The Political Theory of the White Paper on Governance: Hidden and Fascinating

European Public Law, Vol. 9, No. 1, pp. 73-86, 2003

12 Pages Posted: 1 Feb 2011

Date Written: 2003


The Commission White Paper on Governance presents thought-provoking proposals regarding several important issues facing the EU, ranging from improving the policy making and implementation processes to bolstering the Union’s international representation and visibility on the global arena. A striking feature of the White Paper is that the proposals are proclaimed without much attention to the complex weighing of alternatives premises and policy proposals that surely should inform such recommendations. In defence of this silence, such reflections were more visible in the preparatory stages, but were subdued during the process. The history and task of the Working Paper provides ample explanations of why principled arguments are absent. A more self-reflective and explicitly philosophical document would surely be politically unfeasible. It would also appear unnecessary, given the primary role of a White Paper of laying out concrete proposals for Community action.

In light of its tasks, it would be a category mistake to assess the White Paper as a treaty of political philosophy. Surely it should not be rejected merely on the basis of what it does not address. Yet the implicit premises of the White Paper proposals merit close scrutiny. The proposals are charitably interpreted as resting on certain premises and models of politics and legitimacy – worrisome premises that should affect their assessment. The document appears to build on a conception of power, and on a conception of the Commission’s appropriate role and responsibilities that are fascinating – fascinating in the ambivalent sense of being terrifyingly interesting.

The aim of these reflections is to argue that the White Paper rests on a model of politics and of legitimacy bursting with controversial premises. The implicit conceptions of power and legitimate authority are fascinating, begging for questions starting with Juvenal’s: “Who guards the guardian of the Treaties?” Such questions are left unasked – and unanswered. This is most evident concerning the appropriate role of the Commission within the future European political order. The Commission should serve as a dominant optimiser within the processes of multi-level governance involving political agents at various territorial levels, and between the Commission and private actors within networks. The Commission, and it alone, can find solutions without conflict. Only among Community institutions does the White Paper foresee conflict, in which case the Commission position should dominate those of the Council. The Commission alone reliably acts in the general European interest, which should dominate all other concerns. The Commission should enjoy broad executive discretion under broad legislation, and be free from detailed scrutiny.

The following remarks identify several of the gaps in the White Paper proposals. A critical defence of other, more plausible views is required, but must wait for other occasions. The critical comments are structured according to five principles of good governance set out in the White Paper. However, as will become clear, this should not be taken as agreement to the Commission’s assumption that these five principles are exhaustive or uncontested.

Keywords: White Paper, Governance, EU, The Commission, Policy Making, Political Theory

Suggested Citation

Follesdal, Andreas, The Political Theory of the White Paper on Governance: Hidden and Fascinating (2003). European Public Law, Vol. 9, No. 1, pp. 73-86, 2003. Available at SSRN:

Andreas Follesdal (Contact Author)

Pluricourts ( email )

P.O. Box 6706
St. Olavs plass 5
0130 Oslo

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