The EU-institutions: the European Commission

In our attempt at understanding the structure of the European Union and its institutions, this week’s article will be dedicated to the European Commission, which represents the common interests of the EU. It is a bit of a “revolutionary” organ of the system since it is supposed to be independent from the States and has been granted important powers over the years – which is not obviously a good thing, as we will see.

According to the treaties, the Commissioners are elected for five years, and their term can be renewed once. They must be selected among the citizens of the Member States. They are chosen on the grounds of their overall competences, as well as for their independency from the national governments (they cannot be employed anywhere else at the same time, and they do not receive orders from their country of origin). They are the political organ of the Commission, and are responsible for setting the strategical orientations of the Commission. Their number has changed over the years: when the EU was made of 15 States, the bigger States were granted two Commissioners, while the smaller States were granted one. However, the enlargements of the 2000s would have made this number too high for the EU to work properly, and it was decided in the Treaty of Nice (2001) that each country shall be granted only one Commissioner, each one in charge of a Portfolio (equivalent to a Ministry). Amongst the 28 Commissioners, we can distinguish the President of the Commission (since 2014 Jean-Claude Juncker, the former Prime Minister from tax-heaven Luxemburg, who has been involved in the Luxleaks affair, and who followed Portuguese José Manuel Barroso, suspected of bribery), seven Vice-Presidents (amongst which the High-Representative of the Union for Foreign Policy and Security Policy, currently Federica Mogherini, former Italian Ministry for International Affairs), and 20 “regular” Commissioners (amongst which former Ministers). You might have understood it by now: it does not seem obvious that they are independent from their respective countries of origin. Anyways, together they form the so-called “College of Commissioners”. Now, I won’t be talking about their salary because it would be indecent, all the more so as we European tax payers basically pay their wages and their absurd work-related expenses (in 2009, European Commission President Barroso spent no less than €730.000 on “work-related expenses”, while the average expenses of the other Commissioners usually amount at around €15.000), and also of course because they are often suspected (but never convicted because obviously they are always innocent) of corruption and/or bribery. After all, the high officials of the EU are no different from the high officials in each Member State. On the bright side, with a bit of research, the relative freedom of press and the help of whistleblowers (such as Julian Assange), you can find pretty much anything you want – I have myself been quite obsessed with transparency and corruption lately.

At the beginning, the procedure to appoint the Commissioners was controlled by the States: the candidates were designated by the national governments themselves, and a vote of trust was organized in each State. Nowadays, the European Parliament interferes in the process – however only to give the impression that the institution representing the peoples of the EU has weight: the Heads of States agree to designate a candidate for the Presidency of the European Commission, and then the European Parliament approves of him/her or does not. After this, each State proposes a Commissioner. In a fourth time, the Heads of States, along with the elected-but-not-yet-appointed President of the Commission, approve the list of candidates. In a fifth phase, the MEPs (Members of the European Parliament) audition all potential Commissioners, and validate the whole group of the College of Commissioners. It is only then (the sixth step that is) that the Heads of States can officially appoint the European Commissioners and the President. Six phases overall: that sounds like a bit of a hassle. Usually, the Parliament approves of the list of Commissioners that it is presented with, but for the Barroso Commission I (surprisingly, the guy was appointed twice) it  had no choice but to refuse one candidate (only one, that may as well be the true problem): the Italian Commissioner-to-be Rocco Buttiglione, a close friend of Silvio Berlusconi, who would have been in charge of the Justice Portfolio and still dared declare in front of the Parliament: “I may think homosexuality is a sin, but this has no effect on politics unless I say homosexuality is a crime” (I mean what is wrong with the equation Berlusconi + condemning homosexuality = fair Justice?). However, Dutch Neelie Kroes, who had been holding management positions in 43 big companies, been a member of 12 European companies’ Boards, and may or may not have been involved in shady arms deals, was still appointed for the Competition Portfolio (apparently no one in the EU has ever heard of conflicts of interests, among others) – and she has not been the only one in a similar position throughout the European Commission history. Casual responsibilities and salaries for casual people, right? The Lisbon Treaty has introduced a precision regarding the nomination procedure of the President of the Commission: the European Parliament (whose MEPs are elected by the EU-citizens) must follow the political majority within the Parliament when it invests the President of the Commission, meaning that the President of the Commission must belong to the same political orientation as the majority of the Parliament.

Finally, I would like to draw your attention on the possible scenarios regarding the end of the Commissioners mandates. Indeed, we can make out the “classical” hypothesis (end of term, death) and the “particular” hypothesis: voluntary resignation (in 1999, during the Santer Commission, the 20 Commissioners decided to resign for they were suspected of poor management), compulsory resignation (decision taken by the Court of Justice at the request of either the Commission or the Council of the EU), collective cease to hold office (cease of the mandate of all the Commissioners resulting from a motion of censure from the European Parliament), or else initiative of the President of the Commission with the consent of the College of Commissioners. Once the Commissioner has left, the Commissioner that replaces him/her only finishes the remaining time of the mandate.

