European Commission

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Series Details March 2006
Publication Date 2006
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The European Commission is the civil service of the European Union. It has four main roles:

to make proposals for new legislation to the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union

  • to act as the 'guardian' of the EU treaties
  • to implement and manage EU policy and the budget
  • to represent the EU on the international stage, for example by negotiating agreements between the EU and other countries.

Whilst the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament represent the interests of the Member States and citizens respectively, the European Commission represents Community interests.

On 22 November 2004 a new Commission took office under President José Manuel Barroso. There is now one Commissioner per Member State - a total of 27, including the President.

The 1992 Maastricht Treaty on European Union lengthened the Commission's term of office to five years in order to synchronise with the European Parliament's electoral terms.

The Commission is divided into policy-specific departments known as Directorates-General (DGs) and into cross-departmental (shared) Services.

The way in which the Commission is appointed and its term of office is laid down in the Treaty establishing the European Community (Articles 211-219 deal exclusively with Commission matters, although relevant provisions are also found in other Articles).

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Originally, each Community had its own executive: a High Authority for the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) of 1951, and a Commission for each of the two Communities set up by the Treaties of Rome in 1957 - the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (EAEC). The 1965 'Treaty Establishing a Single Council and a Single Commission of the European Communities' (the 'Merger Treaty'- which took effect on 1 July 1967) merged the ECSC High Authority, and the Commissions of the EEC and EAEC into a single European Commission. (The term 'European Commission' was introduced in November 1993 as an alternative form of the official name 'Commission of the European Communities).

The ECSC Treaty expired on 23 July 2002, 50 years after its entry into force. Following the Protocol attached to the Nice Treaty, Member States of the ECSC transferred the assets and liabilities of the ECSC to the European Union.

The first Commission President was Walter Hallstein, who served from 1958 to 1967 and did much to promote the Commission's authority and independence. Arguably the best-known Commission President was Jacques Delors, whose tenure (1985-1995) raised the Commission's profile and encompassed a number of significant developments, including the advent of the Single Market, the Single European Act, the Treaty on European Union, German reunification, the accession of Austria, Finland, Portugal, Spain and Sweden, and the setting in motion of the moves towards a Single Currency.

The Commission headed by Delors' successor, Jacques Santer, resigned on 15 March 1999, following a critical report by a Committee of Independent Experts set up by the European Parliament: First report on allegations regarding fraud, mismanagement and nepotism in the European Commission.

The next Commission under President Romano Prodi formally took office on 14 September 1999 and although its term of office was due to finish on 31 October 2004, it was asked to stay on for another three weeks in a caretaker position. This was necessary since incoming Commission President José Manuel Barroso had not submitted his new Commission for approval by the European Parliament as it was facing the prospect of a rejection. Barroso amended his team of Commissioners in three positions and the European Parliament approved the new European Commission on 18 November 2004. On 22 November 2004 the new College of Commissioners took office.

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The Commission's role is set out in the Treaties, notably in Article 211 of the Treaty establishing the European Community, which states:

'In order to ensure the proper functioning and development of the common market, the Commission shall:

  • ensure that the provisions of this Treaty and the measures taken by the institutions pursuant thereto are applied;
  • formulate recommendations or deliver opinions on matters dealt with in this Treaty, if it expressly so provides or if the Commission considers it necessary;
  • have its own power of decision and participate in the shaping of measures taken by the Council and by the European Parliament in the manner provided for in this Treaty;
  • exercise the powers conferred on it by the Council for the implementation of the rules laid down by the latter.'

Commission activities can be grouped under the following four headings:

Initiating proposals for legislation

In the context of the Treaty establishing the European Community, the Commission is the only EU body entitled to make proposals for new legislation. Although the European Parliament may 'request the Commission to submit any appropriate proposal on matters on which it considers that a Community act is required...' [Article 192], only the Commission - under its right of initiative - can draft and formally present a proposal. In practice, the Council of Ministers may also, on occasion, request that the Commission draft a legislative proposal.

In relation to the Second and Third Pillars of the Union - the inter-governmental elements, covering the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and co-operation in Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) respectively - the Commission does not have an exclusive right of initiative, but can submit proposals and participate in discussions in the same way as national governments.

Implementing EU policies and the budget

In areas such as competition, agriculture and trade, the Commission has either been given powers under the Treaty or has had them delegated by the Council of Ministers. In such areas it has a significant degree of autonomy, and can take decisions without submitting proposals to the Council. The Commission manages and implements the annual budget and the Structural Funds.

