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«By Dr Guenther F. Schaefer*, EIPA 1984-2003 Schaefer C ommittees are an essential part of the effective functioning of modern governance. They are ...»

Demystifying Comitology

By Dr Guenther F. Schaefer*, EIPA 1984-2003



ommittees are an essential part of the effective functioning of modern

governance. They are particularly characteristic of contemporary forms

of multilevel government systems, though they are also widespread in

centralised unitary systems. The distinguished British political philosopher Ken

Wheare succinctly argued in his Government by Committee: An Essay on the

British Constitution that crucial decisions are developed and prepared for decision by various types of committees. In multilevel systems, their central function is to link the different levels of government at all stages of the policy process. The Member States that drafted and signed the Treaties – the “masters” of European integration – have a justified interest in influencing and shaping European policy. They do this in all stages of the political process by participating in a great variety of committees.

There are probably more than a thousand of these committees known by many different names, and even those that share a common name may be performing quite different tasks. It has become widely accepted to distinguish committees according to the function they perform in the policy process. Usually the concept of the policy cycle is used to differentiate between major phases of the policy process, namely policy development, policy decision, and policy implementation and application.

Upstream in the policy process of the European Community, when ideas for new laws, regulations and/or programmes are conceptualised, discussed, written down and eventually proposed to the legislator for action or decision, committees (usually referred to as expert groups) support the Commission in performing its central task of policy initiation and development. Relative to the varied tasks and their volume, the Commission is a relatively small organisation.

Fewer than 10,000 A-level officials draft some 600-700 proposals for legal acts and programmes to be submitted to the legislator (Council and Parliament) annually. They also draft 6000-7000 Commission decisions and regulations and manage several hundred programmes in research and development, regional development, and the social and educational field. In addition, they have the responsibility to prepare, chair and keep the minutes of about 20 committee meetings every day and to participate in about 10 working parties in Council as well as in several meetings of committees in the European Parliament where they have to defend their proposals. The Commission cannot possibly have the full spectrum of expertise required to draft all these proposals.

For this reason, the Commission seeks the help of experts from the Member State administrations, universities and research centres, and from private and public sector interest groups.

It is up to the Commission to structure and organise this advice. If it primarily needs a general picture on a specific issue, it may hold public hearings or call for an expression of opinion on the Internet. If the matter at hand is rather complex and/or of a highly technical nature, and if strong interests are

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the standing Committees, the chairpersons and the rapporteurs.

In Council it is the working parties that carry the major burden of preparing measures proposed by the Commission for decisions to be taken by the ministers. Representatives from the Member State administrations carefully examine proposals from the Commission, article by article, and often sentence by sentence, in an effort to find solutions to complex technical problems and to reconcile conflicting national positions. It is up to the Member State government to decide who should represent it in a particular working party. Usually it is one or several civil servants from the ministry or ministries that are concerned with the substance of the legislative proposal, often accompanied by a staff member of the Member State’s permanent representation in Brussels. Quite frequently – and not only in the case of small Member States – the same persons who participated in expert groups to help the Commission to draft the proposal will meet here again. They have to play different roles in this context: in the expert groups, the Member State officials could argue their personal point of view and take positions on the basis of their own expertise in and knowledge of the subject matter. In the working parties, they come with instructions: their governments have taken a position and adopted a strategy to be followed, usually the result of an interministerial compromise. The Commission also participates in the working party, usually represented by civil servants from the division or Directorate-General that has prepared the proposal. Council working parties are chaired by a representative of the Member State that holds the Presidency, as is the case with all other formations of the Council.

The Presidency is the driving force for action in the working parties, as it is on all other levels of the Council. During its six-month Presidency, a country has the responsibility to find common ground, propose a compromise and to move the dossier ahead. It is the Presidency that determines the agenda, sets the dates of meetings and leads the discussions.

During any given Presidency, at least 200-250 working parties are active.

Some of them may form subgroups or task forces to deal with particularly difficult or highly technical aspects of a proposed legal act or programme.

Usually 300-400 groups are active during the half-year period of a Presidency.

Their work is then passed on to COREPER, which submits the proposal to a meeting of the ministers. Managing the business of the Council – particularly Committee room in the Albert Borschette Centre, Brussels.

