Voters across the European Union are preparing to go to the polls at the end of May for the 2019 European Parliament election. Turnout has been on a downward trend ever since the first ballot 40 years ago, with the perceived complexity of how things work in Brussels one frequently posited explanation. As part of a series outlining the form and functions of the key EU institutions, here we explain the role of the European Commission.
What is the European Commission?
The European Commission is the politically independent executive body of the European Union. It proposes new European legislation, implements the decisions of the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union, and is responsible for the day-to-day running of the bloc.
Established in 1958, it is based in Brussels – where it has its headquarters at the Berlaymont building in the European Quarter – and Luxembourg, and has offices around the world.
It is led by a president and a team (or "college") of 28 commissioners, one from each EU member state, which meets each week. They are bound by oath to represent the interests of the EU as a whole, rather than those of their home country.
These commissioners are not directly elected, but rather proposed by the Council of the EU based on suggestions by the governments of each member state. They are then appointed upon the approval of the European Parliament.
The European Commission is the largest employer among the EU's institutions, with a staff of around 33,000. One-third work in Brussels, with Belgians making up around one-sixth of the total workforce.
What does the Commission do?
The European Commission is responsible for proposing new EU laws to protect the interests of the Union and its citizens at a bloc-wide level, for adoption by the European Parliament and the European Council. It consults both experts and European citizens in order to draw up these proposals.
The Commission is responsible for the proper adherence to treaties and enforcement of EU law in member states, along with the European Court of Justice.
It also manages EU policies, and draws up annual budgets and allocates EU funding (in consultation with the Council and the Parliament) in order for these policies to be implemented. The Commission is also responsible for supervising how EU funding is spent once allocated, under the scrutiny of the Court of Auditors.
The Commission represents the EU at an international level, speaking on behalf of all its member states in matters of trade and humanitarian aid and negotiating international agreements.
Who is in charge?
The European Commission is headed up by a president, who leads the college of commissioners and appoints a portfolio to each, and reshuffles the cabinet or dismisses commissioners as necessary. The president's role also includes representing the EU abroad.
The president is elected by the European Parliament after the parliamentary elections, and after each member state has nominated a candidate, taking into account the election results. Parliament must approve the new president by a majority (at least half of MEPs plus one) and if this majority is not obtained, member states must propose another candidate within a month.
The Spitzenkandidat (German for "Lead Candidate") process was introduced by Parliament in 2014, by which each European political party sitting nominates its own presidential candidate prior to the parliamentary election. The nominee from the largest party after the election is then assumed to have the mandate for the presidency.
The current and 12th president is former prime minister of Luxembourg Jean-Claude Juncker, who is a member of the pro-European, centre-right European People's Party (EPP). Then UK Prime Minister David Cameron and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán were the only members of the European Council to object to his appointment.
Juncker's five-year tenure comes to an end with the European Parliament elections and his successor will be announced after that and will take office on 1 November, 2019.
What are the Commission's limits?
The Commission is tasked with proposing new legislation, but it cannot pass these laws on its own. This is done by the elected MEPs of the Parliament and the member state government representatives who make up the Council of the EU – for a law to be passed, it needs a majority in both.
And while the Commission is responsible for the upholding of EU law in member states, it depends on public administration and agencies and national courts in the member states to carry this out. Adherence to EU law is also ultimately the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice, which also scrutinises the Commission itself's adherence.
The Commission represents and negotiates for the bloc in international trade agreements, but the member states give, or withhold, their approval of any agreements proposed.
In terms of accountability, the EU's highest authority is the European Council and the Commission is answerable to it, and to the Parliament, given that they appoint the commissioners and elect the president. Parliament can also dismiss the Commission. None of the eight motions of censure brought so far have been adopted, but in 1999 the Santer Commission (under president Jacques Santer) resigned en masse before Parliament forced its resignation, due to allegations of corruption.
The Commission submits regular reports to Parliament, including an annual budget report, and is required to reply to questions from MEPs. EU accounts are also sent to the European Court of Auditors each year, which produces an annual report for examination by the Parliament in order for it to approve or disapprove the Commision's handling of the budget.
Salaries, perks and working conditions for Commission staff are set by the Council of the EU and the Parliament.
What do the Commission's critics say?
The fact that members of the European Commission are not directly elected by the public has long made it the principal subject among the EU's institutions of Eurosceptic accusations of a "democratic deficit". This phrase was first used in relation to the EC in 1977 in the manifesto of the Young European Federalists, a political youth NGO which campaigns for a more democratic Europe.