Democracy & Justice

What Is the European Commission: Functions, Powers, Operation, Leaders

What is the European Commission, how does it work, and what are its powers? Here’s a closer look at one of Europe’s most important and powerful bodies.

by Jonathan Day

It’s likely that you’ve heard of the European Commission. Whether because of new regulations it has proposed, or because of its response to a crisis or other event, or even because it’s used as a “bogeyman” by Eurosceptic national governments, the Commission is often in the news. But what are its powers, and how does it work?

What is the European Commission?

The European Commission is the European Union’s executive body – it enforces EU laws, proposes new ones, and implements policies and the EU budget. It is headed by a president, currently German politician Ursula von der Leyen, who leads 27 commission members, one from each member state. These members are often called “commissioners” and have designated portfolios, so it’s essentially a typical executive cabinet, headed by a president who is supported by ministers.

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The commissioners form the College of Commissioners, composed of the president of the European Commission, eight vice-presidents, including three executive vice-presidents, and the high representative of the Union for foreign affairs and security policy, while the remaining 18 commissioners are each given responsibility for a portfolio.

The Commission is divided into departments known as Directorates-General (DGs) that focus on specific issues, like DG for Agriculture and Rural Development and DG for Health and Food Safety. Each of these departments is headed by one of the commissioners – the aforementioned “portfolio” they’re responsible for. And although there is one commissioner from each member state, they are bound by their oath of office to work in the interests of the EU as a whole rather than their own member state.

History of the European Commission

The origins of the European Commission date to the earliest days of the modern push for European integration that followed the Second World War. The new European Coal and Steel Community, the precursor to the European Union, was headed by the High Authority beginning in 1951. The High Authority was an independent executive body whose power was checked by a Common Assembly.

In 1958, two more European “communities” were established: the European Economic Community and the European Atomic Energy Community. These two communities were headed not by their own versions of the High Authority but by “Commissions” in order to placate concerns by European countries over the growing power of the High Authority (the name surely did little to allay their concerns).

These three bodies – the High Authority and the two Commissions, collectively known as the European Executives – exercised executive power over their designated communities until 1967. On July 1st of that year, these three bodies merged to become the Commission of the European Communities – the European Commission. The new European Commission was vested with executive authority over all European communities until they themselves were merged under the Treaty on European Union, which created the modern EU in 1993.

What are its functions? How much power does it hold?

The European Commission has a number of functions. As the EU’s executive branch, its primary function is to enforce EU law. But its position also means it represents the EU internationally, and it is also tasked with managing the bloc’s budget. The primary functions of the Commission are:

-Legislation: The Commission initiates new legislation, making proposals for laws that are then sent to the European Parliament and Council of the European Union, the two main lawmaking bodies of the EU.

-Enforcing EU law: The Commission can take action against member states, businesses or other actors that fail to comply with EU law. The European Court of Justice can adjudicate challenges to the EC’s enforcement.

-Policy: The Commission manages the bloc’s internal policies, drafts the annual budgets and checks to see how EU money is being spent.

-Representation: The Commission represents the EU in negotiations with other countries or supranational bodies, such as NATO or the UN.

Given that the European Commission has sole executive authority, sole responsibility for preparing and proposing new European laws, and control over the budget, it clearly has immense power. That said, the European Commission president must be nominated by the Council and approved by the Parliament, and these two bodies have ultimate legislative authority, so there are robust checks and balances in place.

How does the European Commission work?

The president of the Commission defines the body’s policy direction and works with the commissioners to decide strategic objectives and create the annual work program. The vice-presidents act on behalf of the president and coordinate the Commission’s work. Priority projects are defined to help ensure that the commissioners work together in a close and flexible manner.

Each of the 27 commissioners has an equal voice in the decision-making process, although they do not have any individual decision-making powers, except when authorized in extraordinary situations. Commissioners support vice-presidents in submitting proposals to the College of Commissioners. Most often, decisions are made by consensus, but sometimes there are votes held, with every Commissioner getting one vote and a simple majority needed to prevail.

The relevant Directorate-General (each of which is headed by a Director-General, answerable to the relevant Commissioner) then takes up the subject that was decided on and, often, formulates a draft legislative proposal. This proposal is then returned to all commissioners for adoption at their weekly meeting. If adopted, it becomes an official legislative proposal and is then sent to the Council and the Parliament, which take over the legislative process.

Who are the leaders of it?

The European Commission is headed by a president, currently Ursula von der Leyen of Germany. Commission presidents are proposed by the European Council (the 27 heads of state) and elected by the European Parliament to a five-year term. Presidential candidates nominated by the Council are often leading national politicians, although this is not a requirement. [subscribe title={Interested in learning more about how the EU operates? Sign up!}]

The president, of course, is supported by the College of Commissioners. They are nominated on the basis of the suggestions made by the national governments, and are themselves often experienced national or even EU politicians, as is evident from the current list of commissioners.

Why does it play an important part in the EU?

As the executive body, the European Commission helps to shape the EU's overall strategy, proposes new laws, monitors their implementation and manages the Union’s budget. Moreover, it is tasked with representing the bloc internationally. Given all of these responsibilities, it is clear that the Commission is perhaps the most recognizable feature of the European Union. It has acted as the driving force for European integration and political cohesiveness for decades, and thus is seen by many as the most important and most powerful EU body.


Further reading:

What is Crisis Response Mechanism and How Does it Work?

Rights Checklist: Liberties’ Advocacy Priorities for the Czech EU Presidency

European Commission Raises Concerns About Ireland’s Planned Electoral Reform Bill



Photo credit: Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay

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