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Political Research Exchange - PRX

EU Agenda-Setting Beyond the European Commission

Civil Society
European Politics
European Union
Interest Groups

Workshop Chair
Markus Haverland
Department of Public Administration, Erasmus University Rotterdam
Workshop Discussants
Petya Alexandrova
University of Oxford
Marcello Carammia
University of Malta
Sebastiaan Princen
University of Utrecht
Diane Fromage
Maastricht Universiteit

EU Agenda-setting beyond the European Commission

Applicants (alphabetically):
• Markus Haverland, Erasmus University, Rotterdam
• Amie Kreppel, University of Florida
• Sebastiaan Princen, Utrecht University

Supported by the ECPR Standing Group on the European Union (contact Amy Verdun,

February 2015


This application concerns a publishing project that focus on EU agenda setting taking issue with the alleged importance of the European Commission as the agenda setter. A special issue proposal will have been submitted to the Journal of European Public Policy in May. Initial concepts or drafts of papers will have been discussed at a preliminary workshop under the auspices of the Jean Monnet Center of Excellence at the University of Florida in March 13-14, 2015.This second meeting will serve to discuss the revised versions of the papers and to work towards the synthesis of the results to create a more holistic shared research project. This effort will include ensuring that all contributions are linked through a shared focus on the core theme of the changing character of agenda setting in the EU. Potential redundancies and lacunae, and the development of a future research agenda for an extended concluding chapter.


The traditional view of agenda-setting in the European Union (EU) posits the Commission as the primary ‘engine of European integration’(e.g. Hartlapp et al. 2014: 1-2; Sandholtz and Zysman 1989; cf. Pollack 1997: 124). This understanding has been founded largely on the supranational character of the Commission combined with its unquestionable formal authority to initiate the legislative process within the historical ‘first pillar’ and now under the ordinary legislative procedure (OLP). Despite the continuation of this formal monopoly, the centrality of the Commission in EU agenda-setting has been gradually undermined as a result of formal and informal changes to the policy making process in the EU. In part these changes reflect the institutional changes that have resulted from successive treaty revisions, including, for example, the significantly increased political influence of the European Parliament (EP) (Tsebelis 1994; Tsebelis and Garrett 1996, Tsebelis and Kreppel 1998) – even beyond the technical changes to its legislative powers - the expanding policy role of the European Council (De Schoutheete 2012; Foret and Rittelmeyer 2014; Tallberg 2003; 2008) and the empowerment of national legislators (Cooper 2012). Other, less formal, aspects of the evolution of the EU political system over the past two decades have also increased the diversity of the actors engaged in the EU agenda-setting process (Daviter 2007; Princen 2007; 2011). Expanded efforts to increase the participation of citizens, grass root actors, and (other) stakeholders have opened new pathways to indirect agenda influence for non-institutional actors. This expanded agenda-setting landscape has significant implications for both the character and content of policy initiatives and the democratic legitimacy of the EU as a whole.

Research question and main guiding hypothesis

We argue that the abovementioned developments demand a comprehensive reexamination of the changing character of EU agenda-setting by focusing on the (inter)relationships between important institutions and other political actors in the EU. In doing so, our research group seeks to reconceptualize the roles played by those various institutions and actors, and thereby reassess the relative role played by the European Commission in EU agenda-setting processes. To what extent is the Commission still central in agenda-setting processes and under what conditions are other institutions and actors able to shape the EU’s agenda?

Methodology and data

The research group seeks to answer these question through the combination of a careful theoretical (re)formulation of the concept of agenda-setting within the EU context and a set of rigorous empirical analyses of effective agenda-setting influence by core EU institutions, such as the European Commission, the European Parliament; the European Council; national legislatures, and non-institutional actors such as citizens (through public opinion) and interest groups. Each of these empirical studies does not look at one institution or (type of) actor in isolation, but always studies its activities in relation to other institutions and actors, most notably the European Commission. In this way, the agenda-setting dynamics between institutions and actors and the way they influence each other in setting the agenda is revealed. This, then, allows us to formulate novel insights about the relative importance of these institutions and actors in the process of EU agenda-setting.