Now, let me tell you a bit about the inner organization of the European Commission, beginning with the General Secretariat, based in Brussels. It bears two key responsibilities: assisting the President of the Commission in preparing the meetings, and ensuring an effective coordination between the departments. These departments employ a great deal of people (in total, the European Commission employs about 38.000 people), and are organized into 33 Directorates-General (DG), each of them under the authority of one Commissioner (meaning that a few Commissioners have authority over more than one DG). Altogether, they form the administrative organ of the Commission. Each DG is organized in Units, and each unit employs an average of a dozen of people. Some DGs, like CLIMA (Climate Action), DEVCO (International Cooperation and Development), and HOME (Migration and Home Affairs) are of course bigger than others. I won’t go much more into detail, because the functioning of theses DGs is very complicated, but each DG is linked to a key aspect of EU-policies. The EEAS (European External Action Service, which corresponds to the diplomatic service of the EU) used to be a DG, but since the Lisbon Treaty of 2009 it is officially independent from the Commission and shares some competences with it – although it is still linked to various DGs and the control over its competences in the fields of aid, development, energy and enlargement is still managed by the European Commission and the corresponding Commissioners.

The Advisory Committees were established by the treaties and the Commission itself. They give opinions in order to help the Commission work properly. They consist of experts designated by the Member States, and the Commission can consult them whenever it wants. These Committees exist because the treaties did not consider experts in certain fields. There are a lot of them (more than 250), and the Commission calls them in very often.

The EU Structural Funds consist in lines of budget dedicated to a specific action. They are under the supervision of DG REGIO (Regional and Urban policy). The aim of the Structural Funds is to reduce the regional disparities between all Member States in terms of income, wealth and opportunities, meaning the poorer the region, the more it will get from the Structural Funds (which boils down to the solidarity principle between the States). The so-called outermost regions, such as the French Guiana (France), the Azores Islands (Portugal) and the Canary Islands (Spain) are eligible, so not only do the poorer continental regions receive money, but all of them. It used to be common to tell Structural Funds instigated by the treaties and those established by the European Commission apart, but since 2007, things have been made easier: there are only two Structural Funds: the ERDF (European Regional Development Fund) and the ESF (European Social Fund). The ESF promotes the access to work and professional mobility of workers through financial interventions, while the ERDF aims at reducing regional imbalances. In the past, there were two other Structural Funds that lost this status since then: the EARFD (European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development, formerly known as the European Agricultural Guidance and Guarantee Fund EAGGF) manages the budget of the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) and falls under the general budget of the EU; and the EMFF (European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, formerly known as the Financial Instrument for Fisheries Guidance FIFG) for Fisheries. The Structural Funds are divided between the Member States. For the financial programming 2007-2013, the total budget dedicated to them was €308 billion (the biggest envelope ever), but much of it has not been spent due to the complexity of procedures and the lack of promotion by the national public authorities. The countries that use them the most, however, are Portugal, Ireland, Spain, and surprisingly Austria.

Let’s jump quickly to the functioning of the European Commission. According to Article 250 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU, “The Commission shall act by a majority of its Members. Its Rules of Procedures shall determine the quorum” (=minimum number of attendees). The acts must hence be adopted by a majority, which underlines the importance of the Commissioners. In practice, this principle has been adjusted since a collegial system bears disadvantages, such as the slow-down of the proceedings of meetings and the paralysis of the decision making process. The first arrangement, as stated before, is that the Commissioners are responsible for Portfolios, and only a few of them will deal with certain fields. The second arrangement was made by the Rules of Procedures and establishes that the Commission shall resort to the written procedure (for which a quorum is foreseen), even though the written procedure basically means that the Commission does not sit. This enables some decisions to be taken quickly. This arrangement, however, is an exception since it concerns only the less controversial matters – and everybody knows that everything is controversial in the EU. Third arrangement: the Commission can delegate some of its competences to external authorities. However, two limits were set: the delegations of competences must be limited to the power of preparing or implementing a legal act, and these delegations cannot by any means grant powers to an authority that does not have competences in the fields of said delegations.

The role of the President of the Commission is quite significant: he calls in a Commission meeting approximately once a week (usually on Wednesdays) in Brussels, and sets the agenda of the day as well as the quarterly working programs. These meetings are not open to the public – unfortunately. The deliberation system used is the simple majority. For the vote, each Commissioner can be assisted by a Cabinet. Sometimes, working groups can be called in to proceed with a technical inspection of list A of the agenda of the day, meaning that their role is similar to the COREPER’s in the Council of the EU (for more information, see the note “The EU-institutions: the Council of the European Union” from May, 30th 2016).