Acting as 'guardian of the Treaties'

The Commission, together with the Court of Justice, is responsible for ensuring that EU legislation is correctly applied by the Member States. It has the power to act against any organisation or person in the public or private sector who fails to comply with the requirements of the Treaties, including initiating legal proceedings and levying fines. (See Monitoring the application of Community law)

Representing the EU on the international stage

In addition to liaising internationally for the EU and negotiating trade agreements, the Commission negotiates association agreements with third countries.

The role of the Commission and other issues are summarised in a Governance Statement of the European Commission of 30 May 2007, which states:

The mission of the European Commission is to promote the general interest of the European
Union. It does so by participating in the decision-making process, in particular by presenting
proposals for European law, by overseeing the correct implementation of the Treaties and
European law, and by carrying out common policies and managing funds.
This governance statement covers the internal functioning of the Commission: the actors,
strategic planning, the responsibility and accountability mechanisms, the openness and
transparency framework, the mechanism to provide for a quality regulatory framework in the
EU, and finally the measures to promote ethics within the Commission.

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Structure and composition

The European Commission is managed by a 'college' of European Commissioners, one of whom is President of the Commission. Prior to joining the Commission, Commissioners will usually have held senior positions in national parliaments or governments. Since the Maastricht Treaty on European Union Commissioners are nominated for a renewable five year term in line with the European Parliament's term of office.

Members of the Commission are required to be 'completely independent in the performance of their duties' and 'shall neither seek nor take instructions from any government or from any other body.' Member States are expected to respect Commissioners' independence, and not seek to influence them.

Prior to the latest enlargement in 2004 there were 20 Commissioners - two from each of the five larger Member States (France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom) and one each from all the other Member States. From 1 May 2004 10 new Commissioners from the acceding Member States came into office, shadowing the portfolio of an existing European Commissioner, thus making 30 Commissioners for a brief period. Under the Treaty of Nice, with the new Barroso Commission from November 2004 there is now only one Commissioner per Member State, making a total of 25.

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The Treaties of Maastricht and Amsterdam completely overhauled the procedure for appointing the Commission, introducing a confirmation procedure. The Treaty of Nice, which entered into force on 1 February 2003, introduced further changes to the procedure (Article 214, paragraph 2, Treaty establishing the European Community). This new system applied to the nominations/selections for the 2004-2009 Commission as described below.

There are two stages to the procedure, the first relating to the President, the second to the Commission as a whole.

a) The President

Responsibility for nominating the President now rests with the European Council, acting by qualified majority instead of the consensus between Member States required in the past. The Brussels European Council meeting in Brussels on 29 June 2004 nominated José Manuel Barroso as President of the Commission.

Their nominee is then subject to a vote of approval by the European Parliament; this took place on 22 July 2004 during the new Parliament's constituent plenary session. The vote, which was preceded by a statement by José Manuel Barroso and a debate, was taken by secret ballot and approved the nomination by 413 votes in favour out of 711 votes cast.

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b) The Commission as a whole

Once the President has been approved, the Council, acting by a qualified majority and in agreement with the appointed President, adopts the list of the other persons it intends to appoint as members of the Commission, drawn up in accordance with nominations by national governments. The Commission President allocates job portfolios to the individual Commissioners. These 24 Commissioners-designate must also receive a vote of approval in a plenary session of the European Parliament, after undergoing individual hearings before the appropriate policy committees of the European Parliament.

Finally, after the entire body has been approved by Parliament, the President and the Members of the Commission are appointed by the Council, acting by qualified majority. The Treaty states that Commissioners must tender their resignation if, with the approval of the full Commission, they are requested to do so by the President.

The Treaty provides that the President will decide how the Commission will be organised internally in order to ensure that its action is coherent, efficient and carried out under collective responsibility. The President will structure and distribute the Commission's responsibilities between its members.

Commission 2004-2009

The team of Commissioners-designate nominated by José Barroso were subject to individual hearings before the relevant committees of the European Parliament between 27 September and 8 October 2004. Each committee asked questions relevant to their specific area of policy. In addition, prior to these hearings, candidates had to fill out a general questionnaire to assess their personality and experience and their ideas about the future of the EU. During these hearings the Italian nominee was rejected by the Parliament's Civil Liberties Committee and MEPs also stressed their dissatisfaction with other members of Barroso's team. Under current provisions Parliament cannot reject any one Commissioner individually. Following this, the President-elect, Mr Barroso, decided not to present his Commission to Parliament for approval during the second October part-session, on the grounds that he needed more time to hold further talks with Parliament and the Member States. A revised proposal on the composition of the future Commission was presented to the European Council and a second round of parliamentary hearings was held on 15-16 November.

