Making social science accessible

04 May 2016


What is the European Commission, and why was it created?

When people talk about ‘Brussels’ or ‘Eurocrats’, they usually have the European Commission in mind. Part permanent administration, part political body, the Commission is the EU’s largest institution. It is also the institution most frequently identified with the EU and often used as shorthand for the whole EU system.

The Commission plays a key role in the EU. It drafts policy proposals, which are then debated, amended, rejected or agreed jointly by member governments in the Council of the European Union and Members of the European Parliament. It oversees the implementation of policy in the member states and makes sure that EU policies are enforced. It manages policy and the EU budget, and in the case of competition policy takes decisions. It also represents the EU in trade negotiations with the outside world.


Caption: The European Commission. Often seen as representative of the EU or ‘Brussels’

The founders believed that the Commission was essential to the EU’s success. The lesson that they drew from the experience of other international organisations was that the EU was more likely to succeed if it had an institution that, though appointed by member governments, could in act independently of them. As such a body, the Commission could ensure that member governments remained true to their commitments under the treaty, prevent them from backsliding, and, where necessary, act as an arbitrator between them.

What does the Commission do?

In this spirit, the founders gave the Commission four tasks that make it central to the EU’s operation:

Policy initiation: The Commission is responsible for bringing forward proposals for EU laws. As it the only EU institution that has this authority, the EU cannot make law without it.

Guardian of the treaties: The Commission oversees the implementation and enforcement of EU laws and rules by governments, businesses and other actors.

Policy management: The Commission manages EU policies and the EU budget. In the area of competition policy, it enforces EU rules intended to prevent anti-competitive action by governments and firms.

Representation of the EU in trade: The Commission negotiates trade agreements on behalf of the EU with third countries – e.g. the US or China – and with international organisations, such as the World Trade Organization.

Is it powerful?

These responsibilities give the Commission a central role. Its involvement in all areas of policy and at all stages of policy making give it a unique overview. To carry out its functions, the Commission works with other EU institutions, as well as with governments and other actors in the member states. It is also in constant contact with the governments of non-EU states and international organisations. Due to its position, the Commission is lobbied by governments, business, trade unions, and NGOs, from inside and outside the EU.

In most areas, the Commission depends on other institutions and does not have final decision-making authority. EU’s competition policy is an exception. The Commission has to approve or reject mergers between large companies, decide whether to approve public subsidies to companies or sectors, and determine whether a company that is dominant in a market has been abusing its power. It also plays a key part in implementing the EU’s antitrust rules. All its decisions are subject to scrutiny by the Court of Justice of the European Union, but the Commission’s powers are far-reaching nonetheless.

How does the Commission function?

The Commission has two levels: the College, the political part of the Commission, which leads the organisation; and the administration or ‘services’.

Political leadership: The 28-member College of Commissioners provides the Commission’s political leadership. The College serves a five-year term that is timed to coincide with the elections to the European Parliament. It is headed by the Commission President, who is chosen by national political leaders in the European Council. When they make their nomination, the prime ministers and presidents of the member states are obliged to take into account the results of the elections to the European Parliament.

junker college

The other 27 Commissioners, one from each member state, are chosen by the Commission President from a list of nominees proposed by each of the national governments. The current Commission President is Jean-Claude Juncker, who is a former Luxembourg Prime Minister. He selected Lord Hill from the list of nominees proposed by London, and has given him the portfolio as Commissioner for Financial Stability, Financial Services and Capital Markets Union. To underpin the Commission’s autonomy, the members of the College swear an oath that they will act in the general interests of the European Union and will not take instructions from any quarter – national or political.

The administration: The College is supported by the ‘services’ — the name given to the administrative part of the Commission. The services have a staff of around 33,000, around 67 per cent of whom are on permanent contracts. The services are organised into departments or ‘Directorates General’ in EU parlance. Like government ministries, Directorates Generals have responsibilities for particular policy areas, as well as external relations.

Click here for the list of commission DGs.

In order to carry out its responsibilities the Commission needs to have knowledge within the organisation of the languages, legal and political systems, and the economies and societies of all the member states. Hence, competitive examination is the main route into the Commission and the workforce is recruited from all 28 member states.

Internal decision making: Although, like ministers in a national government, each Commissioner is given responsibility for a particular policy area, decisions are taken collectively by the College. Commissioners meet every Wednesday for this purpose. The Commission President decides the agenda items for each meeting.

The process of developing a policy proposal begins, however, with a desk officer in the services. He or she works to ensure that the technical aspects of the file are properly prepared. When ready, the file will be passed up the line in the department before it is signed-off by the responsible Commissioner. It is then circulated to the other parts of the administration, so that all interested departments can have the opportunity to express their views. Once agreement has been reached on as many points as possible, the file enters the political stage. It is discussed by the Commissioners’ private offices, which are known as cabinets, before it comes to the College for a decision.


Although the Commission is integral to the EU’s operation, it is important not to exaggerate its power or influence. It is misleading, for example, to think of it as a government of Europe.

