The European Commission grew out of the separate administrative arms of the ECSC, the EEC, and Euratom. The Treaties of Rome created separate nine-member Commissions for the EEC and Euratom, whose members were nominated by national governments for four-year terms. Under the terms of the 1965 Merger Treaty, the three separate Commissions were merged in 1967 into a new Commission of the European Communities, known for short as the European Commission.
As the Community expanded, the number of commissioners grew. At first there were nine (two each from France, West Germany, and Italy and one each from the Benelux states). The number increased to thirteen in 1973 with the accession of Britain, Denmark, and Ireland; to fourteen in 1981 with the accession of Greece; to seventeen in 1986 with the accession of Spain and Portugal; and then to 20 in 1995 with the accession of Austria, Sweden, and Finland (Borzel 2001). The European Commission is based in Brussels.
Until 1992 it was headquartered in the Berlaymont building near the city center, but it was then discovered (with delicious irony) that the Berlaymont did not meet one of the EC’s own regulations on asbestos, so the building was emptied and renovated, and the Commission staff was relocated to various new and existing buildings around the city. The label “Commission” is used interchangeably (and confusingly) to describe two entities: the college of twenty commissioners that heads the institution and the 16,500 bureaucrats who make up its body.
It has five main elements: the College of Commissioners, the president of the Commission, the directorates-general, the Secretariat General, and the advisory committees. The European Commission is the core executive body at the heart of the EU (Nugent 1997) and a catalyst of European integration and transformation of national government systems. The European Commission is both the executive arm of the European Union and its bureaucracy; it is responsible for initiating and overseeing the implementation of EU law and for promoting the interests of the EU as a whole.
It is the most supranational of the EU institutions and has long been at the heart of the process of European integration. Although it has no direct equivalent in the United States, it has elements of the powers of the executive branch, the federal bureaucracy, and the Supreme Court. First, it is like the cabinet in the sense that it is headed by a group of twenty commissioners, each responsible for particular policy areas and for overseeing one or more directorates-general, the functional equivalent of federal government departments.
But while the U. S. cabinet is appointed by the president with Senate approval, European Commissioners are appointed by the member states and are subject to collective (but not individual) approval by the European Parliament. Second, like the U. S. presidency, the Commission proposes new policy ideas and is responsible for drawing up the EU budget. Unlike the U. S. president, it can also draft new legislation. The Commission has always been at the heart of the continuing debate over the balance of power between the EU and the member states.
Concerns regularly surface about its supranational tendencies, and it has fought a constant tug-of-war with the intergovernmental Council of Ministers. European federalism was championed by the Commission’s first president-Walter Hallstein of Germany – in the face of Charles de Gaulle’s preference for limiting the powers of the EEC. The 1965 crisis broke when de Gaulle challenged the right of the Commission to initiate the policy process, and the Commission attempted to collect receipts from the EC’s common external tariff.
This would have provided the Commission with an independent source of funds, thus loosening the grip of the member states. Although the Luxembourg compromise obliged the Commission to consult more closely with the Council of Ministers and de Gaulle was able to veto the reappointment of Hallstein in 1967, the crisis ironically confirmed the right of the Commission to initiate policies. When the Commission and the ECJ embarked on a crusade to strengthen EU enforcement in the early 1990s, they did so for a clear and identifiable reason.
This reason was the European internal market and the compliance problems that threatened the realization of this project. First, that compliance problems related to the internal market induced the Commission to strengthen its enforcement operations and widen its enforcement repertoire. Second, that the Commission consistently introduced or reinforced practices which were relatively more resource efficient and thus yielded more enforcement for a given amount of resources.
Taken together, these conclusions encourage an additional observation – that the Commission, in the exercise of its supervisory role, evidently enjoyed sufficient room for maneuver to shape centralized enforcement. This observation raises the fundamental question of whether or not the Commission exerted independent influence when transforming the use of the infringement procedure. I conclude that the Commission enjoyed the explicit or implicit support of member governments, which favored an infringement procedure that was sufficiently efficient and effective to secure mutual commitments and the realization of the internal market.
The Commission has been behind much of the legal output of the EU as well as some of the most critical EU policy initiatives of the last 10-20 years. Its powers have depended largely on a combination of its leadership – particularly the incumbent president – and the changing attitudes of the leaders of member states toward the work of the Commission. As time goes on, pressure is likely to grow for the Commission to become more accountable and for EU citizens to have more say through the European Parliament in the appointment of commissioners and the president (Alter 2001).
For example, pressure is growing for each commissioner to be subject to confirmation by the Parliament. Political union – whatever form it takes – will almost inevitably lead to pressure for a directly elected president, whose position and powers would be tied more closely to the balance of political party groups in the European Parliament. Although the true nexus of EU powers lies in the relationship between the Commission and the Council of Ministers, this is slowly changing as the Parliament becomes more powerful and assertive.
The European Commission is the main executive and bureaucratic arm of the EU; it is responsible for ensuring that the underlying goals and principles of the treaties are turned into practical law and policies. As the power and reach of the EU have grown, so have the size and workload of the Commission, but it has much less power than most EU citizens probably think (Hix 1998). The status of the Commission has been exaggerated in part because of traditional concerns and doubts about bureaucracies and in part because of the secrecy that surrounds the work of the much more powerful Council of Ministers.
Alter, Karen J. 2001. Establishing the Supremacy of European Law: The Making of an International Rule of Law in Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Borzel, Tanja A. 2001. Non-compliance in the European Union: pathology or statistical artefact? Journal of European Public Policy 8 (5): 803-24. Hix, Simon. 1998. The study of the European Union II: the ‘new governance’ agenda and its rival. Journal of European Public Policy 5 (1): 38-65. Nugent, N. (ed. ). 1997. At the Heart of the Union. Studies of the European Commission. Houndmills: Macmillan Press.