Finally, I would like to talk about the attributions of the Commission. We can discern three of them: first of all, it is the “guardian of the treaties” because its first reason of being is to make sure that the countries, as well as the other institutions, respect them. As a matter of fact, it has various means of action: powers of prevention so as to draw the attention of the States and the institutions on the risks of violating the rights of the Union by adopting recommendations and notices; powers of suing culprits of an infringement to the rights of the Union by making known a failure of a State in the adoption of a text (infringement proceedings, actions for failure to act, and actions for annulment); powers of control over the implementation of a hardship clause (=derogatory exception to a principle).

Its second attribution is to be an initiative organ: it must make propositions to the Council, which then decides. That boils down to saying that it owns the general responsibility of a judicial document. The Treaty of Amsterdam (1997) added that the Council can only adopt a judicial document that modifies the proposition of the Commission by ruling unanimously – and with 28 members that is not so easy. An interesting fact is that the citizens can also suggest to the Commission that it formulates a proposition – but that must be done by at least one million citizens, representing one quarter of the number of Member States.

Third attribution: the Commission is an executive organ that enacts the treaties and the legal documents of the EU. The Commission is the institution that employs the most people, so it is seen as the best institution to ensure the full respect of the treaties. To reach this objective, it can take different types of measures: adopt enacting measures of general impact (=regulations and rules) and of particular impact (directives and decisions). Before the Single European Act, the Council used to implement the rules that it would adopt. Later on, the Council has been allowed to delegate some of its executive power to the Commission thanks to the help of Committees (comitology). With the Treaty of Lisbon, the comitology was removed, but in the practice it can still delegate some of its powers to the Commission with the previous consent of the European Parliament.

I personally have mixed feelings about the European Commission and its role in the European panorama. Like all EU institutions, it is necessary but too complicated, so let’s not waste our time arguing about that. The problem instead is that, in addition to being a technical and bureaucratic organ, it is also a political organ: the Commissioners are indeed suggested – even chosen, because let’s be frank: the Parliament does not really have a say in the selection – by the governments of the Member States. These Commissioners are hardly “regular” citizens: they are already the economic and political “elite”, which is fine as long as they are independent from the States, but some of them are not since they actually used to serve as Ministers or else in their countries of origin, and are chosen by the national governments.

However, on an even more serious note: corruption is knocking at the front door, and you can’t expect people to be ok with that. You want the EU citizens to put their trust in their leaders? Well you have got to appoint public servants that will work for the benefit of the citizens, not public servants who should be (or are being) investigated for corruption at the moment of their nomination; this is the primary and sole reason of being for a public servant. And if you have a reasonable doubt, you do not appoint them, it is called a fiduciary relationship. It would probably be less serious (although still quite serious) to appoint incompetent Commissioners because they still would have a team to advise them, so nobody would actually notice that they are useless – and after five years they would leave anyways.

Furthermore, how many of us are able to name at least the Commissioner of our own country? Very few. In comparison, how many of us are able to name the most important Ministers in our country? A lot. How many of us have heard the Commissioners and/or the President of the Commission speak about the yearly results and expenses of the Commission? None, because there is no such thing within the European Commission (at the most only reports that no one understands), although accountability and statements of balances highly contribute to transparency and anti-corruption. That tells a lot about the state of the EU. When you put such people in such high profile jobs with such responsibilities, when you pay them that much with the people’s (clean) money, the least you can do is to make them account for it. You cannot expect a positive reaction from the citizens, and you cannot expect to raise their interest in the EU, because no matter what they do, they will always feel like it is never going to change. I also reckon that these Commissioners should be directly elected by the citizens – or at least the President of the Commission, which is not even the case.

I will go even further: I have come to wonder whether a Brexit would actually be such a bad thing. Economically, it definitely would be a disaster (although no one seems to know to what extent), and I ensure you that in the long term I would prefer keeping the UK within the EU. But in the short run, think about it: what message would it send to the EU leaders/elites, and to the European Commission in particular? The citizens themselves have the opportunity to say no to corruption, to the system, to have their voices heard. What a huge failure that would be for the EU, for its Commissioners, for its economists, for its system, for everyone. If that could serve as a wakeup call and a way of building a new, more democratic EU, then why the hell not? They would have had the guts to do it despite all the repeated (exaggerated in some cases) alarms from politicians and economists. Ask Greece to do the same. I am pretty sure the citizens would vote for a Grexit, so good on the Brits for deciding themselves. The EU is meant for and belongs to its citizens, let’s not forget that. I used to believe in the EU, in the European Commission, in the core values it used to stand for. Not anymore, because these values are gone. This EU is not the EU I want. This EU is not mine, it is someone else’s: it is the leaders’ and the elites’. They have converted it into their own backyard. And that probably is the biggest issue.



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