Decision-making in a complex environment: a sociological institutionalist analysis of competition policy decision-making in the european commission

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Journal of European Public Policy 9:2 April 2002: 219–237

Decision-making in a complex environment: a sociological institutionalist analysis of competition policy decision-making in the European Commission
Johan From

ABSTRACT Although the last decade has seen a large number of studies of the European Commission from institutionalist perspectives, a gap remains as far as theDirectorates-General (DGs) are concerned. Institutionalist theories suggest that DGs may adopt a series of roles in response to the different tasks that they face, and sociological institutionalism emphasizes that this development is a signi cant source of their autonomy. This, in turn, warrants analyses derived from models that are designed to accommodate a considerable degree of complexity. The present articletherefore analyses decision-making in the Directorate-General for Competition from a sociological institutionalist perspective, with a view to evaluating the added value in such analysis compared to more parsimonious approaches in the light of a single case study: the mid-1990s case of competition in the Elsinore ferry route between Denmark and Sweden. KEY WORDS Competition policy; EuropeanCommission; lobbying; networks; public monopolies; sociological institutionalism.

INTRODUCTION Although the last decade has seen an explosion of studies of the European Commission, focusing on the role of the President (Ross 1994; Cini 1996; Peterson 1999) or the organization as a whole and its staff (Page and Wouters 1994; Christiansen 1996; Nugent 1997; Smyrl 1998; Hooghe 1999), gaps remainregarding the role of Directorates-General (DGs). Most policy studies approach the DGs as single, uni ed actors with relatively clear goals and preferences. This facilitates construction of parsimonious models, often based on rational choice theory or ‘thinner’ (i.e. more rational) versions of institutionalism, from which more or less precise testable hypotheses may be extracted. However, an increasingbody of literature addresses the complexity of the European Union’s (EU’s) institutions and actors, drawing on sociology, constructivism, and anthropology, but this has been open to criticism for insuf ciently testable hypotheses when the approach is analytically distinct and has limited originality when testable (Moravscik 1999). The present article is
Journal of European Public Policy ISSN1350–1763 print/ISSN 1466-4429 online © 2002 Taylor & Francis Ltd http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals DOI: 10.1080/13501760110120237

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positioned closer to the second set of approaches, i.e. approaches that seek to incorporate and accommodate a considerable degree of complexity in modelling policy decisions in the EU. The central question is whether more complexapproaches add suf cient value over and above their more parsimonious rivals to warrant analysis of the DGs in more sociological institutionalist terms. It therefore takes a sociological institutionalist approach to decision-making at the DG level, focusing on one competition policy case study to explore the added value of ‘thicker’ approaches. While a single case study cannot in itself prove atheory, it may lend support to or detract from claims about the appropriate level of complexity in modelling decision-making. In the present case this purported complexity is based on the fact that the Competition Directorate-General (hereafter DG Competition) is charged with several different tasks, which it accommodates by dealing with them sequentially and therefore assuming different roles atdifferent stages in the decision-making process. DG Competition is chosen as the subject because it is perhaps the most autonomous of the DGs, has attracted a considerable literature, and its decisions are subject to strong supranational and intergovernmental pressure. The mid-1990s case of competition in the Elsinore ferry route between Denmark and Sweden illustrates this dual pressure...
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