Bart J. Bes is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Political Science at Lund University.
Bart J. Bes is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Political Science at Lund University.

This was the question I dealt with in my dissertation. Concretely, I studied how Commission officials’ institutional role conceptions are affected by politicization. Institutional role conceptions refer to the attitudes Commission officials have towards the role of their institution within EU policy-making with, on the one hand, the ‘supranationalist’ view that the Commission should be the government of the EU and, on the other hand, the ‘state-centric’ view that the Commission should accommodate member states’ interests (Hooghe 2012). Building on a norm-guided open system approach (DiMaggio and Powell 1983; Meyer and Rowan 1977), I contend that for the Commission to perceive itself as legitimate, it is important for its officials to perceive the role of the Commission to be consistent with prominent norms and values in its environment. In particular, I argue that Commission officials are sensitive to the politicization in their home countries (cf. Bes 2016). As politicization comes along with challenges to the Commission’s legitimacy, it may push Commission officials to reconsider their institutional role conceptions so as to legitimize their own organization for themselves. When politicized EU debates demand a more pro-active Commission, officials will adjust their views on the Commission in a more supranationalist direction, whereas when politicized EU debates call for less EU interference, Commission officials will endorse a more state-centric view of the Commission.

So, what did I find? I would like to highlight two findings. First, an explorative case study of Dutch officials shows that, while they respond in different ways to politicization, Commission officials tend to reconsider their institutional role conceptions and nuance them on the basis of concerns over legitimacy and subsidiarity (Bes 2016). Second, a quantitative assessment of the effects of two important elements of politicization on Commission officials’ institutional role conceptions, i.e. Euro scepticism and salience of the EU, presents an unexpected finding. Commission officials from countries in which the EU is salient adopt a more supranationalist view on the Commission in response to Euro scepticism in their home country, while Commission officials from countries in which the EU is not salient adopt a more state-centric view in response to Euro scepticism at home. I explain this result with the work of Antonis Ellinas and Ezra Suleiman (2012). They find that when Commission officials are faced with an adverse environment, they tend to legitimate themselves ‘from within’ by denouncing the Euro scepticism and justifying their authority and existence themselves. Self-legitimation then reinforces supranationalism in the Commission.

To conclude, the Commission does not operate as an ‘ivory tower’ insulated from widespread public and political demands. Commission officials’ attitudes are sensitive to politicization. However, the direction of the attitudinal effect is moderated by EU salience. When the EU is less salient, politicization appears to induce Commission officials to moderate their supranational institutional role conceptions. Concerns about legitimacy and subsidiarity nudge them towards a more pragmatic stance that seeks a middle ground between supranationalist and state-centric views. In times of salient EU debates however, Commission officials tend to disagree with public criticism and actually grow a thicker ‘supranationalist’ skin. To explain this, I argue that politicization heightens the tension between two competing claims of legitimacy: a process-based legitimacy that stems from appropriate democratic input and procedure, and an output-based legitimacy that is rooted in technocratic expertise. This puts Commission officials between a rock and a hard place; should they follow the public’s wishes, irrespective of the output, or should they focus on optimal output and hope the public falls in line? One thing is certain: politicization is not going to go away any time soon. Against this backdrop, Commission officials will have to keep ‘reinventing’ their institutional role conceptions as they struggle to align them with their need for legitimization.


Bart Joachim Bes



Bes, B. J. (2016). Europe’s Executive in Stormy Weather: How Does Politicization Affect Commission Officials’ Attitudes? Comparative European Politics. DOI: 10.1057/s41295-016-0003-8

DiMaggio, P. J., and Powell, W. W. (1983). The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and  Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields. American Sociological Review, 48(2), 147-            160.

Ellinas, A. A., and Suleiman, E. N. (2012). The European Commission and Bureaucratic Autonomy.   Europe’s Custodians. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hooghe, L. (2012). Images of Europe: How Commission Officials Conceive Their Institution’s Role.   Journal of Common Market Studies, 50(1), 87–111.

Meyer, J. W., and Rowan, B. (1977). Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structure as Myth and  Ceremony. American Journal of Sociology, 83(2), 340–363.