First, the EU does not have a government in a sense that is comparable to the UK. Decision making and law making are shared by several EU institutions, of which the Commission is only one and not the most important.

Second, the Commission can rarely bring about EU action through its own efforts alone. Except in competition policy, it needs other EU institutions or the member states to carry out its responsibilities. In policy making, the Commission’s  proposals only become law if they attract the support of a majority of the Members of the European Parliament and a majority of member state votes in the Council of the European Union.

Since the Commission has no field services of its own, the Commission depends on public administrations and agencies in the member states to implement policy and national courts to enforce them. Furthermore, the member states determine the basis on which the Commission negotiates trade agreements, monitors them, and decide whether to give their approval.

Third, the European Council, which brings together the political leaders of the 28 member states, is the EU’s highest political authority.  The European Council determines the EU’s mid-term priorities, intervenes in key policy areas, and troubleshoots where problems arise in law making. The European Council is also the EU’s crisis-manager. In all these areas, the Commission can offer its advice and input, but the European Council is the EU’s supreme body.

To whom is the Commission accountable?

In general terms, the Commission is subject to permanent scrutiny by national governments, Members of the European Parliament, interest groups, and the media. Formal accountability takes several forms. The Commission is politically accountable to the European Council and the European Parliament, since they appoint the members of the Commission, including the Commission President. The European Parliament also has the power to force the Commission’s resignation.

The Commission is similarly accountable in budgetary and financial matters. The Council and Parliament define the rules that govern financial management and audit processes that govern the Commission. In addition, the Commission sends the EU accounts to the European Court of Auditors each year. The European Court of Auditors produces an annual report that the European Parliament examines before deciding whether to approve the Commission’s handling of the EU budget. Thus, in November 2015, the European Court of Auditors signed off the 2014 budget– the seventh year in row in which it had declared the accounts accurate, legal, regular and reliable. Only 4.4 per cent of spending, it found, had been wrongly paid out – in some years, the comparable figure for the US government is over 5 per cent — and 22 of 1,200 transactions required investigation on the grounds that they might be fraudulent. As with earlier budgets, almost all the errors occurred within the member states. The only area of EU expenditure not affected by material error was EU spending on its own administration.

In administration, the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament set the salary levels and determine the working conditions and perks available to Commission staff, as well as the proportion of the EU budget spent on the EU civil service. Currently, the budget line is capped at 6 per cent of the total EU budget, with half that figure covering the salary costs of EU civil servants – the Commission workforce, as well as administrators working for other EU bodies, including the Council Secretariat and the Secretariat of the European Parliament.

Additionally, the Commission operates under the scrutiny of the Court of Justice of the European Union. Action can be taken before the Court when it is considered that the Commission is in breach of EU law.

The Commission in the current political climate

The Commission is rarely out of the headlines. Two important controversies are central to reflections on its current position.

First, there was considerable controversy over the appointment in 2014 of the current Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker. The European Council has always considered that choice to be the prerogative of national political leaders. However, that understanding was challenged in the run up to the last European Parliament elections.

Under the Lisbon Treaty, which came into force in 2009, the European Council was required to take into account the results of the elections to the European Parliament when making its selection. On the grounds that it would enhance the Commission’s democratic legitimacy, a number of EU-level parties seized on the opportunity to argue that the European Council should appoint the chosen candidate of the party that won the highest number of votes in the elections to the European Parliament and proceeded some time in advance of the elections to nominate such a candidate.

When the European People’s Party, a centre-right party, topped the polls, it contended that the European Council was obliged to nominate its chosen candidate, Jean-Claude Juncker. After some delay and debate between national political leaders, with strong opposition expressed by the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, the European Council decided by qualified majority to nominate Juncker. The long-term consequences are as yet uncertain, but the episode seems to have empowered the European Parliament, reduced the power of the European Council, and to have tightened the relationship between the Commission and the Parliament.

Second, the European Commission is often portrayed as an expansionist body that is determined to use its power to regulate every nook and cranny of national political life. Historically, the Commission was indeed prone to high levels of policy activism. However, both Juncker and José Manuel Barroso before him have sought strenuously to force the Commission to adopt a more disciplined approach. As a result, there has been a decrease in the number of proposals submitted by the Commission to the Council and the Parliament. Internal mechanisms have been adopted by the Commission to ensure that the likely impact of each proposal is carefully measured before it is considered by the College and the Commission brings forward only those initiatives which it considers genuinely add value to the life of EU citizens.

To know more:

  • European Commission’s official website at
  • Kassim, H., Peterson, J., Bauer, M.W., Connolly, S., Dehousse, R., Hooghe, L. and Thompson, A. (2013) The European Commission of the Twenty-First Century, Oxford University Press
  • Kassim, H., Connolly, S., Dehousse, R., Rozenberg, O. and Benjaballah, S. (2016) ‘Managing the House: The Presidency, Agenda Control and Political Activism in the European Commission’, Journal of European Public Policy, DOI:10.1080/13501763.2016.1154590
  • Nugent, N. and Rhinard, M. (2015) The European Commission, Palgrave




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