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Comitology in academia and practice: Lack of attention and new developments

Recently I talked with a Brussels-based consultant after the occasional sport we happen to do together, and I told him about my current EU policy research. His answer: All you need to know is Comitology.

Now while I doubt that this is fully true, there is probably some truth in it – and looking into the Comitology register I found some (though not a lot) of interesting insights for my current research that I had ignored so far although I knew that Comitology plays an important role in some regards.

Comitology is rarely in the focus of attention and outside the circle of those deeply involved with EU matters (mainly administrators, lobbyists, and academics) there’s probably not even an awareness of the existence of the system of 200-300 committees (for source see below) in which member states’ representatives steer and supervise the way the European Commission implements the details of EU legislation.

To be honest, I’m also no expert on Comitology but I don’t need to be since others are, as you can see below.

In the current issue of the Journal of European Public Policy (JEPP), an influential scholarly journal, Jens Blom-Hansen is “Taking stock before the new Lisbon regime” on EU comitology (full article behind paywall). In 2008, he had already written “The EU Comitology System: Who guards the guardian?” (accessible). In the JEPP article, he is summarising what we know about the old Comitology before the system now is changed under the Lisbon Treaty.

His conclusions:

The comitology system is still to a large extent a white spot on the EU map. Many aspects of the system remain under-researched, and there is a glaring imbalance between the impressive amount of research into ordinary EU legislative decision-making and the limited research into executive EU rule-making by the comitology method.

Why it may by problematic that Comitology is a “white spot” – i.e. given its relative importance in the EU system – is almost hidden in the article: Blom-Hansen, using a rough guess with the help of Eur-Lex concludes that 69% of secondary legislation in the EU are issued by the Commission and a figure from the fascinating dissertation thesis “Backstage Europe. Comitology, Accountability and Democracy in the European Union” (PDF) by Gijs Jan Brandsma that about 60% of Commission legislation passes through Comitology.

Taking these two figures together, one could conclude that about 40% of the EU’s secondary legislation passes through the Comitology system. For the period of 2004-2008, Brandsma estimates that 45-50% of all secondary legislation passed through Comitology.

Now one could enter into a debate on quantity and quality and the guestimations may not be fully accurate, but nevertheless one can see that although ignored and although probably regarded as an EU expert topic, Comitology is an important part of the institutional setting of the European Union.

It is therefore not surprising that Blom-Hansen also finds that the three main EU institutions – Commission, Parliament, and Council – fight over the exact functioning of Comitology.

One line from the JEPP article is particularly nice, because it also represents how I often see EU politics:

The institutions are not so much worried about organizational efficiency as about obtaining positions of institutional control.

Comitology is thus seen as yet another battlefield over who is in charge at the EU level. And the battle continues now that the Lisbon Treaty with its new provisions on delegated acts (Article 290 TFEU) which are to be dealt with by the Commission’s expert groups according to what I’ve recently heard from the responsible Commission administrators and implementing acts (Article 291 TFEU) which will remain in Comitology committees.

Looking at the more recent developments, one can see a weakness of scholarly publication rhythms: Although the JEPP article by Blom-Hansen has been published online on 24 May, it is much older than that and it can’t report newest developments on how the future system will actually look like.

For recent developments, blogging and conference publications are much more appropriate. On 28 February, political scientist Vihar Georgiev blogged: “The New Comitology System is Published“, linking the new rules of the system and also his conference paper “Commission on the Loose? Delegated Lawmaking and Comitology after Lisbon” that was presented in early May in Boston.

He concludes:

[T]he Commission will only enjoy limited discretion in the adoption of delegated acts, staying in the shadow of the legislators’ activism. The new comitology regime has excluded the Council and has added a new layer of complexity to the examination procedure. As a whole the Commission has strengthened its hold on the substance of the implementing acts sensu stricto at the supranational level

Thus, through the proxy of Comitology, the battle continues over power in the EU, and the battle over how to interpret it continues in academia. Both will happen mostly ignored by media and citizens, no matter how important the outcome may be.

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