European Union Politics

Palgrave Foundations Series

by John McCormick

Chapter 10: The European Commission

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When Europeans think of the major EU institutions, the one that most readily comes to mind is the European Commission. It is the one most often in the news, and the one most often blamed for the excesses of ‘Brussels’. And yet despite its visibility, the Commission is both less – and more – than it seems. It is often portrayed as powerful, secretive, expensive, and undemocratic, but in fact has few independent decision-making powers, is one of the most open of all large bureaucracies found anywhere in the world, and has an institutional budget that is smaller than that of an average mid-sized European city. As for charges that it is undemocratic, it is no better or worse than national bureaucracies, few of whose staff members are held directly accountable to voters or to other institutions.

Headquartered in Brussels, the Commission is both the bureaucratic arm of the EU, responsible for proposing new laws and policies, and its executive, responsible for overseeing their implementation through the member states. It is headed by a president and a 27-member College of Commissioners that functions as something like a European cabinet; beneath them work several thousand career European bureaucrats responsible for the day-to-day work of the Commission, divided up among directorates-general that are the functional equivalent of national government departments.

The Commission is one of the most supranational of EU institutions, and has long been at the heart of European integration, charged with making sure that EU policies are given substance according to the goals and principles outlined in the treaties. Commissioners and staff members may be citizens of individual states, but they are discouraged from pursuing the interests of those states, and work to promote a policy agenda that focuses on the interests of the EU as a whole.
  • The European Commission (headquartered in Brussels) is the bureaucratic-executive arm of the EU, responsible mainly for developing proposals for new laws and policies, and then for overseeing implementation in the member states.
  • It also manages the EU budget, has responsibilities in external relations, represents the EU in international trade negotiations, processes applications for membership of the EU, and acts as the key point of contact between the EU and foreign governments.
  • It is headed by a College of Commissioners, whose members are nominated by the governments of each of the member states to five-year renewable terms and must be confirmed by the European Council and the European Parliament.
  • The College is headed by a president, nominated by the European Council to a five-year renewable term and confirmed by a majority vote in the European Parliament. Commission presidents have become the most public face of the EU institutions.
  • Most Commission staff work in Brussels-based directorates-general (DGs) and services, but some work in Commission offices in EU member states and abroad.
  • The detailed work of the Commission is undertaken by a network of advisory, management and regulatory committees, supported by a Secretariat General.
  • The work of the Commission is widely misunderstood, critics claiming that it is too powerful, secretive, and expensive. In fact it can only do what the member states allow it to do, it is no more secretive than national bureaucracies, and its operating budget is quite modest compared to those of national bureaucracies.