Both large N approaches and case study approaches are included to fully investigate the changing character of EU agenda-setting in the political and institutional spheres. The contributions balance the traditional tendency to focus on formal rules and core institutions such as the EP, Commission and European Council with innovative analyses of alternative informal sources of indirect agenda-setting such as public opinion, interest groups, as well as new actors in the policy process post Lisbon such as member state legislatures.

Original and innovative contribution of the project

The comprehensive coverage of EU agenda-setting sets it apart from existing work on the topic. Though much has been written about the potential decline in the central agenda-setting role of the Commission despite its formal powers, and about the ability of other actors to impact the EU agenda, most of this research is narrow in scope both empirically and thematically. The goal of this research group is to knit these diverse strands in the literature together to develop a more inclusive understanding of EU agenda-setting based on theoretically informed and rigorous empirical research. To this end, the projects include a number of new large N datasets, which represent a unique contribution to the current literature on agenda-setting in the EU. The combination of these new empirical contributions with a number of focused case studies and a unifying theoretical framework that integrates the various empirical chapters ensure the cohesion and unique value added of the combined project.

Examples of sub-projects (papers)

Actors and Interactions in EU Agenda-Setting
Sebastiaan Princen (University of Utrecht)
Petya Alexandrova (University of Hannover)

The question of which actors play the most important role in agenda-setting processes has eluded most of the agenda-setting literature. Although relevant from both academic and political perspectives, scholars have found it difficult to come up with generalizations about actors and their influence in agenda-setting. In response to these difficulties, two approaches have been taken. On the one hand, a range of studies have focused on the role of one specific (type of) actor in agenda-setting, without weighing this role against that of other (types of) actors. On the other hand, several theoretical approaches, including Kingdon’s multiple stream approach and the punctuated equilibrium theory, have effectively side-lined the actor question by focusing on the dynamics of agenda-setting, regardless of the specific (types of) actors involved. In this article, we take up the question of which actors are most important in EU agenda-setting processes and what interactions occur between them. Building on Cobb, Ross and Ross’ (1976) typology, we identify a number of different types of agenda-setting processes in the EU, each with an associated set of actors that are involved and a specific dynamic in terms of actor involvement over time. We also link the actor perspective to key notions of policy agendas, such as issues, venues and frames, in order to develop a systemic approach to the study of agenda-setting in the EU context. This allows us to come to more general propositions for specific types of agenda-setting processes in the EU about (1) the relative importance of different types of actors and (2) the patterns of interaction between them.

The (Limited) Agenda-setting power of the Commission
Amie Kreppel (University of Florida/VUB)
Buket Oztas (University of Florida)

The role of the Commission as the ‘engine of integration’ within the EU highlights the key formal role the Commission has in introducing legislative proposals. This formal capacity has led to the assumption that the Commission is the political agenda setter of the EU as well. While there is substantial anecdotal evidence of this, there are few large-N empirical analyses of the Commission’s effective agenda power. This research gathers empirical data on the Commission’s legislative priorities and the final legislative outcomes in the EU between 2000 and 2012 to determine the extent to which the Commission is both a formal and a substantive agenda setter. Our data set tracks the success of over 2,000 Commission legislative priorities comparing them against the significantly higher number of total EU legislative initiatives adopted during the time period analysed. Our analysis calls into question the actual agenda-setting power of the Commission and attempts to define its limits through an examination of both overall quantitative trends and variations across policy areas (using the comparative agenda-setting project categories). This research suggests that while the Commission does play an important political role, as well as its formal role, it is also highly constrained with a large number of its stated policy priorities never being adopted. The lack of success is unlikely to be due to functional capacity as many bills are adopted each year that are not Commission priorities. Instead we find substantial variations in Commission success across policy arenas and types. Our research suggests that the role of Commission as the central EU agenda setter needs to be re-evaluated. In particular, the ability of the Commission to effectively act as political agenda setter across different policy arenas and types of policies (regulatory versus distributive) merits additional scrutiny.

