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It is perhaps curious that it appears to have taken us some time to appreciate how the European union (EU) and its institutions work. The EU is not new – it has been around for some time. Is it simply the case that it is harder to appreciate the workings of something as an apparent bystander rather than if we had been fully involved much earlier? That is perhaps another question but such slow hesitant beginnings have not helped make it any easier when it comes to talking about the European Commission and its role.
The EU boasts that, unlike other institutions, it is unique. It stresses that member states remain independent, sovereign nations who come together or 'pool' their national identity, as they put it, to gain strength in numbers and have an influence around the world.
It is worth mentioning that such a coming together has resulted in what some see as an enormous bureaucratic 'united states of Europe'. On closer examination we can see that the EU has provided a means whereby member states operate through European institutions, of which the European Commission is one. Albeit somewhat cumbersome the EU does operate upon a democratic principle and the institutions are a means of ensuring that member states are able to participate democratically in the decision making process. Recent events around the world, where citizens feel they have been denied a legitimate voice, serve as a reminder that the founding fathers of the EU had very good reason not to vest all powers in any single entity or leader.
The term 'Commission' relates to the 28 Commissioners and the institution as a whole. The 28 members are referred to as the College of Commissioners and is made up of 20 Commissioners, 7 Vice-Presidents and the President. There is one Commissioner from each EU country and they are the Commission's political leadership during a 5-year term. Each Commissioner is assigned a portfolio by the President. These will cover such areas as internal market, regional policy, transport, environment, agriculture, trade, energy, jobs, growth and investment & competitiveness. These teams are led by the Vice-Presidents. The President can, at any time, change the make up of the portfolios. The College decides on the strategic objectives and draws up the annual work programme. The President plays an important role and the Vice-Presidents deputise for him and coordinate and bring together the work of the Commissioners within a particular area.
Decisions are taken collectively by the College of Commissioners, (collective responsibility), and they are responsible before the European Parliament. All Commissioners are equal in the decision-making process and equally accountable for these decisions. This collective responsibility ensures the high quality of the decisions and the independence of the institution as decisions are made without the pressures of political parties.
The European Commission is closely linked to the important task of law making in that it has the role of proposing policy and legislation and has the ‘right of initiative’. The European Commission does not undertake its role in isolation and the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union are also players in this decision-making process. Over the years the Commission has been forced to pay increasing heed to the guidelines and suggestions put forward by the European Council and Parliament. The Commission itself describes this as an 'institutional triangle', further fuelling the bureaucracy argument possibly, but equally it can be argued that it protects against too much power being vested in any one institution when it comes to producing policies and laws that are to apply throughout the Union.
As we can see therefore, the European Commission proposes new laws but other institutions are involved in these processes and the European Parliament as well as the Council have the opportunity to debate the proposals and adopt them. The Commission's civil servants produce a draft of the new legislation. The Commission will pass on the proposed legislation for the consideration of the other institutions provided it is approved by a simple majority.
The EU was originally formed by a number of founding treaties between member states setting out fundamental concepts and principles which bind the way in which the Union operates to this day. If the EU was to succeed it had to provide a way of ensuring that these treaties were followed and not only paid lip service to and otherwise confined to the archives.
This task has fallen on the shoulders of the Commission. The Commission has the clear role to act as 'guardian of the treaties'. The Commission aims to ensure that both the treaties and secondary legislation are correctly enforced. In this role, the Commission can start judicial procedures and take Member States or other institutions before the Court of Justice. This is an extremely important role as individual rights as well as rights to member states are at stake. The Commission is the custodian of these rights and needs to be seen to be acting for the greater good of the Union. It could be said that the Commission is a form of 'whistle-blower' operating at European level. This enforcement role is shared with the European Court of Justice and is a further reminder that the Commission has the task of acting in the EU's overall interests.
The European Commission has the capacity to represent 'European' interests and, as such, it can negotiate on the EU's behalf with other countries as and when the need arises. It can represent the Union outside Europe negotiating trade agreements between the EU and other countries, for example. It has the scope to do this because it is 'representative' of the EU as a whole as it is made up of representatives or commissioners from the member states that go to make up the EU. It is the Commission that negotiates new treaties and amendments between member states and on behalf of the EU from time to time.
The Commission plays a new and distinctive role in the negotiations between the European Parliament and the Council acting as a “mediator” as provided for by the treaties. This helps to overcome delays and breakdowns in the negotiations and allows the agreement on legislative proposals to be made more easily.
The Commission has a role in relation to the EU budget. The Commission, acting with the Council and Parliament, sets broad long-term spending priorities. It manages and implements the EU budget. Again, reflecting its role to act in respect of the EU's overall interests, it is not surprising that it plays a vital role in setting targets for expenditure by drawing up an annual budget for approval by the European Parliament and the European Council.
It also has a supervisory role in how EU funds are spent by agencies and national and regional authorities, for example. The Commission’s management of the budget is subject to scrutiny by the Court of Auditors. In addition, the Commission also manages important policies such as agriculture and rural development and specialist programmes, such as 'Erasmus', which are about student exchanges.
The powerful nature of the Commission and its influence is also reinforced by its location and presence in Brussels and Luxembourg as well as in each of the member states themselves.
An instance of when the Commission initiates a complaint that a member state has failed in its obligations under the treaties can be found in the case of Re Tachographs: The Commissioners v United Kingdom (1979). The matter was eventually taken up by the Court of European Justice and concerned the UK government's failure to implement a Council regulation imposing the requirement that mechanical recording devices had to be installed in goods vehicles. The problem was that drivers were driving for considerable periods of time and as a result there was evidence that this was the cause of drivers falling asleep at the wheel or otherwise being responsible for road traffic accidents. The UK government were too slow to comply and were held to account over the matter.
Finally it was Lord Irvine who acknowledged the significance of the work of the European Commission when he spoke of the legacy of the Commission being the way in which it facilitates the work of ensuring that individuals rights and benefits are identified and recognised by the European Court of Justice.
(Word count 1384)
This essay looks at the uniqueness of the European Commission and its' role in decision making and law making.
The Commission's role of 'guardian of the treaties' is discussed along with its' other roles and obligations including the Commission's capacity to 'propose' new laws.
The case of Re Tachographs: The Commissioners v United Kingdom (1979) is also discussed in the context of the Commission's role.
As always the essay lends itself to further research and development according to your individual needs.
(Word Count 1384)
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