Spierenburg Report

As President of the European Commission, Roy Jenkins established an ‘independent review body’ to propose reforms in the internal organisation and functioning of his institution. Headed by Dirk Spierenburg, who had served as a member of the High Authority of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and as Dutch permanent representative to the European Communities, the group comprised Karl Buschmann, a leading German trade unionist, Paul Delouvrier, president of Électricité de France, Giuseppe Petrilli, a former Italian European Commissioner who was then president of IRI, and Dick Taverne, a former Labour minister and independent social democrat MP from the United Kingdom. It met from January to September 1979 and worked in parallel to the ‘Three Wise Men’, who had been asked by the European Council in December 1978 to suggest general improvements in the operation of the European institutions.

The elegantly-written report produced by the Spierenburg group considered that ‘the Commission’s influence, effectiveness and reputation [had] declined’ since the 1960s – for a variety of reasons, sometimes beyond its control – and that significant internal reform was a precondition to restoring its authority. The report criticised the increasing size of the college of Commissioners and the complexity of the Commission administration: the former had increased from nine to 13 Commissioners; the latter had expanded from nine directorates-general (and a small number of horizontal services) to 29 departments of various kinds (divided into 339 units). The result had been a ‘lack of cohesion in the college of Commissioners, an imbalance between portfolios, insufficient coordination between senior officials, a maldistribution of staff between departments, and shortcomings in the career structure’ for civil servants. The prospect of enlargement made these problems more pressing – for example, by further increasing the size of the college of Commissioners from 13 to 17 members.

The report proposed that the number of Commissioners should be reduced to one per member state – a recommendation echoed in the report of the Three Wise Men the following month. The position of the President of the Commission would be enhanced by giving him greater responsibility for overall coordination. The number of directorates-general would fall to ten, with each corresponding directly to the portfolio of a Commissioner, and the multiplicity of units at lower level would be curtailed. There should be greater emphasis on management skills among staff and more opportunity for rapid promotion among the most able.

Unfortunately, these obviously sensible changes fell largely on deaf ears, as a variety of entrenched interests saw them as a threat. As Neill Nugent has written: ‘the large member states did not wish to lose one of “their” two Commissioners; some Commissioners were uneasy about the position of the presidency being over-elevated; Jenkins – who did not have a high regard for some of his fellow Commissioners – did not favour “equalising” Commissioners’ portfolios; and senior Commission officials did not want to see their bureaucratic empires and interests undermined’ (The European Commission, 2001).

Few of the proposals in the Spierenburg Report were implemented and many of the problems it identified simply grew with time, with the operation of the institution becoming increasing dysfunctional. The number of Commissioners was only reduced to one per member state in 2004, a quarter of a century after both Spierenburg and the Three Wise Men had recommended it, by which time there were still 25 members in the college. The number of directorates-general continued to increase and the relationship between Commissioners’ portfolios and the services reporting to them became more complicated. The resignation of the Santer Commission in 1999 eventually forced a reappraisal on this front. Romano Prodi, Santer’s successor as Commission President, chose to consolidate the number of directorates-general, but even then their number was only (temporarily) reduced by three. The ‘Kinnock reforms’ to the Union’s staff regulations, undertaken during the same period, attempted to increase the mobility and professionalism of Commission officials.

September 2012

Copyright: Anthony Teasdale, 2012

Citation: The Penguin Companion to European Union (2012), additional website entry



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