Managing Inter-institutional Conflict

AuthorMartin Westlake
PositionDirector of Consultative Work in the European Economic and Social Commitee

    A first version of this paper was delivered at the Conference on Institutional Cooperation and Conflict in the European Union organised by the Robert Schuman Centre at the European University Institute, Florence, 1-3 April 2007. The views expressed in this article are those of the author only.

Page 305

@1. Executive summary

1. In its strongest sense, the word “conflict” implies a fight or a struggle. In its weaker sense, the word means simply a disagreement. This article will argue that inter-institutional conflicts – in the stronger sense of the word – are rare, and becoming rarer. It will argue, secondly, that most inter-institutional conflict has been institutionalised, or stylised, that various mechanisms and process have evolved, or been developed, to achieve this end, and that such cooperation is likely to continue. The article will further argue that, whilst such structured consensualism is, and has been, a “good thing” for the integration process and for the institutions within it, it has nevertheless come at a price.

@2. Major conflicts are rare and becoming rarer

2. It has elsewhere been argued that inter-institutional relations can be likened a little to tectonic plate theory1. Prior to 1979, inter-institutional relations were classically described as being essentially bi-polar; “the Commission proposes, the Council disposes”, as it was sometimes put. But after June 1979, a new Continent came into being – the directly-elected European Parliament, and one that was growing. All along the edges of this new Continent there was seismological activity: an earthquake here, a budget rejected there2; a volcano here,Page 306 an Isoglucose Court ruling and a consultation procedure there3, and so on. In some places, the tectonic plates rubbed endlessly together so that there were constant tremors and some occasional volcanic activity – the seemingly never-ending debate about the Parliament’s role with regard to implementing powers (“comitology”, in the jargon) is a good example of this phenomenon.

However, as the European Parliament’s constitutional “shopping list” grew shorter, so the seismological and volcanic activity diminished in frequency and in intensity. For example:

- the consultation procedure gave rise to the cooperation procedure which gave rise to the co-decision procedure4;

- what had formerly been quests for fundamental principles gave way increasingly to arguments about degree and scope (for example, there is a difference between establishing the principle of an assent power for the European Parliament and establishing where and on which issues the Parliament should be able to exercise such a power and, once Jacques Delors became complicit with the Parliament’s call for a say in the appointment of the Commission and its President, the carpet of exclusive government power was slowly but surely rolled back).

@3. The institutionalisation of conflicts

3. Today, most conflicts are institutionalised or, at the least, stylised, and various mechanisms and processes have evolved or been developed to this end. Indeed, inter-institutional cooperation – legislative and budgetary – is a distinguishing aspect in all of the European Union’s major policy areas, frequently consolidated by an inter-institutional agreement of some sort5. Only the Union’s foreign policy could be described as being a source of “major” conflict, and even here the conflict is stylised.

The question arises: why has conflict become institutionalised in this way? A first explanation is that the institutions learnt collectively and individually that such institutionalisation was in their interest. This was perhaps most evident in the case of the European Parliament. In the budgetary field, for example, the Parliament quite rapidly abandoned the bludgeon of rejecting the budget in favour of the rapiers of inter-institutional agreements, reserves, amendments toPage 307 the comments on the line, and so on. But the other institutions saw the interest of this more peaceful approach as well. For a start, conflicts create a bad impression; it is never a good idea to wash dirty laundry in public. Also, through cooperation and negotiated settlements litigation can be avoided; as the European Parliament learnt to its cost, courts do not decide in your favour simply because you are convinced of your case6.

Arguably, though, the Parliament had most to gain from institutionalised conflict. It very rapidly recognised a sort of ineluctable law which could be described as follows: “In any institutionalised agreement, the European Parliament will gain less than it wanted but more than its interlocuteurs wanted to give”. It is, in great part, the workings of this law that have led to such a proliferation of mechanisms designed to ensure inter-institutional cooperation: inter-institutional agreements; framework agreements; trilogues; codes of conduct; exchanges of letters; memoranda of understanding.

To these should be added a host of informal mechanisms and processes. In the legislative sphere, for example, first-reading agreements in the co-decision procedure are increasingly frequent, and these are mostly brokered between the presidency-in-office of the Council and the Parliament’s rapporteur. It is only when a potential deal has been identified that the formal process becomes visible. A vast web of inter-personal contacts and relationships has spread over and between the Union’s institutions and these contacts frequently encourage and nurture inter-institutional consensus.

There are also mechanisms and processes midway between the formal and the informal. For example, the Secretaries-General of the Union’s institutions meet on a fairly regular and formal basis to discuss matters of common concern, but they also meet at an informal level7. Sometimes they are charged with specific tasks. For example, in the context of the current Framework Agreement between the European Parliament and the European Commission: “The negotiations between the European Parliament and the Commission of the final text of the Framework Agreement were carried out by Julian Priestley, Secretary-General of the European Parliament and David O’Sullivan, Secretary-General of the European Commission. Priestley was in close contact with the Secretaries-General of the political groups in Parliament and reported back on what he did to the Conference of Presidents. Negotiations on the final text were thus carried out in the first place by technocrats, with those politically responsible, such as the Commissioner for institutional relations and communication strategy, Margot Wallström, on the Commission’s side and the Conference of Presidents on the Parliament’s side, in the background”8.

Page 308

This article has tended to concentrate on the European Parliament because it is the Parliament, as the new Continent in formation, which is most frequently identified as the source of change and friction, of being the militant, the revolutionary, the encroacher. But precisely because of those perceptions, the other institutions have seen the advantage of tying themselves into agreements and procedures. It could be described as the “Lilliputian approach”. The Lilliputians, it should be recalled, were a race of six-inch tall people who, in Jonathan Swift’s famous satirical novel, Gulliver’s Travels, tie a giant Gulliver down with hundreds of tiny threads. In...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT