HNC Business Logo

Home - Units - News - Links - Articles - Handouts - Books - Discussion - Unit 1 - Unit 2 - Unit 3 - Unit 4 - Unit 5 - Unit 6 - Unit 7 - Unit 8

Archived Content

European Union: Main EU Institutions

The European Commission

Relevant Links

European Commission:

Statistical Office of the European Communities:

Joint Research Centres:

other Agencies and Bodies:

Translation Centre for the Bodies of the European Union:

European Environment Information and Observation NETwork:

Information services:


Information Society Project Office (ISPO):

Community Research and Development Information Service (CORDIS):

Members: 20 two from France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom and one from each of the other Member States

Term of Office 5 years (1995-2000)

The role and responsibilities of the European Commission place it firmly at the heart of the European Union's policy-making process. In some respects, it acts as the heart of Europe, from which the other institutions derive much of their energy and purpose.

Without the 20 men and women who are its Members and the 15 000 staff who serve it, the Union would not work. The Council and the European Parliament need a proposal from the Commission before they can pass legislation. EU laws are mainly upheld by Commission action, the integrity of the single market is preserved by Commission policing, agricultural and regional development policies are sustained, managed and developed by the Commission as is development co-operation with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific. Research and technological development programmes, vital for the future of Europe, are orchestrated by the Commission.

The Commission, in close collaboration with the European Council, frequently provides the impulse towards further integration at the crucial moments when it is needed. Decisive initiatives in recent years have been launching the strategy which culminated in the completion of the single market in 1993, the Commission's role in drawing up a blueprint for economic and monetary union and its drive to strengthen economic and social cohesion between the regions of Europe.

It is the 20 Members of the Commission who provide its political leadership and direction. They bring a powerful mix of experience to their tasks, having been members of their national parliaments or of the European Parliament and, in many cases, after having held senior ministerial offices in their home countries.

They are obliged to be completely independent of their national governments and to act only in the interests of the European Union. Such impartiality and commitment enables the Commission to be an effective honest broker, mediating conflicts of interest between Member States when needed.

The present Commission has five women members, more than any of its predecessors. The President is chosen by the Heads of State or Government meeting in the European Council after consulting the European Parliament. The other members of the Commission are nominated by the 15 member governments in consultation with the incoming President.

The Commission meets once a week to conduct its business, which may involve adopting proposals, finalising policy papers and discussing the evolution of its priority policies. Commissioners are expected to give full support to all policies, even when they are adopted by a majority.

Democratic Accountability

The Commission's democratic legitimacy is being increasingly strengthened by more determined and thorough Parliamentary vetting of the President and his colleagues. The full Commission has to be approved by the European Parliament before its members can take office. They can be required to resign en bloc by a parliamentary vote of censure--a power which has never yet been used.

Commission Organisation

With its staff of 15 000, the Commission is the largest of the Union's institutions. The employment total, however, is modest, given the wide range of its responsibilities and also bearing in mind that one fifth work in the translation and interpretation services. Their work is essential to the Commission which must be able to reach all of the citizens of the Union in their own languages.

The Commission is divided into 26 directorates-general (DGs) with an additional 15 or so specialized services. Each DG is headed by a director-general, reporting to a Commissioner who has the political and operational responsibility for the work of the DG.

The work of the Commission

The Commission is not an all-powerful institution. Its proposals, actions and decisions are in various ways scrutinised, checked and judged by all of the other institutions, with the exception of the European Investment Bank. Nor does it take the main decisions on Union policies and priorities --this is the prerogative of the Council and, in some cases, of the European Parliament.

The classic description of the Commission's role identifies three distinct functions:

In fulfilling these functions, the Commission constantly seeks to keep the needs of the ordinary citizen firmly in mind and to keep red tape and bureaucratic regulations to a minimum. It also works very closely with the Court of Auditors to eliminate fraud in the demands made on the Union's budget.

Legislative Initiative

The legislative process begins with a Commission proposal--Community law cannot be made without one. In devising its proposals, the Commission has three constant objectives: to identify the European interest, to consult as widely as is necessary and to respect the principle of subsidiarity.

The European interest means that a legislative proposal reflects the Commission's judgement of what is best for the Union and its citizens as a whole, rather than for sectoral interests or individual countries.

Consultation is essential to the preparation of a proposal. The Commission is no ivory tower. It listens to governments, industry, trade unions, special interest groups and technical experts before completing its final draft.

Subsidiarity is enshrined in the Treaty on European Union and is applied by the Commission in such a way as to ensure that the Union takes action only when it will be more effective than if left to individual Member States.

Once the Commission has formally sent a proposal for legislation to the Council and the Parliament, the Union's law-making process is very dependent on effective co-operation between the three institutions.

The Commission does not have an exclusive right of initiative in the two areas of intergovernmental co-operation covered by the Treaty on European Union--Common Foreign and Security Policy and co-operation on Justice and Home Affairs. But it can submit proposals in the same way as national governments and it participates in discussions at all levels.

Guardian of the Treaties

It is the Commission's job to ensure that Union legislation is applied correctly by the Member States. If they breach their Treaty obligation, they will face Commission action, including legal proceedings at the Court of Justice.

In certain circumstances, the Commission can fine individuals, firms and organisations for infringing Treaty law, subject to their right to appeal to the Court of Justice. Illegal price-fixing and market-rigging cartels have been a constant object of its attention and the subject of very large fines--in late 1994, one group of firms were fined a record ECU 248 million. The Commission also maintains a close scrutiny over government subsidies to industry and certain kinds of State aid must, by Treaty, receive its assent.

Manager and Negotiator

The Commission manages the Union's annual budget (ECU 83 billion) which is dominated by farm spending allocated by the European Agricultural Guidance and Guarantee Fund and by the Structural Funds, designed to even out the economic disparities between the richer and poorer areas.

Its executive responsibilities are wide: it has delegated powers to make rules which fill in the details of Council legislation; it can introduce preventive measures for a limited period to protect the Community market from dumping by third countries; it enforces the Treaty's competition rules and regulates mergers and acquisitions above a certain size.

The Union's effectiveness in the world is enhanced by the Commission's role as negotiator of trade and co-operation agreements with other countries, or groups of countries. More than 100 have such agreements with the Union including the developing countries of Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific which are covered by the Lomé Convention, and those of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union which receive important technical assistance under the PHARE and TACIS programmes. The countries of the southern Mediterranean are also benefiting from a European development aid effort.

Believing that greater transparency and openness will close the gap between the European institutions and ordinary citizens, the Commission has taken a number of steps to improve public access to its documents. Its approach is based on the principle that the citizen's access to documents will be constrained only by the need to protect certain public and private interests.

Taken from


Home - Units - News - Links - Articles - Handouts - Books - Discussion - Unit 1 - Unit 2 - Unit 3 - Unit 4 - Unit 5 - Unit 6 - Unit 7 - Unit 8

All content copyright 2007 - 2013

European Union Links

All content copyright © 2007 - 2013