EU Competition Policy Revisited: Economic Doctrines Within European Political Work

Publication Type:

Conference Paper


Biannual conference of the Society for Advanced Economics, Paris (2009)


doctrines politiques, GEDI, intégration européenne, politiques publiques


The European Union’s (EU) competition policy is clearly trans-industry because it applies horizontally to all the domains of economic activity within this territory. Moreover, as existing research underlines (Wilks, 2005), a great deal of inter-firm competition in Europe has come to be governed at the scale of the EU. Indeed, this form of trans-industry regulation has constituted a central instrument in the institutionalization and the regulation of a single European market (Wigger, 2007).
However, what is much less clear is the role played by economic doctrines in this highly important political process. Many accounts of EU competition policy by political scientists concentrate upon the publicized clashes between ‘neo-liberal’ and ‘neo-mercantilist’ protagonists that have occurred during the history of the EU (Cini and McGowan, 2009). Some historians meanwhile have underlined how ‘German ordoliberals’ were largely successful in transposing the principles of a ‘social market economy’ upon the European Communities in the 1950s and, in so doing, defeating the ‘planning’ variant of neo-mercantilism from interventionist France, Italy and Belgium (Gerber, 1998). Others, however, dispute this thesis strongly by arguing that ordoliberalist influence on EU competition law and policy is overstated (Ramirez Perez, 2007).
Notwithstanding the quantity and quality of all this research, unfortunately much uncertainty and even confusion still remains over the precise ideological content of the economic doctrines used to build, legitimate and implement the EU’s competition policy throughout the whole of its history. Indeed, especially when analyzing developments since the mid 1980s, academic analysis has rarely attempted to fully unpack the doctrines concerned[1]. Moreover, much of this literature shares two problematical traits.
First, authors have either neglected the politics of competition policy norms and rulings that occurs around the substance of competition policy, or reduced this politics to the formal intervention of politicians[2]. As we have underlined elsewhere, when studying economies it is more heuristic to define politics instead as ‘behaviour that is both discursive and interactive which seeks to change or reproduce institutions by mobilizing values’ (Jullien & Smith, 2009: 15).
Second, and especially more recently, specialists of EU competition policy have frequently reduced explanation on change policy substance to ‘a rise in the use of economic analysis’ during decision-making (Wilks, 2007; Cini & McGowan, 2009). In so doing, however, precise knowledge has not been produced about what doctrines from economics this ‘rise’ has contained.
Overall then, a black box still remains around the processes of ‘political work’ through which economic doctrines have been translated over the six decades of EU competition policy’s history into the institutionalized policy instruments of today’s EU government of inter-firm competition. Through defining political work as a process that entails both the construction of industrial issues as ‘public problems’ (problematization) and their legitimation through politicization or depoliticization, this concept guides empirical research to produce knowledge on the argumentation and alliance-building activity of the actors concerned (Jullien & Smith, 2008: chapter 1). Analyzing political work in this way thus provides a means of understanding the production of the ‘instruments’ (Lascoumes & Le Galès, 2007) of the EU’s government of interfirm competition and, thereby, the ‘governmentality’ (Foucault, 2004) it reflects and encapsulates.
More specifically, written by an economist, a historian and a political scientist and using initial findings from their ongoing interdisciplinary research[3], in this paper the concept of political work will be used to shed light upon the relationship between economic theory and doctrine on the one hand and EU competition policy on the other. This goal is sought by developing and defending the following claim: the key debates over this policy have not only been the much publicized ones between neo-mercantilists and neo-liberals (Kariagiannis, 2009). Rather since the beginnings of the EU a crucial debate over competition policy has been located within neo-liberalism itself. More precisely, ‘ordo-liberalism’ –a theory often mentioned but rarely analyzed- needs to be seen both as a theory of, and a doctrine for orienting, economic activity which is best understood as a distinctive strand of neo-liberal thought.
The first part of this paper develops and explains this claim whilst highlighting its consequences for studying the government of inter-firm competition in general. Three empirical illustrations of our argument then follow, each of which retraces key episodes from the institutionalization of the EU’s government of inter-firm competition.
Through re-examining the establishment of EC competition law between 1950-62, part 2 of the then paper underlines the impact of an initial cleavage between ordo-liberals and neo-mercantilists in the negotiations of the ECSC and EEC Treaties. In contrast to standard accounts of this founding period which claim an initial ‘victory’ for German ordo-liberals (Seidel, 2009); Quack & Djelic, 2005), we argue that the historical evidence points to a more complex and interesting relationship between economic doctrines and European-wide political work. Indeed, our analysis of the effects of this interplay seeks instead not only to better explain the actual content of the general articles and regulations on competition adopted at this time, but also, and more fundamentally still, to grasp the causality behind the limited impact of policy towards cartels and monopolies developed by the European Communities during the subsequent period that extended until the mid 1980s.
As is well known, the EU’s competition policy came to be fully activated in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Here, however, the role played by economic doctrines has again tended to be treated in over-general terms – this time by invoking a ‘neo-liberal victory’ over neo-mercantilism (Cini & McGowan, 2009). In part 3 of this paper, we begin to set out a programme for research which argues instead for better analysis of the interaction between economic doctrine and European-wide political work that occurred during this period. More specifically, we defend a research perspective that better encompasses the arrival in pre-existing debates of a ‘new’ set of neo-liberals driven by the economic doctrines of ‘the Chicago school’.
Finally, in order to bring this analysis up to the present day, social science needs to produce knowledge about how and why the EU’s competition policy has been reinstitutionalized since the turn of the century (part 4). Here it will be argued not only that the importance of neo-mercantilism doctrine has steadily continued to decline. Instead, we go further in hypothesizing that the cause of change since 2000 is to be found in 1) a doctrinal victory by partisans of the Chicago approach to competition over ordoliberal thinkers and actors and 2) the translation of this victory into new instruments of EU governmentality.
Overall, through highlighting the role played by struggles over economic doctrine, and thus within political work, during each of these periods, our aim is to reproblematize analysis of the institutionalization of the EU’s government of competition with a view to launching new research in this subject area and, thereby, producing wider and deeper knowledge about its politics.

[1] Indeed, there is a contrast here with work on the development of US competition policy which emphasizes both the role of economic doctrine and representatives of firms (Fligstein, 1990 & 2001).
[2] For a typical example of this use of the term politics see Damro & Guay who reduce it to the intervention of politicians in debates over competition policy (2009: 2). For a critique of this trend see (Bush-Hansen & Wigger, 2009: 3 & 6-7).
[3] This paper is based partly on previous empirical investigations (Ramïrez-Përez, 2007; Joana & Smith, 2002; Smith, 2009). But it is also heavily informed by new work currently being carried out within a research project ‘Le gouvernement européen des industries’ (GEDI). The latter is funded by the French Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR). http://www.

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