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Coaches 19 October!

  • The European Commission is the EU civil service and also the executive body of the EU.
  • Like the UK executive body (the Cabinet) and the UK civil service, its members are mostly appointed to their roles rather than elected.
  • This is not undemocratic because, like the UK Cabinet and civil service, the Commission only produces proposals for laws. These are then debated and passed or rejected by democratically elected representatives.
  • It is irrelevant to say, as some Brexit supporters do, that the general public cannot vote for the President of the Commission; the role involves representing Europe as a whole when abroad and generally acting in the interests of the EU as a whole. The President does not represent the general European public and so is not elected by them; the public’s representation in the EU is in the European Parliament which the citizens of Europe do elect directly.

"The EU Commission is the executive body of the EU. It combines roles of the British Cabinet and civil service. The Commission proposes laws but cannot pass them. It is not undemocratic because it cannot make laws without the involvement of directly elected representatives of EU citizens."

  • The Commission is answerable both to the governments of EU member states and to elected representatives of the people in the European Parliament. In 1999, the entire Commission resigned [PDF] when the European Parliament threatened to impeach them.
  • The President of the Commission is elected (by Members of the European Parliament) for a five year term; the next election will be in 2019 following the 2019 European Parliament elections. Jean Claude Juncker, the President of the Commission from 2014, has stated he will not stand for re-election to the position in 2019.
  • The Commission is the only EU body which is allowed to write proposals for EU laws. This is to ensure that the proposals are applicable to Europe as a whole, rather than being tailored to represent only the narrower interests of one or more EU member countries.
  • There are no “unelected Eurocrats telling us what to do” - the EU is extremely democratic. Member states and elected representatives of the people of the EU must vote on the Commission’s proposals before they become law. If the member states and the European Parliament cannot agree on a proposal from the Commission, it is discarded and does not become European law.
  • The current Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker can be outspoken about some issues but he cannot unilaterally make his views law: they must first pass debate by the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union.
  • In the EU lawmaking process, the Commission can be thought of as representing “Europe” - the collective body as opposed to the potentially competing interests of the member states. The Council of the EU represents the member states and the European Parliament represents the people of Europe.
  • The European Commission is responsible for enforcing EU law and prosecuting violations of it before the Court of Justice for the European Union if necessary. Whilst it is true that the UK loses 75% of the cases it has contested in CJEU, this is because the Commission only brings cases it expects to win. France lost over 90% of its CJEU cases at one time.

The European Commission is the civil service and executive body of the European Union, although it also contains roles similar to the Cabinet of the UK Government. Confusion about the role of the Commission is the origin of the much-travelled myths about “unelected Brussels bureaucrats telling us what to do”. The Commission is headed by its President (from 1 November 2014, Jean-Claude Juncker) and 28 Commissioners who are appointed at the recommendation of each EU member state. The Commission writes proposed EU laws and is the only EU body allowed to do this, but it DOES NOT make EU laws – the proposals the Commission produces are forwarded to the European Parliament for debate and discussion. The proposed laws that the Commission writes are, in turn, produced at the request of the European Council, which is composed of the heads of government of each EU member country plus the President of the Commission and the President of the European Council.

"The EU Commission is the source of the much-travelled myth about 'unelected Brussels bureaucrats telling the UK what to do' - but the Commission cannot make laws, only propose them, just like the UK civil service and Government ministers."

The President of the European Commission is elected by the European Parliament, after various proposed candidates are put forward by the various political factions in the European Parliament and the EU member states (via the Council of the EU). In the 2014 European Parliament Elections, the MEPs from each EU member state that affiliated to the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) grouping gained the most seats in the European Parliament and so got their candidate for President of the Commission (Juncker) elected.

Individual Commissioners are nominated by the governments of each EU member state, making 28 in total including the UK’s candidate. Becoming a Commissioner is often the culmination of a long career in the civil service or politics; Commissioners are required to swear an oath of allegiance to the European Union and the job requires that they take a Europe-wide view of events and affairs rather than what their individual national affiliation might require. Each prospective Commissioner is subject to interview and approval by MEPs in the European Parliament before they are appointed. Once appointed, the individual Commissioners are allocated a portfolio (an area of expertise to specialise in) – for example, security or financial services. This is where similarities to the Cabinet of a national government such as the UK’s come in.  They are then responsible for developing proposed EU laws in this area to forward to the European Parliament for debate. In this respect they are similar to the Cabinet members who work with (and are appointed by) the UK Prime Minister. The individual Commissioners remain answerable to the European Parliament as well as to the European Council (and as a result, the governments of the member states of the EU). Commissioners can be dismissed by a two-thirds majority vote in the European Parliament.  This has never actually happened, but in 1999 the entire Commission including its then-President resigned when it became apparent that the MEPs in the European Parliament were likely to force their dismissal.

Beneath the President and the Commissioners lie a large number of staff members who carry out the day-to-day work of the Commission. The myth that the EU is “ruled by a sprawling bureaucracy” is rooted in the idea that there are vast numbers of Commission staff; in fact it has fewer employees than the council of a typical UK city.

As an aside, under pressure from Euro-sceptic MPs in the UK Conservative Party, David Cameron removed the UK Conservative Party from the EPP grouping in 2009 (these Conservative UK MPs considered the EPP too pro-EU for their liking) and formed a new grouping: the European Conservative and Reformists (ECR) Group. This meant that the UK lost influence in the EU, because the ECR Group did not gain enough seats in the 2014s European Parliament elections to stand a chance of getting their candidate for President of the Commission elected.

The European Commission is also responsible for enforcing EU law, particularly that related to the single market and fair competition. This means bringing member states before the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The UK has lost 75% of the cases it has contested before the ECJ but this is because the Commission and its lawyers are very well-versed in EU law and only bring cases they expect to win at the ECJ. France has fared even worse, with a loss rate at one stage reaching 90%. The UK benefits massively from the fair and level playing field for pan-EU trade that the European Commission enforces and just as we have the right to be angry and indignant when other EU member states break the rules, so other EU member states have the right to expect that we will be brought back into line if we break the EU laws we agreed to.

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