European Commission

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Based in Brussels, the European Commission is the executive branch of the EU. Aside from its main duty to initiate legislation, the Commission has a number of other duties. First, it is the “guardian of the treaties.” This means the Commission has the task of ensuring that EU law is applied in the Member States and other institutions. When violations are identified, it can bring cases before the Court of Justice of the European Union. The Commission also has an executive authority and is tasked with setting objectives and priorities for the EU, as well as managing and implementing these policies and the EU budget. Lastly, the Commission represents the EU externally, for example, in negotiating trade agreements with other countries or in representing the EU before other international organizations. The Commission comprises a college of 28 Commissioners – one per Member State. Although the Member States appoint their Commissioner, the Commissioner does not represent the interest of his or her Member State, but rather the interests of the EU. In many areas the Commission is the driving force within the EU’s institutional system: it proposes legislation, policies and programmes of action and is responsible for implementing the decisions of the European Parliament and the Council. It also represents the Union to the outside world – with the exception of the common foreign and security policy, which is handled by a separate European External Action Service (EEAS).

What is the Commission?

The term ‘Commission’ is used in two senses. Firstly, it refers to the ‘Members of the Commission’ — i.e. the team of men and women appointed by the Member States and endorsed by the European Parliament to run the institution and take its decisions. Secondly, the term ‘Commission’ refers to the institution itself and to its staff. Informally, the Members of the Commission are known as ‘Commissioners’. They have all held political positions and many have been government ministers, but as members of the Commission they are supposed to act in the interests of the Union as a whole and not take instructions from national governments. The Commission has several Vice-Presidents, one of whom is also the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and thus has a foot in both the Council and the Commission camps. The Commission remains politically answerable to Parliament, which has the power to dismiss it by adopting a motion of censure. The Commission attends all the sessions of Parliament, where it must clarify and justify its policies. It also replies regularly to written and oral questions posed by Members of Parliament.

How is the Commission appointed?

A new Commission is appointed every five years, within six months of the elections to the European Parliament. The procedure is as follows.

  •  The Member State governments propose a new Commission President, who must be elected by the European Parliament.
  •  The proposed Commission President, in discussion with the Member State governments, chooses the other members of the Commission.
  •  The new Parliament then interviews all proposed members and gives its opinion on the entire ‘College’. If approved, the new Commission can officially start work the following January

What does the Commission do?

The day-to-day work of the Commission is done by its administrative officials, experts, translators, interpreters and secretarial staff. Commission officials — like the staff of other EU bodies — are recruited via the European Personnel Selection Office (EPSO). They are citizens from every EU country, selected by means of open competitive examinations. There are approximately 33 000 people working for the Commission.

The European Commission has four main roles:

1. to propose legislation to Parliament and the Council: Under the EU Treaty, the Commission has the ‘right of initiative’. In other words, the Commission alone is responsible for drawing up proposals for new European legislation, which it presents to Parliament and the Council. These proposals must aim to defend the interests of the Union and its citizens, not those of specific countries or industries. Before making any proposals, the Commission must be aware of new situations and problems developing in Europe and must consider whether EU legislation is the best way to deal with them. That is why the Commission is in constant touch with a wide range of interest groups and with two advisory bodies — the Economic and Social Committee (ECOSOC, made up of employers’ and trade union representatives) and the Committee of the Regions (CoR, made up of representatives of local and regional authorities). It also seeks the opinions of national parliaments, governments and the public at large. The Commission must propose action at EU level only if  it considers that a problem cannot be solved more efficiently by national, regional or local action. This principle of dealing with things at the lowest possible level is called the ‘subsidiarity principle’. If, however, the Commission concludes that EU legislation is needed, then it drafts a proposal that it believes will deal with the problem effectively and satisfy the widest possible range of interests. In order to get the technical details correct, the Commission consults the experts who make up its various committees and expert groups.