This revised team was finally approved by the European Parliament on 18 November, allowing the new Commission to take up office on 22 November 2004, some three weeks later than originally envisaged. During this period the Prodi Commission stayed in office in a caretaker capacity.

See also

Commissioners are appointed to represent the Commission, not the interests of their own Member State. Their independence and general behaviour are governed by a Code of conduct for Commissioners (SEC(2004)1487/2):

The Treaty articles on the Commission make special reference to the complete
independence enjoyed by the Members of the Commission, who are required to
discharge their duties in the general interest of the Community. In the performance of
their duties they must neither seek nor take instructions from any government or from
any other body.
In addition, the general interest requires that in their official and private lives
Commissioners should behave in a manner that is in keeping with the dignity of their

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Organisation of the Commission

Commissioners meet together once a week. At the Commission's weekly College meetings"> each agenda item is presented by the Commissioner responsible for that issue. Both agendas and minutes are published on Europa (see the Register and choose ‘Agendas’ or ‘Minutes’ from the drop-down box; e.g. Minutes of the 1843rd meeting of the Commission, on 17 September 2008). Decisions are taken by majority vote. The General Report 2007 showed that the Commission met 43 times in 2007. It 'sent 462 proposals for directives, regulations and decisions and made three recommendation. It also presented 358 communications and reports, 11 Green Papers and four White Papers.'

Each Commissioner has overall responsibility for the work of one or more Directorates-General or Services. To assist them, each has a small 'cabinet' - a group of officials working in his/her private office. Following concern over the composition and influence of cabinets, each now comprises only six members, and is expected to include at least three different nationalities. Within each DG, policy-making is the responsibility of individual Directorates.

The rules of procedure of the European Commission were last revised in November 2005 by Decision 2005/960/EC.

There is no formal rule that states that the Commission reflects the political composition of the European Parliament but it is seen as a growing trend; it is also seen as important that the 'College of Commissioners' includes a significant proportion of women (in 1999, the European Parliament's Resolution on the resignation of the Commission and the appointment of a new Commission insisted 'that the number of new women Commissioners increase substantially in the new College of Commissioners'). The Barroso Commission which took office in November 2004 had seven female members out of the total of 25 - at 28% the highest proportion ever. That was later eclipsed when Commissioners from Bulgaria and Romania joined in 2007, taking the figure to 10 women of a total 27 Commissioners - i.e. 37%.

The President of the Commission participates alongside the Heads of State or Government of the Member States at meetings of the European Council. The Commission is answerable to the European Parliament which has the power to dismiss it by a censure motion (vote of no confidence). The Commission is represented at all sessions of the European Parliament.

On 26 May 2005 a new Framework Agreement on relations between the European Parliament and the Commission was endorsed. The agreement covers key questions, such as how the Parliament approves new Commissioners, how the Commission President deals with potential conflicts of interest and ensures greater transparency on expert groups which advise the Commission. It also includes a commitment for regular meetings between the Parliament's Conference of Presidents and the Commission President or Vice-President. In addition, the Commission will give the Parliament a list of members of expert groups which it uses during the preparation of new legislative proposals.

In 2005 a new protocol of cooperation was signed between the Commission and the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC). Building on a 2001 agreement, it was designed to improve communication with citizens and civil society groups, and enhance cooperation between the Commission's DGs and the Sections of the EESC. A similar protocol was signed with the Committee of the Regions (CoR), again renewing a 2001 agreement, and focusing on features specific to the CoR, in particular in relation to subsidiarity. Its provisions included: presenting at the start of each year the broad outlines of the Commission’s annual work programme to the CoR plenary assembly; the Commission President and/or relevant Vice-President meeting with the President of the CoR to examine respective priorities and any issues of common interest; improving the actions taken by the Commission on CoR opinions. On 5 June 2007, an addendum to the protocol was signed, specifically concerning decentralised communication policy, and recognising ‘local and regional authorities' role in providing information on Community policies, and the essential contribution that the CoR can make by mobilising networks of elected representatives and associations’ (see General Report 2005).

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Directorates-General and Services

The Commission is the largest of the EU Institutions. According to the General Report 2007, in 2007 the Commission had 19,004 permanent administrative posts, 366 temporary administrative posts, and 3,828 permanent research posts, plus some 5,000 posts associated with offices attached to the Commission and with the agencies.

The Commission is divided into Directorates-General (DGs) and Services. Their number and titles can vary, as each new President tends to re-organise the Commission as he (there has never been a female Commission President) see fit (for additional information see Staff figures and Commission directorates-general and services: official titles). The Commission's website currently lists 40DGs and Services split by four main functions:

Policies (17)

External Relations (6)

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