The European Commission
The European Commission (formally the Commission of the European Communities) is the executive branch of the European Union. The body is responsible for proposing legislation, implementing decisions, upholding the Union’s treaties and the general day-to-day running of the Union.
The Commission operates in the method of cabinet government, with 27 Commissioners. There is one Commissioner per member state, though Commissioners are bound to represent the interests of the EU as a whole rather than their home state. One of the 27 is the Commission President appointed by the European Council with the approval of the European Parliament.
The term “Commission” can mean either the college of Commissioners mentioned above, or the larger institution; including the administrative body of about 25,000 European civil servants who are in departments called Directorates-General. It is primarily based in the Berlaymont building of Brussels and its internal working languages are English, French and German.
Powers and functions
The Commission was set up from the start to act as an independent supranational authority separate from governments; it has been described as “the only body paid to think European”. The members are proposed by their member state governments, one from each, however they are bound to act independently – neutral from other influences such as those governments which appointed them. This is in contrast to the Council, which represents governments, and the Parliament, which represents citizens and the Economic and Social Committee, which the treaty says represents ‘organised civil society’.
The European Commission operates at the very heart of the European Union. Its role as the source of policy initiatives is unique; yet this role is not always clearly understood. The Commission has used its right of initiative to transform the framework provided by the treaties establishing the European Communities into today’s integrated structures. The benefits for citizens and companies throughout the Union have been considerable: freedom of movement, greater prosperity, much less red tape.
But the Commission has not done this alone. It works in close partnership with the other European institutions and with the governments of the Member States. Although the Commission makes the proposals, all the major decisions on important legislation are taken by the ministers of the Member States in the Council of the European Union, in co-decision (or, in some cases, consultation) with the democratically elected European Parliament.
The Commission consults widely with interested parties from all sectors and all walks of life when preparing draft legislation. In addition to its power of proposal, the Commission acts as the EU executive body and guardian of the Treaties. It represents the common interest and embodies, to a large degree, the personality of the Union. Its main concern is to defend the interests of Europe’s citizens.
The Commission’s job is to ensure that the European Union can attain its goal of an ever-closer union of its members. One of the principal tasks here is to secure the free movement of goods, services, capital and persons throughout the territory of the Union. The Commission must also ensure that the benefits of integration are balanced between countries and regions, between business and consumers and between different categories of citizens.
The Commission initiates Community policy and represents the general interest of the European Union.
The Commission fulfils three main functions. Because of its right of initiative, the Commission is charged with making proposals for all new legislation. It does so on the basis of what it considers best for the Union and its citizens in general rather than on behalf of sectoral interests or individual countries.
These activities are laid down in the Treaty and range from trade, industry and social policies to agriculture, the environment, energy, regional development and development cooperation.
Before it issues an item of draft legislation, the Commission carries out extensive preliminary soundings and discussions with representatives of governments, industry, the trade unions, special interest groups and, where necessary, technical experts. It tries to take account of these often competing interests when it prepares its proposals.
The balance of interests is not always easy. The Commission has, for instance, put enormous effort into liberalising telecommunications in Europe so that EU firms and consumers benefit from the advantages of the information society and the development of the media. It has had to reconcile the interests of free market competition with the need to guarantee access to a universal telephone service at affordable prices for all its citizens wherever they live.
The Commission takes the principle of subsidiarity into account in its proposals, initiating legislation only in areas where the European Union is better placed than individual Member States to take effective action. Subsidiarity is enshrined in the Treaty on European Union.
Once a Commission proposal has been submitted to the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, the three institutions work together to produce a satisfactory result. In agreement with the Commission, the Council can amend a proposal by a qualified majority (if the Commission does not agree, the change requires unanimity). The European Parliament shares the power of co-decision with the Council in most areas and has to be consulted in others. When revising its proposals the Commission is required to take Parliament’s amendments into consideration.
The Commission acts as the guardian of the EU treaties to ensure that European legislation is applied correctly.
In its second function, the Commission acts as the guardian of the EU treaties to ensure that EU legislation is applied correctly by the Member States and that all citizens and participants in the single market can benefit from the level playing field that has been created.
Where necessary, it takes action against those in the public or private sector who fail to respect their treaty obligations. It can, for instance, institute legal proceedings against Member States or businesses that fail to comply with European law and, as a last resort, bring them before the European Court of Justice.
