they are even more shorthanded as they don’t have whole ministries (like member states in the Council) or DG’s (like the European Commission) upon which they can rely on.
In order to yield power in the European Union, you need to tick at least three boxes. First, you need to oversee the whole process. This means both in time as well as on the different institutional levels. Most of us learn that the EU political game starts when the European Commission proposes a law. Because that’s when co-decision starts. However, pre-empting the political process is a period of 1,5 years when the impact assessment is made. And then there is the actual drafting of the law and the inter consultation process, (the inner procedure of drafting a law by the European Commission). Apart from the ordinary legislative process (or co-decision) it also helps if you oversee the inner process of the Council and Parliament. Finally, even when a law is finally there, there is still the implementation, either directly or indirectly through delegated and implementing acts, before Lisbon it was called comitology. Secondly, what I hope becomes apparent from the above paragraph is that you need to understand procedures. This holds true also for national politics but is even more so in the European Union. Because there is no classical political structure a lot of political friction is channeled through procedures. Trying to make power moves in Brussels without knowing procedures is utterly futile. That’s why nerds (like me) tend to rule Brussels. Finally, you need to have a strong network. Like in every other capital, access is everything. This is especially important in Brussels, where the informal decision-making procedures are just as important as the formal ones.
And the winner is
In my humble opinion, the player that holds the most power in the EU are the civil servants of the European Commission. They tick all the boxes and have more staying power than their own Commissionaires. Commission civil servants oversee the whole process, and indeed are welcome invitees at discussions of the European Parliament and the Council. Their knowledge of procedures is unparalleled and so is their network. A good runner-up is are the army of lobbyists. And a special mention is of course to the Superlobbyist, the lobbyist that does all things well. Similar to the commission civil servant they oversee the process, have a good understanding of all the procedures and rely on strong networks. Their drawback is that they are forever operating from the outside. But how about diplomats and members of the European Parliament? Their position in the power-food change largely depends on their drive, knowledge and engagement. Individual diplomats or MEP’s can get a lot done, but it really depends on the individual. This analysis of course does not hold true for each law or file. Some lobbyists are hobbyists and sometimes a process is driven by a country for which a file is imported. But I hope it gives a feel on the sources of power, and the players that tap into them.