European Commission

views updated May 14 2018



While drafting the treaty that established the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC)—adopted in Paris in 1951—the negotiators decided on a novel institutional model. Motivated by a concern for efficiency and a desire to overcome partisan and nationalist divisions but with a federal structure impossible, they conceived a system whose central element would be an executive and supranational body called the High Authority. Independent and drawing upon the technical skills of its individual staff members, the High Authority would ensure the efficacy of ECSC common policies while serving its interests. The High Authority would wield considerable power with a good deal of autonomy yet operate within a narrow judicial framework determined by its representatives.


Some years later, in negotiating the treaty that created the European Economic Community (EEC)—adopted in Rome in 1957—this institutional model was used again, although the more sober Commission replaced the High Authority. In contrast to the ECSC treaty, the framework of the EEC gave its institutions greater autonomy to serve more general objectives. As a consequence, the executive function no longer consisted in the mere application of treaties but in developing legislative initiatives, creating policy, and determining the significance of commitments undertaken by the various nations. To balance intergovernmental and supranational interests, the negotiators reinforced the decision-making role of the Council of the EEC but entrusted to the Commission both control of the European policy agenda and executive powers for the enforcement of norms.

In spite of considerable structural evolution in the European Union (EU) since its founding in 1957, the original institutional scheme has never been redesigned. However, two important developments in the 1980s must be mentioned. The European Parliament, whose members have been directly elected since 1979, gradually and ineluctably imposed itself upon the Commission as its partner and obligatory interlocutor. In addition, the Council began making decisions that no longer required unanimity but only a qualified majority.

These developments subtly altered the Commission's equilibrium. It now had to persuade not one but two organizations of its proposals. However, the qualified majority voting system in the Council, together with the European Parliament's participation in most legislative decisions, gave the Commission greater room to maneuver when it could win the support of ministers within the Council or political groups within the European Parliament. Equilibrium in the actual decision-making process—symbolized by the co-decision-making procedure—has forced the Commission, Council, and Parliament to negotiate compromises satisfactory to all.

The institutional system of the European Union is not specifically bound by the principle—common to all democratic regimes, whether presidential or parliamentary—of the distribution of power. It rests instead on another principle of equilibrium: representational plurality. Whereas the European Parliament's task is to protect the interests of peoples and to express their viewpoints and the Council's is to ensure arbitration of national interests, the neutral or supranational European Commission represents the community as a whole. (In practice, this power-sharing arrangement is not so neatly divided. The Commission does not in fact exclude national or partisan interests.) The role of the European Court of Justice is to ensure that the various institutions and member states respect the treaties and laws adopted on their behalf.


The meaning of the term commission is ambiguous. It refers to the group of twenty-five commissioners chosen by member states and the Parliament, but it also refers to the institution itself, with its numerous civil servants. Commissioners are appointed every five years and are chosen in the six months after parliamentary elections. Prior to 1999, the terms of the Commission and Parliament did not coincide and the European Parliament had no formal authority over the Commission's appointment process. In response to chronic complaints about deficiencies in the European Union's democratic processes, however, representatives coordinated the election of Parliament with the Commission's investiture and set their terms to run concurrently. This allows for the possibility of European elections affecting the Commission's composition and policy-making activity and enables Parliament to exercise more rigorous control over the Commission.

The Commission's nominating process has often been reformed and is complex. First, the European Council, composed of chiefs of state or government leaders, chooses by qualified majority vote a candidate for president. Then Parliament must approve the choice. After that, each government submits the name of the person it intends to appoint to the Commission. The European Union's president-elect must then approve these choices and assign to the candidates the various portfolios and vice presidencies that will form the Commission College (the twenty-five commissioners). This slate is submitted to the European Parliament for approval. To judge the qualifications of the commissioners-elect, deputies interview them before the parliamentary commissions qualified to judge individual portfolios. The European Parliament then pronounces on the whole college. Only after this vote does the newly appointed Commission begin to function.

Commissioners are chosen on the basis of experience and qualifications. Although it is not a requirement, all have occupied a political post—the proportion of commissioners with an important political experience has risen continuously since 1957—and many have been ministers. Once appointed, however, they are required to act in the best interests of the European Union as a whole and they may not, in principle, receive

NameCountryPeriod of tenure
Walter HallsteinGermany1958–1967
Jean ReyBelgium1967–1970
Franco Maria MalfattiItaly1970–1972
Sicco MansholtNetherlands1972–1973
François-Xavier OrtoliFrance1973–1977
Roy JenkinsUnited Kingdom1977–1981
Gaston ThornLuxembourg1981–1985
Jacques DelorsFrance1985–1995
Jacques SanterLuxembourg1995–1999
Romano ProdiItaly1999–2004
José Manuel BarrosoPortugal2004–

instructions from their home governments. The president of the Commission distributes portfolios, can change appointments, and—if a majority of the commissioners agree—may request a resignation.

In terms of policy, the Commission reports and must answer to the Parliament, which can dismiss it with a no-confidence vote. Although such motions have been submitted often enough, mainly by very small minorities, none has ever won the requisite majority: the Commission has never been censured since 1957. This is true in part because the European Commission and Parliament are objective supranational allies and because, given the subsidiary character of partisan interests in the relationship between Parliament and the Commission, censure does not provoke political change but punishes poor administration and bad practices. In March 1999, with a vote of censure in the offing, the commission led by Jaques Santer had to resign because independent experts criticized its financial management.