The agenda-setting role of national parliaments in the EU: still marginal?
Cristina Fasone (EUI)
Diane Fromage (EUI/Pompeu Fabra University, Barcelona)

The role of national parliaments in the EU decision-making has been generally considered marginal and their influence as only indirect, through national executives. The Treaty of Lisbon, however, appears to have at least partially changed this landscape, triggering significant reforms at domestic level. The very limited powers of national parliaments as agenda setters in the EU have been enhanced through the early warning mechanism, and even more so by means of the Political Dialogue. This Dialogue, launched in 2006, and was promoted by the European Commission to complement the policing role of parliaments as ‘subsidiarity gatekeepers’. Indeed, compared to the early warning mechanism -whereby national parliaments try to withdraw certain issues from the EU agenda -, the Political Dialogue can be seen as a more cooperative and proactive tool. Moreover, as a consequence of the direct transmission of EU documents by European institutions, national parliaments have tended to become more proactive in EU affairs in general and have started to scrutinize the Commission Annual Work Programme and the Programme of the Council presidency. For instance, they have attempted to improve coordination among each other on these bases and have sent their opinions to the Commission. Furthermore, there seems to be a trend to try to influence the Commission’s agenda at an earlier stage.

In addition to this direct attempt to influence the policy agenda of the EU, which in turn is affected by the weight of the Commission as an agenda setter, national parliaments, even in Member States traditionally seen as having weak form of parliamentary scrutiny on EU affairs, appear to have developed stronger abilities to control the agenda-setting process in the Council and in the European Council via their governments. By focusing on two case studies, France and Italy, the paper analyzes whether the changes brought about by the Treaty of Lisbon at the domestic and European levels have transformed national parliaments’ traditional role, as weak agendasetters in the EU.

Agenda-setting by the Commission: The role of public opinion
Markus Haverland (Erasmus University Rotterdam)
Minou de Ruiter (University of Utrecht)
Steven van de Walle (Erasmus University Rotterdam)

Traditionally the European Commission has largely relied on experts for agenda-setting and policy formulation. Against the background of the end of the permissive consensus, this depoliticized route may give way for an increasing reliance on public opinion. Special Eurobarometers seem ideally suited for this. Such a survey consists of face-to-face interviews with about 25.000 EU citizens (random samples in each of the member states) about specific policy topics and is typically requested by a Directorate General of the Commission (DG). If a large majority of ‘European’ citizens wants the EU to act on a specific policy topic or support the Commission’s solution to a policy problem that should make for a powerful resource for the Commission for agenda-setting. Yet, if a majority would not be in line with the Commission, this may seriously undermine the Commission’s influence. Therefore, a pertinent question is on what topics Special Eurobarometers are actually requested and on what they are not. To this end the paper presents the first systematic mapping of the 400 Special Eurobarometers that have been conducted so far. Using the EU Policy Agendas Codebook, the paper charts the topics and ‘non-topics’of surveys. It also maps the number of surveys over time and across DG’s, and contrasts this with the density of expert committees attached to each DG and with the distribution of EU competencies. Hence we demonstrate whether the Commission has increasingly invited public opinion, on what topics the Commission looks for public opinion and on which topics it does not; which DG’s are active public opinion seekers and which are not, whether those DG’s who ask more expert input also seek most public opinion, and whether the request for public opinion predates or follows policy competencies of the Commission

Research steps, milestones, publication plan

This idea to develop this research group emerged during the 7th Pan-European Conference of the ECPR Standing Group of the European Union Conference at The Hague (2014), when participants at two panels realized that they shared common ground in terms of research interests and approaches and were already working on strongly related individual projects. The group was then extended to include several additional researchers working within the same broad theme, with a view to developing a special issue for a leading EU studies journal. A first draft was submitted to the Journal of European Public Policy (JEPP) last Autumn. The journal editors informed us that our draft was on a “very exciting topic, very well drafted, coherent and integrated”. They underscored the value of the proposed group research project, and encouraged us to develop a more comprehensive and coherent special issue proposal. This proposal will be submitted in May 2015.