The Commission is responsible for vetting subsidies paid by national governments to their industries and practices likely to distort competition in the single market. In the case of serious infringements, the Commission can impose fines on the public authorities or companies concerned.
As the Union’s executive body, the Commission manages policies and negotiates international trade and cooperation agreements.
In its third function, the Commission is the executive body of the Union responsible for implementing and managing policy. One of its executive functions is managing the Union’s annual budget, which amounted to some Â¬ 97 billion in 1999, and running its Structural Funds, whose main purpose is to even out economic disparities between the richer and poorer parts of the Union.
In some areas like competition, agriculture and trade policy, the Commission has considerable autonomy to take decisions without submitting proposals to the Council of Ministers, either because of its specific powers under the Treaty or by delegated authority from the Council.
It also negotiates trade and cooperation agreements with outside countries and groups of countries on behalf of the Union. More than 100 countries around the world have such accords with the European Union. The Lom?© Convention linking the European Union with developing countries of Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) is considered a model of North-South cooperation. The Commission also negotiated the Uruguay Round trade liberalisation accord and the creation of the new World Trade Organisation (WTO) on the Union’s behalf.
The limits of the Commission’s authority are clearly defined. Legislative decisions are taken by the Council and the Parliament.
Although it has the right of initiative, the Commission does not take the main decisions on EU policies and priorities. This is the responsibility of the Council of the European Union, whose members are ministers from member governments, and (in most cases) of the European Parliament as well.
Reality is therefore different from some popular misconceptions which greatly exaggerate the power of the Commission. The Commission has few powers of coercion, although its neutral role and the depth of specialised knowledge it has acquired over the years give it plenty of scope for persuasion.
As a result of its knowledge and experience, the Commission has often been called upon to play the honest broker between the sometimes conflicting interests of Member States. Its impartiality and commitment to the common interest make it an accepted mediator by all sides.
Thanks to its right of initiative, the Commission has acted as the driving force in European integration. A striking example of this kind of Commission action was the completion of the European single market at the beginning of 1993. The Commission also played a central role in drawing up the blueprint for economic and monetary union and the initiatives to reinforce the economic and social cohesion between the regions of Europe.
The administrative structure of the Commission reflects the scope of its responsibilities within the European Union.
Because of the breadth of its responsibilities, the Commission is the biggest of the European institutions. It has a staff of about 15 000 people, roughly half of the total employed by the European institutions. But it is still relatively small, bearing in mind its responsibilities in the European Union. To put it into perspective, the administration of a medium-sized European city will often employ more people.
The Union has 11 official languages, and about one fifth of the Commission staff work in the translation and interpreting services. Citizens of the Union must have access to the texts adopted at EU level in their own language.
The Commission consists of 36 directorates-general and specialised services. They are each headed by a director-general, who is equivalent in rank to the top civil servant in a government ministry. The directors-general report to a Commissioner, each of whom has the political and operational responsibility for one or more DGs.
The 20 Commissioners are men and women who have held high office in their home countries.
When we talk about “the Commission” as a political body, we mean the 20 Commissioners (or Members of the Commission) at its head. Commissioners are men and women who have generally sat in national parliaments or the European Parliament or who have held high office in their home countries, often at ministerial level, before coming to Brussels. The Commission is appointed for a five-year term, which is the same as the life of the European Parliament but starts six months later.
The Commission meets once a week to adopt proposals, finalise policy papers and take other decisions required of it. Routine matters are dealt with via simplified written procedures. When necessary, the Commission may hold special sessions in addition to its weekly meeting. At its meetings, each item is presented by the Commissioner responsible for the policy sector in question. Decisions are taken where necessary by a majority vote; when a decision has been adopted, it becomes Commission policy. It then has the full support of all Commissioners.
In addition to the staff of the directorates-general for which they are responsible, each Commissioner has his or her own private office or “cabinet”. This consists of six officials who serve as the bridge between the Commissioner and the DGs. But they also function as eyes and ears to brief their “boss” on issues he or she might want to raise concerning policy papers and draft proposals prepared by other Commissioners. The work of the Commission is coordinated by its Secretariat-General.
The Maastricht and Amsterdam Treaties have given the Commission more democratic legitimacy.
