Europe and the law
Europe and the law

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

4.3 The European Commission

The European Commission is the political body that represents the EU as a whole. It is politically independent and can propose legislation, policies and programmes of action. It is also responsible for implementing the decisions of the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union.

The European Commission is made up of a team of Commissioners (appointed by EU member states) and their support staff. Commissioners are chosen ‘on the grounds of their general competence’ and must be ‘completely independent in the performance of their duties’. Their independence and expertise makes an important contribution. Most Commissioners will have held political office in their country of origin. Since its creation the composition of the European Commission has been through several changes. These have reflected the growth in the number of EU member states.

According to EU rules, there must be at least one member of the European Commission from each EU member state, but no more than two from the same EU member state. This rule reflects the size of the population of each member state. Up until May 2004, the European Commission contained 20 members; Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom, as the EU member states with the largest population, were represented by two Commissioners each, and the rest of the EU member states by one Commissioner each. In May 2004, 10 more countries acceded to the EU. Each new EU member state was allocated one member to the European Commission. The European Commission's membership is now 25 (plus support staff).

At the time of the Treaty of Nice it was envisaged that an expansion of the EU would take place with 12 more countries by 2007. The membership of the European Commission will have to be reviewed. The Treaty of Nice provided for the change in two stages.

In Activity 3 you will have the opportunity to look in more detail at the review of the European Commission's membership and its implications.

This activity is based on a piece of academic writing from T.C. Hartley's The Foundations of European Community Law. The activity will provide you with an opportunity to practise reading legal academic material. It will also provide you with an opportunity to practise your note-taking skills and the skill of extracting useful information from an academic text.

Figure 4
Figure 4 The European Commission Building (Berlaymont), Brussels

Activity 3 The growth of the EU

Timing: 0 hours 40 minutes

Please read ‘The political institutions’. You may need to read the extract twice before making your own notes in answer to the following questions:

  1. When does the second stage of the reform of the European Commission's membership start?

  2. How might the change brought about by this second stage affect the character of the European Commission?

  3. What was the procedure for appointing the European Commissioners prior to the Treaty of Nice?

  4. And what was the procedure after the Treaty of Nice?

Click here [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]   to read 'The political institutions'.



  1. Once the number of member states has reached 27. (This will happen with the accession of Bulgaria and Romania in January 2007).

  2. Given that in the second stage the member states will lose the automatic right to have even one Commissioner and given the ‘strictly equal footing’ on which member states have to be treated, the Commission could end up being ‘dominated’ by Commissioners from the smaller states.

  3. The procedure is:

    • Nomination of the intended President of the Commission by the member states.

    • Approval of the nomination by the European Parliament.

    • Nomination of the other Commissioners by the member states in common accord and in agreement with the President.

  4. Nominations will be made by the Council, meeting in the composition of Heads of State or Government. The Council will vote by qualified majority.

The role, composition and work of the Commission are very important, as the Commission:

  • proposes legislation to the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union

  • manages and implements EU policies and the budget

  • initiates infringement proceedings at the European Court of Justice against member states and others who it considers to have breached European law

  • represents the EU on the international stage (for example, by negotiating agreements between the EU and other countries).

The Commission is the body responsible for drawing up proposals for new EU legislation. Remember that any such proposals must be in the interests of the EU and not of individual EU member states. The Commission will only propose legislation if the problem cannot be solved more effectively by national, regional or local action. Any proposal will have undergone a consultation procedure. This consultation procedure may involve national or local governments, advisory groups, committees, working groups and individual experts. Only then will the proposals be put to the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union.

For example, suppose that the Commission sees the need for EU legislation to prevent pollution of European rivers. After consulting extensively with European industry and farmers, with the environment ministers from the EU member states and also with the environmental organisations, the Directorate-General for the Environment will draw up a proposal. The proposed legislation will then be discussed with all relevant Commission departments and, if necessary, will be amended. The proposed legislation is then checked by the Legal Services. They are responsible for ensuring that the proposed legislation does not conflict with any existing EU law. From the Legal Services, the proposal is sent for approval to the Commissioners’ ‘cabinets’ (the Commissioners’ personal political staff). Having received this approval, the proposed legislation is considered ready and is included by the Commission's Secretary-General on the agenda for a forthcoming Commission meeting. At this meeting the Commissioner in charge of the policy area addressed by the new legislative proposal – in this case the Commissioner for the Environment – will explain to all their colleagues why this legislation is being proposed. In other words, the Commissioner will put the case for the proposed legislation. This presentation is followed by discussion and debate.

Once all the important points of the proposed legislation have been addressed, there are two possible avenues the Commission may take. If there is agreement among the Commissioners, it will adopt the proposal and the document will be sent to the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament for their consideration. If the Commissioners disagree, then the President of the Commission will ask the Commissioners to vote on the matter. If a majority of the Commissioners are in favour of the proposed legislation, then it will be adopted. From this point, the proposed legislation will have the unconditional support of all the Commission members, regardless of how they actually cast their vote initially.

Finally, the Commission is also characterised as the ‘guardian of the Community Treaties’. This means that the Commission has a role to play in monitoring the EU member states’ application and implementation of EU legislation. If an EU member state is not meeting its legal obligations, the Commission may institute infringement proceedings. A letter is sent to the government of the EU member state outlining the infringement and giving a deadline for a response. If the matters are not satisfactorily resolved using this procedure, the Commission may then refer the matter to the European Court of Justice, which has the power to impose penalties.

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371