© European Community, 2006 coordinating the work of some 300 working parties and groups, channelling it through the two formations of COREPER and into nine different, subject matter specific groups of ministers – is a formidable challenge for the Presidency. The General Secretariat of the Council provides wide-ranging logistical support for the Presidency, which is particularly important for smaller Member States when it is their term to assume the Presidency.

Council working parties and committees provide a second major arena for horizontal and vertical cooperation between officials from the Member States and the European institutions. Participants in meetings often represent their government for a considerable period of time, leading to the development of a European esprit de corps. Member State representatives have to make every conceivable effort to get their country’s position accepted – yet they are often equally committed to reach a compromise and will strongly argue for the acceptance of a possible compromise by their own national government. In a certain way, they are at the same time advocates of national interest in Brussels and of a European compromise in their respective capitals.

In the policy implementation phase, when decisions of the legislator are applied, another type of committee plays the central role. These committees are generally referred to as comitology committees. In the European Community system of governance, implementation and application of Community law is primarily the responsibility of the administrations of the Member States. The directives and regulations adopted by the European Parliament and the Council are general framework laws that need specification in order that officials in Member State administrations can apply the general rules to specific cases. In national governments this is done through government regulations adopted by the executive on the basis of a legal act of the legislature. On the EU level, the legislator similarly delegates the competence to pass these implementation rules

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from the electorate; and comitology committees strengthen coordination and cooperation in policy implementation. All committees reinforce and support vertical and horizontal integration in the Community. In expert groups, comitology committees and working parties, the actors are representatives of the Member States and of the European level, while in Parliament, representatives of civil society are included.

The committee system has evolved naturally over time. It was not designed and elaborated in the Treaties but developed in response to a need, that is, the need to cooperate and coordinate policy between the major institutional actors and to link the European to the Member State level in policy development, decision and implementation. Work in all types of committees is consensual.

Most participants are committed to searching for common grounds and to developing compromises that could be acceptable to all concerned.

In expert groups, Council working parties and comitology committees, it is primarily officials of Member State administrations that work together in gathering advice, pooling expertise and preparing policy decisions. It is precisely this target group at which many of the activities of EIPA are directed. EIPA faculty realised during seminars and training programmes for civil servants of the Member States, and particularly the candidate Member States that joined the Union in 1995, that knowledge and understanding of the committee system and the role that Member State officials play in it was rather limited. Even those that were participating in a committee often had difficulty in placing their participation in the broader institutional context of European policy-making and implementation. Moreover, scientific interest in the topic was similarly limited.

Political scientists and legal experts have been more interested in such traditional issues as the institutional development and the evolving balance between the institutions, the role of the European Parliament and the problem of democratic control of the policy process. It was decided to survey existing knowledge and ongoing research on the topic and to develop training activities that would pass this knowledge to civil servants of the Member States.

The first step was to organise a meeting at EIPA for a small number of researchers and expert practitioners from Community institutions. This meeting – which was co-sponsored by the European Centre for Public Affairs, Templeton College, Oxford – brought together three teams that were engaged in work on the committee system. An effort was made to assess the state of the art and to discuss possible avenues for further research and cooperation. The proceedings were published by EIPA. This little book found a very positive resonance among the academic community and the administrations of the governments of the Member States as well as the Community institutions.

Parallel to this theoretical work, EIPA invested a good deal of resources to develop training activities designed to help Member State officials to become more competent in their participation in the Community committee system. As it is estimated that as many as 30,000-40,000 officials are involved in all aspects of the Community committee system, EIPA management and faculty were convinced that a training seminar stressing both the theoretical and the practical aspects of the committee system would be well received. A small team developed the content and training material as well as several simulations that would illustrate how work in different committees proceeds and how representatives of the Member States could play a constructive role by contributing to reaching a consensus that most or all Member States could accept while still serving the interests of their country. The three-day “comitology” seminar was indeed widely accepted in the “old” Member States and particularly by those countries that had joined the EU in 1995 or 2004.

While doing this work, the “comitology team” increasingly realised that there were still big gaps in our knowledge about the functioning of the committee system. Strengthened by groups from France, Germany and the UK, a proposal for a joint empirical research project was submitted to the Commission for financial support in the context of the 5th Framework Programme. The support was granted and the team, parallel to its training activities, thus contributed to general knowledge about comitology.

Since my retirement in 2003, EIPA’s training activities and research projects

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