The European Commission, arguably the most controversial of the EU’s institutions, is based in Brussels and draws up treaties, laws and policies. In this sense, the European Commission is an extremely important and powerful body that has the right to impose its decisions on member states of the European Union (EU) and it is this fact that concerns many people involved in British politics

The European Commission was created in 1957 by the Treaty of Rome. It is made up of bureaucrats from each country that belongs to the EU – in this sense, it is the civil service of the EU, but a civil service that has legislative and executive powers. These bureaucrats are expected to work for the EU and not their parent country i.e. their loyalty is to the EU and they do not undermine the authority of the EU in favour of their home country.

The Commission is made up of 17,000 people. It has been labelled hopelessly overstaffed by critics but these 17,000 officials work for 320 million people in the EU. The British Civil Service works for 50 million people and is staffed by many more than the Commission – the Ministry of Defence alone has 116,000 civilians working for it.

The head of the European Commission is the president. This is a powerful position as the president can influence the direction of the Commission. In the early-1990’s the Commission president was Jacques Delor and such was his influence on the Commission that the development plan for the European Commission was known as the “Delor’s Plan”. This has stuck despite Delor retiring in 1995.

Below the president, but with great power, are twenty commissioners who have a very specific remit to work in such as transport, environment etc. They, too, have the opportunity to shape policy especially if their ideas fit in with those of the president. Commissioners serve for 5 years though their term of office can be extended. Commissioners are nominated by a member state and currently, the larger state of the EU nominate 2 people while the smaller ones nominate 1. Commissioners present policy proposals to the Council of Ministers.

Each commissioner has a cabinet. This is appointed by the commissioner him/herself and the cabinet acts as an advisory body to the commissioner.

The Commission via its commissioners has to put any legislative proposals to the Council of Ministers. If these proposals are approved, they become law and it is the task of the Commission to administer what now become EU policies.

The Commission has come in for a great deal of criticism as it is not an elected body. The voting public of the European Union has no input into who serves on the European Commission. The Commission also has the right to introduce onto a national government policies that a government may not have included in their election manifesto – but that national government has to introduce them as the European Commission has passed them.

A recent example to impact Britain on January 1st 2002, has been the Commission’s ruling that old refrigerators cannot be simply dumped by shops because of their impact on the environment. The Commission has ruled that they have to be specially disposed of. Britain does not have the facilities to do this. Britain has taken onboard this ruling but has had to resort to simply storing old refrigerators while facilities are built to dispose of them.

However, if Britain had failed to introduce this ruling, there is not a great deal the Commission could do to enforce its authority except fine Britain via the European Court. In this sense, the Commission only works if the member states in the European Union are compliant regarding Commission decisions.

The greatest crisis faced by the Commission came in 1999 when all 20 commissioners resigned due to a scandal involving just four of them. In March 1999, an independent report to the European Parliament claimed that none of the commissioners “had the slightest sense of responsibility.” 

The Parliament was not allowed to sack individual commissioners but clearly such a report was so damaging that all the 20 commissioners were left with no other choice but to resign en masse. The president, Jacques Santer was replaced by Romano Prodi of Italy.