The President of the Commission is chosen by EU Heads of State or Government meeting in the European Council. This choice has to be approved by the European Parliament. The other 19 members of the Commission are nominated by the governments of the 15 Member States in agreement with the new Commission President. The President and the other members-designate are subject to a collective vote of approval by the European Parliament.
The system of parliamentary vetting of the President and the other Commissioners, instituted by the Treaty on European Union and reinforced by the Amsterdam Treaty, does much to allay criticism that the Commission is an unelected body without democratic legitimacy. It gives Parliament a full voice in the choice or appointment of the President and the other Commissioners. Previously, its only power in this context (which it retains) was to force the resignation of the whole Commission through a vote of censure. It has never used this option.
Two Commissioners come from each of the “big” Member States (Germany, Spain, France, Italy and the United Kingdom) and one from each of the “smaller” ones (Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Austria, Portugal, Finland and Sweden).
As the European Union has developed over the years, the Commission has acquired new responsibilities.
The Commission has developed to keep pace with the advances in European integration – from the Coal and Steel Community of the 1950s to the European Union of today. The Single European Act of 1986, incorporating the first significant update of the founding treaties, the Treaty on European Union and the Amsterdam Treaty all confirm and expand the scope of the Union and the Commission’s responsibility in additional areas. These include the environment, education, health, consumer affairs, the development of trans-European networks (TENs), R and D policy, culture and economic and monetary union.
The Commission has important responsibilities for aid and development programmes in third countries. It has, for instance, been given the task of managing the PHARE and TACIS programmes of financial and technical assistance to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and to the Republics of the former Soviet Union. The PHARE programme is one instrument for preparing the EU’s eastern neighbours for full membership of the Union over the coming years.
The Commission is fully associated with the inter-governmental parts of the Treaty on European Union covering a common foreign and security policy (CFSP) and police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters. Though the Commission has no sole right of initiative in these areas, it can submit proposals in the same way as national governments and participate in the discussions.
In the management of EU affairs, the Commission has developed dynamic relations with the other institutions.
Given its central position in the structure of the European Union, the Commission has special links with each of the other institutions. As we have seen, it works most intensively with the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament in drafting EU legislation, and accordingly attends Council and Parliament meetings.
In addition, the President of the Commission participates alongside the Heads of State or Government of the Member States at the twice-yearly meetings of the European Council. He also participates as a representative of the Union as a whole at the annual economic summits of the Group of Seven (G 7) leading industrialised nations.
The Commission is answerable to the European Parliament which has the power to dismiss it by a vote of censure or no confidence. The Commission attends all sessions of the European Parliament and must explain and justify its policies if so requested by members of the house. It must reply to written or oral questions put by MEPs.
The Commission’s functions regularly involve the European Court of Justice, which is the final arbiter of European law. On the one hand, the Commission refers cases to the Court where directives or regulations are not being respected by governments or companies. But on the other hand, the Court is where firms and the Member States themselves go when, for instance, they want to appeal against fines imposed by the Commission.
The Commission’s management of the EU budget is scrutinised by the Court of Auditors, whose task it is to examine the legality and regularity of revenue and expenditure and ensure the sound financial management of the EU budget. The common goal of both institutions is to eliminate fraud and wastage. On the basis of the Court of Auditors’ reports, it is the European Parliament that gives the Commission final discharge for the execution of each annual budget.
Finally, the Commission works closely with the Union’s two consultative bodies, the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions, and consults them on most items of draft legislation.
Future of the Commission
The proposed Lisbon Treaty, which currently may not be ratified by its 2009 deadline due to a referendum in which the people of Ireland voted ‘No’ to the Treaty, largely retains the reforms outlined in the rejected Constitutional Treaty. The constitution’s reforms proposed a number of changes, notably the number of Commissioners would be reduced; from 2014 only two out of three member-states would have the right to representation. The representation would be rotated equally between all states and no state would have more than one in any single Commission. The Commission would also include the new High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, as one of the Vice Presidents, replacing the External Relations Commissioner. In the appointment of the Commission, the most recent European elections would have to be taken into account. It is thought this would create a stronger link between the elections and the Commission, however the President would still be proposed by the Council. Although when the Parliament votes on the Commission, the treaty changes the term “approve” to “elect” in referring to the vote: it is unknown yet if this will produce practical change.
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