2. to manage and implement EU policies and the budget: As the European Union’s executive body, the Commission is responsible for managing and implementing the EU budget and the policies and programmes adopted by Parliament and the Council. Most of the actual work and spending is done by national and local authorities but the Commission is responsible for supervising it. The Commission handles the budget under the watchful eye of the Court of Auditors. Both institutions aim to ensure good financial management. Only if it is satisfied with the Court of Auditors’ annual report does the European Parliament grant the Commission discharge for implementing the budget.

3. to enforce European law (jointly with the Court of Justice): The Commission acts as ‘guardian of the treaties’. This means that, together with the Court of Justice, it is responsible for making sure EU law is properly applied in all the Member States. If it finds that any EU country is not applying a Union law, and therefore not meeting its legal obligations, the Commission takes steps to put the situation right. First, it launches a legal process called the ‘infringement procedure’. This involves sending the government an official letter explaining why the Commission considers this country is infringing EU law, and setting it a
deadline for sending the Commission a detailed reply. If this procedure fails to correct matters, the Commission then refers the issue to the Court of Justice, which has the power to impose penalties. The Court’s judgments are binding on the Member States and the EU institutions.

4. to represent the Union around the world: The High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy is a Vice-President of the Commission and has
responsibility for external affairs. In matters concerning foreign affairs and security, the High Representative works with the Council. However, in other areas of
external action the Commission plays the leading role — in particular in the areas of trade policy and humanitarian aid. In these areas, the European Commission acts as an important spokesperson for the European Union on the international stage. It enables the 28 Member States to speak with one voice in international forums such as the World Trade Organisation.

How does the Commission work?

It is up to the Commission President to decide which Commissioner will be responsible for which policy area, and to reshuffle these responsibilities (if necessary) during the Commission’s term of office. The President is also entitled to demand a Commissioner’s resignation. The team of 28 Commissioners (also known as ‘the College’) meets once a week, usually on wednesdays in Brussels. Each item on the agenda is presented by the Commissioner responsible for that policy area, and the College takes a collective decision on it.

The Commission’s staff is organised into departments, known as directorates-general (DGs) and services (such as the Legal Service). Each DG is responsible for a particular policy area — for example, the Trade DG and the Competition DG — and is headed by a Director-General who is answerable to one of the Commissioners.

It is the DGs that actually devise and draft the Commission’s legislative proposals, but these proposals only become official when ‘adopted’ by the College at its weekly meeting. The procedure is roughly as follows.

Suppose, for example, that the Commission sees a need for EU legislation to prevent pollution of Europe’s rivers. The Directorate-General for the Environment will draw up a proposal, based on extensive consultations with European industry and farmers, with environment ministries in the Member States and with environmental organisations.

Many proposals are also open to public consultation, enabling individuals to provide views in a personal capacity, or on behalf of an organisation. The proposed legislation will then be discussed with all relevant Commission departments and amended if necessary. It will then be checked by the Legal Service.

Once the proposal is complete, the Secretary-General will put it on the agenda for a forthcoming Commission meeting. At this meeting, the Environment Commissioner will explain to his or her colleagues why this legislation is being proposed, and they will then discuss it. If there is agreement, the College will adopt the proposal and the document will be sent to the Council and the European Parliament for their consideration.

However, if there is disagreement among the Commissioners, the President may ask them to vote on it. If the majority is in favour, the proposal will be adopted. Thereafter it will have the support of all the Commission members.

NGOs and individuals can register with the European Commission through the EU’s Transparency Register. All organizations and self-employed individuals engaged in “activities carrie[d out with the objective of directly or indirectly influencing the formulation or implementation of policy and decision-making processes of the EU institutions” are expected to register. 

Lobbying the European Commission is of particular importance for all NGOs who wish to exert influence at an early stage of a legislative process – or indeed trigger the Commission’s decision to launch such a process. Contrary to the European Parliament, where lobbyists tend to address their concerns and wishes to “likeminded” politicians, lobbying efforts at the Commission must be apt to convince people who are neither politicians, nor “likeminded”. It makes little sense to choose as an interlocutor any Commission official other than the one dealing with the file at question. However, Commission officials usually are ready to listen to reasonable arguments, and to meet with all who can plausibly claim to be relevant “stakeholders”.