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Guide to the European Union

Guide to the European Union banner

How powerful is the European Commission?

The European Commission has been seen as the main force behind European integration, especially under Jacques Delors, its President from 1985 to 1995, but changes in the 21st century have shifted power away from the Commission.

Why the Commission is important

        Only the Commission has the power to draft legislation.  It is therefore in control of what details go forward for discussion when regulations and directives are proposed.  Although legislation can be amended by the other bodies, the Commission is often able to ally with the Parliament against the Council in this process.

        The Directorates General of the Commission, with their full time officials, have often been the powerhouse of new ideas which they can then promote through the EU.  They were important, for example, in developing the idea of a Single Market. They are largely independent of any political control by the Council or Parliament.

        The Commission has always been open to lobbying by interest groups.  This has given it an understanding of industrial, agricultural and environmental issues and it has been able to use this knowledge to draft legislation and promote ideas.  It was able to work with interest groups to implement the Single Market.

        The Commission is responsible for negotiating trade agreements with other countries such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the United States.  Now that most aspects of the Single Market have been created, these agreements involve some of the most important economic decisions.

        The Commission is the guardian of EU treaties. It is able to ensure that EU countries carry out regulations and implement directives and, if necessary, go to the European Court to get any failure to do so dealt with.

        The Euro crisis has given the Commission a new role in supervising the economic policy of those countries which have had to receive a bail out from the EU.

Why the Commission has been losing power

        The European Commission is a relatively small organisation, with only a few more staff than Glasgow City Council, and its staffing has not kept up with the number of extra countries that have joined and the extra topics that the EU deals with.

        The way in which the final draft of legislation is now decided is through a procedure whereby proposals go between the Parliament and the Council and are amended.  This means that the Commission’s role has become more of an arbiter between the Council and the Parliament rather than controlling what happens.

        The European Parliament has gradually become more powerful, partly at the expense of the Commission. It now has a much more active role in amending and approving legislation and approving the budget. It has to approve trade agreements. It also has to approve the President and the Commissioners. It has been ready to use this power, rejecting the budget in 2013 in order to bargain changes and rejecting the nomination of individual Commissioners.

        Before the Maastricht Treaty the Commission was largely involved in implementing the Single Market which involved detailed questions of regulating different economic sectors and ensuring that there were EU wide environmental, labour and other regulations. Maastricht widened the EU’s remit into issues such as foreign and defence policy and security that could only be dealt with by the Council at a political level with direct negotiations between the member states.  The Euro Crisis has similarly meant that difficult political decisions have had to be made about the Greek bail out which can only be decided by national leaders.

        With an increase in the number of member states there has been an increase in the number of Commissioners to 28 and so they are a less cohesive group than before, more ready to consider the interest of their home country than that of the EU as a whole.

        The creation of the European External Action Service has meant that much of the work in coordinating the EU’s relationships with the rest of the world have been transferred away from the Commission.