The Commission College meets once per week, generally on Wednesdays, in Brussels. Commissioners make presentations concerning items on the agenda in their areas of expertise; the commission then takes collective decisions. In theory, decisions are made by a majority but they are most often consensual. The Commission is served by a large staff, including about 25,000 administrators, experts, translators, interpreters, secretaries, and service employees. These posts are distributed among the directorates-general, which draft legislative proposals that the commissioners subsequently sponsor and each of which has a director and specific responsibilities.

The European Commission has four major missions: First, it wields exclusive control of the legislative initiative, drafting all the proposals for European norms that will be voted on by Parliament and Council in accord with the best interests of the European Union and its citizens while disregarding the interests of individual states. However, in order to make appropriate legislative proposals, the Commission keeps in close touch with a wide range of interest groups, with the national administrations, and with experts of all kinds. According to what is known as the subsidiary principle, each proposal must be justified. The Union does not take action (except in the areas that fall within its exclusive competence) unless it is more effective than action taken at the national, regional, or local level.

Second, the Commission is charged with carrying out EU policy. With well-developed policies—for example, those concerning competition, agriculture, and structural funds—the Commission possesses extensive executive powers. The Commission dispenses funds with oversight by the European Court of Auditors and the European Parliament, on a budget determined by the council and the European Parliament on a Commissions' proposal.

Third, the Treaty of Rome grants the Commission powers as "the guardian of the treaties." In collaboration with the Court of Justice, it oversees appropriate application of European law in all member states. In the case of transgression, it takes the necessary measures to bring the offending state back into line.

Fourth, the Commission speaks for the European Union on all international matters within its sphere of activity—for example, in organizations such as the International Trade Organization—and it negotiates international treaties in the name of the European Union.


The Commission has always played a key role in the process of European integration because of its treaty-making assignment; in addition, the individuals who serve on it are in favor of a unified Europe, from which arises a natural tension between its own interests and those of the Council. The Commission's capacity to promote European integration, however, has changed considerably since 1957. At the beginning, it functioned as a political spur, taking most of the initiatives that favored the development of common policies and actively promoting integration. A strong collective spirit characterized the first colleges, as did stable composition and highly influential presidents who were close to the national leaders of the period. This enabled the Commission to put into place the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and to accelerate the introduction of the single customs union.

However, the Commission's activism, its project for financing CAP through the EEC's resources, and the impending installation of the qualified majority voting process in the council, led Charles de Gaulle, in 1965, to oppose what he called the "federalist" deviation of the European integration. A crisis ensued, called the empty chair crisis, that brought the leadership of the Commission into question. During the 1970s, a dull economic outlook, the enduring dominance of intergovernmental logic (derived from the veto power of national representatives within the council) and the growing autonomy of the Commission's directorates-general further weakened the Commission's capacity to develop legislative initiatives. The establishment of the European Council in 1974 confirmed this fall from grace; states or government leaders now took charge of policy creation and the settlement of inter-governmental conflicts, which until then had been the province of the Commission.

The appointment of Jacques Delors as president of the Commission in 1985 renewed its influence and marked the revival of European integration, first through the creation of the single market (31 December 1992) and subsequently through the establishment of the European Union. The Commission played a major role in charting the framework of the single market. It was also central to the policy of "enlargement and deepening" that was decided upon in the 1990s as a way of reinvigorating the process of European unification. But the situation soon took a turn for the worse because of its lack of democratic policy; the commissions led by Jacques Santer and Romano Prodi from 1995 to 2004 could not claim major achievements, with the exception of the European Union's enlargement.

With a union that since 2004 has twenty-five members, it is doubtful that the Commission will recover its leadership role or its ability to propel future European integration. It faces three major hurdles. The first is the political context of the enlarged union, in which the visions and expectations held for some institutions have become more divergent than ever, making legislation an ever more delicate operation. The second is the continuing crisis of legitimacy facing the European Union and its policies. Euroskepticism is an entrenched element of the national political landscapes, and the Commission is a main target of criticism. The third, which partly explains these problems of legitimacy, is the intrinsic originality of the Commission. Europeans are unsure whether it is a sort of political entrepreneur, an agency, an institution for mediation, an executive secretariat, or the European Union's future government. Thus the Commission is confronted with two dangers: confinement to executive tasks, which would diminish both its capacity as an initiator and its political role, and excessive politicization, made possible by the European Union Constitution, which would prevent the Commission from creating consensus and a cooperating spirit among member states.

See alsoCommon Agricultural Policy; European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC); European Court of Justice; European Parliament; European Union; Rome, Treaty of.


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Coombes, David. Politics and Bureaucracy in the European Community: A Portrait of the Commission of the EEC. London, 1970.

Cram, Laura. "The European Commission as a Multi-Organization: Social Policy and IT Policy in the EU." Journal of European Public Policy 1, no. 2 (1994): 195–217.

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Olivier Costa

European Commission

views updated Jun 11 2018

European Commission Institution responsible for initiating and implementing European Union (EU) policy. The Commission drafts policy proposals, which it submits to the European Council of Ministers and the European Parliament (EP). It was established (1967) with the creation of the European Community (EC). There are 20 commissioners, two from France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the UK, and one each from the remaining member states. Each commissioner has responsibility for a different policy area and pledges loyalty to the EU rather than individual member states. The commissioners elect the President of the Commission for a four-year term. The Commission heads a secretariat of c.15,000 civil servants based in Brussels. It is responsible to the European Parliament, which can remove it on a censure motion carried by a two-thirds majority. In 1999, following charges of corruption, Jacques Santer and his commissioners resigned.

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