EU facts behind the claims: 'Brussels bureaucrats'

Last updated: 25 Apr 2016

“The unelected European Commission which runs the EU…” (Leave) 

“The European Commission doesn’t make laws. It only makes proposals, which are then debated, amended and passed (or rejected) by elected national governments and directly-elected MEPs” (Remain)

The European Commission is an influential body, whose operation is central to the working of the EU.

Although it is one of several EU institutions that work closely together in decision-making, the Commission is probably the institution that comes to mind when people think about the EU.

The role it plays and its influence is controversial, according to UK in a Changing Europe Fellow Hussein Kassim.

As a permanent bureaucracy with important political functions, the Commission is more powerful than the administrators of most international organisations.

The Commission is important, but doesn’t run the EU

Claims that the EU is run by the European Commission, or that the Commission is the government of Europe, aren’t correct.

They exaggerate the power of the Commission, and understate the role of other institutions, which it’s generally correct to say debate, amend and pass EU laws.

They also ignore the influence of the EU’s member countries.

This may be because the European Union is a political system that borrows from many places without taking any one in particular as a model. 

The EU has little in common with Whitehall or Westminster, making it difficult to describe in terms of the way government works in the UK.

The Commission has political leadership as well as administrative functions

The European Commission formally proposes new laws, oversees the budget, manages some policies, and represents the EU in trade agreements.

It also has more staff than other EU institutions. There are around 33,000 civil servants in the Commission, 68% of whom are on permanent contracts.

It is led by a 28-person ‘College’, which includes one Commissioner from each member country. This is headed by the Commission President, currently the former prime minister of Luxembourg, Jean-Claude Juncker.

The Commission President is nominated by the prime ministers and presidents of the EU member states. The President then allocates jobs to other Commissioners, who are nominated by their government.

The whole College must be approved by a majority vote in the European Parliament and among prime ministers and presidents.

But there are other EU bodies, equally or more important

The Commission’s size, influence, responsibilities and, political leadership explain why it’s often said to “run the EU”. But it is not the most important institution when it comes to making decisions.

That distinction belongs to the European Council, according to Professor Kassim. This brings together the top political leaders from the member states.

Crucially, the Commission has only a limited role in EU law-making. It can decide some less important rules, and in general it is the only institution that can propose new laws, but it doesn’t have the power to pass them on its own.

Professor Kassim says that many of the proposals that it brings forward have been requested by national political leaders. And there is no guarantee that a Commission proposal will become a law.

The authority to make law belongs to the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union.

The Parliament is directly elected by EU citizens every five years. The Council of the European Union, sometimes called the Council of Ministers, is where representatives of all 28 member countries negotiate.

These two institutions debate, amend and pass EU law. Each one has a veto.

Put differently, a Commission proposal only becomes an EU law when it attracts the support of two majorities. It needs both a majority in the Council, representing at least 55% of EU countries and 65% of the EU population, and a majority in the Parliament.

Although it doesn’t pass EU laws, the Commission helps to enforce them

The Commission plays other roles too. It's responsible, along with the EU court, for ensuring that EU law is obeyed by governments and firms.

In playing this role the Commission works with the member countries. It doesn’t have its own agencies in the member countries in the way that the US federal government has agencies in US states.

The Commission also decides on competition policy in Europe – for example, whether state subsidies should be approved, and whether mergers should go ahead.

It also negotiates trade deals for the EU. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the United States, known as TTIP, is being negotiated by the Commission.

Member countries, through the Council, give detailed instructions, monitor the Commission closely, and have final say on whether or not to approve any agreement.

The Commission is perhaps the most visible EU institution, but it is not necessarily the most powerful and is certainly not the government of Europe.


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