Before then, draft papers of contributors to the special issue proposal will have been discussed in a workshop under the auspices of the Jean Monnet Center of Excellence at the University of Florida in March 2015

The meeting in Nijmegen would serve to discuss the revised paper with a core group of authors from the special issue. Additional participants could be involved through Skype. The session will also serve to draw up the introductory article and the comprehensive concluding article that also aims at developing a new research agenda beyond the special issue/book. Should the special issue proposal not be accepted, we will head either for another peer reviewed leading journal of for a book publication at the ECPR series.

After the session a final round of comments/revisions by e-mail/skype should suffice to have a high level, innovative and coherent set of papers that will leave its mark on the discipline either as special issue or as book.

Participants at the workshop

These six scholars have agreed to Nijmegen. Additional scholars are participating in the broader research project and have expressed an interest in also attending these sessions. We have placed these individuals on a ‘waiting list’. This will ensure that we will have indeed six scholars at Nijmegen, making the most of our research session.

Petya Alexandrova is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Institute of Political Sciences, Leibniz University Hannover

Marcello Carammia is a Senior Lecturer at the Institute for European Studies, University of Malta

Cristina Fasone is Max Weber Postdoctoral Fellow in Law, at the European University Institute (Florence) and Coordinator of the Project on 'Constitutional Change Through Euro-Crisis Law, at the EUI Law Department.

Markus Haverland is Full Professor of Political Science at Erasmus University Rotterdam and Fellow at the Montesquieu Institute, The Hague

Amie Kreppel is an Associate Professor in Political Science as well as Jean Monnet Chair and Director of the Jean Monnet Center of Excellence at the University of Florida and also currently affiliated with the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB)

Sebastiaan Princen is Full Professor of Governance and Policymaking in the European Union, Utrecht University


Cooper, Ian (2012) ‘A “Virtual Third Chamber” for the European Union? National Parliaments after the Treaty of Lisbon’, West European Politics, 35(3): 441-465.

Daviter, Falk (2007) ‘Policy Framing in the European Union’, Journal of European Public Policy, 14 (4): 654-666

De Schoutheete, Philippe (2012) ‘The European Council’. In John Peterson and Michael Shackleton (eds) The Institutions of the European Union. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 37–59.

Foret, François, and Yann-Sven Rittelmeyer (2014) (eds) The European Council and European Governance: The Commanding Heights of the EU. New York: Routledge.

Hartlapp, Miriam, Julia Metz and Christian Rauh (2014) Which Policy for Europe? Power and Conflict inside the European Commission, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pollack, Mark A. (1997) ‘Delegation, Agency and Agenda Setting in the European Community’, International Organization, 51(1): 99-134.

Princen, Sebastiaan (2007) ‘Agenda-setting in the European Union: A Theoretical Exploration and Agenda for Research’, Journal of European Public Policy, 14(1): 21-38.

Princen, Sebastiaan (2011) ‘Agenda-setting Strategies in EU Policy Processes’, Journal of European Public Policy, 18(7): 927-943.

Sandholtz, Wayne, and John Zysman (1989) ‘1992: Recasting the European Bargain’, World Politics, 42(1): 95-128.

Tallberg, Jonas (2003) ‘The Agenda-Shaping Powers of the EU Council Presidency’, Journal of European Public Policy, 10 (1), 1-19

Tallberg, Jonas (2008) ‘Bargaining Power in the European Council.’ Journal of Common Market Studies, 46(3): 685-708.

Tsebelis, George (1994) ‘The Power of the European Parliament as a Conditional Agenda Setter’, American Political Science Review, 88(1): 128-142.

Tsebelis, George, and Geoffrey Garrett (1996) ‘Agenda Setting Power, Power Indices, and Decision Making in the European Union’, International Review of Law and Economics, 16: 345-361.

Tsebelis, George and Amie Kreppel (1998) ‘The History of Conditional Agenda Setting in the European Union’, European Journal of Political Research, 33: 41-71

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