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12EUB601

Why does the European Union have a Commission, and what are the limitations of the Commission's role?

Why does the European Union have a Commission, and what are the limitations of the Commission's role?

The European Commission has existed since its inception in the Treaty of Rome in 1957, and has become, according to Nugent, ...the very heart of the EU system (Nugent, 2010: p.105). This essay will explain the role of the Commission and why its a necessary part of the EU system, before discussing any limitations that the Commission has, both in relation to the European Council (hereafter known as the Council) and European Parliament (EP), and also in carrying out its roles.

The European Union (EU) is primarily made up of three main bodies or institutions: the European Parliament, the European Council, and the European Commission. The main reason for the Commission to exist can be found by looking at how each of the institutions is composed.

The European Parliament consists of 754 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), who are directly elected by voters in each member state. National allocations of EP seats are distributed using the principle of degressive proportionality, whereby the number of citizens per MEP increases as size of member states increases (Nugent, 2010: p.190). The EP is supposed to be the democratic element of the EU as they are directly voted in by EU citizens. It has been argued that the EP isnt a legitimate representation of democracy due to the consistently low voter turnout (Scully, 1999), which has decreased in each election since the first one in 1979 (Nugent, 2010: p.192), but for the purposes of this essay we can ignore the issue. The important point for us to note is that within the EP,

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Tim Cottrill B117019

12EUB601

Why does the European Union have a Commission, and what are the limitations of the Commission's role?

MEPs sit in their political group, rather than by nationality. From this, we can see that the EP is where political bias can affect the decision-making process. According to Pinder and Usherwood, ...MEPs usually vote by party group rather than by state (Pinder & Usherwood, 2007: p.45).

While political interests are represented in the EP, it is within the Council that national interests enter the decision-making process. The Council is made up of the Heads of State of each member state, who can each be assisted by a minister during Council meetings if ...the agenda so requires... (The Treaty on European Union, 1992). State leaders debate policies and discuss proposed legislation. While they are interested to a greater or lesser extent in creating a strong EU zone, they are primarily there to ensure that their national interests are being protected.

Against this backdrop of national bias in the Council and political bias in the EP, it is necessary for the Commission to be as independent as possible, as they have the ...sole right of legislative initiative... (Pinder & Usherwood, 2007: p.51). The Commission is required to be objective in creating legislation and policy, and also acting as guardian of the treaties. The Commission is supposed to stand apart from sectional and national interests... [it] should be the conscience of the Union (Nugent, 2010: p.135). The Treaty of Rome states: The members of the Commission shall... be completely independent in the performance of their duties... they shall neither seek nor take instructions from any Government or from any other body (The Treaty of Rome, 1957). Each member state nominates one representative to be in the Commission, and the College-designate has to be given a vote of confidence by the EP.

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Tim Cottrill B117019

12EUB601

Why does the European Union have a Commission, and what are the limitations of the Commission's role?

Herein lays the Commissions first limitation: The EP has to approve of the choice of Commissioners before the Commission can start its role. Nugent notes that ...there [is] no provision for singling them [the Commissioners] out in a vote... (Nugent, 2010: p.106), but if we examine the appointment of the first Barroso College, we can see that the EP can exert significant pressure and alter a College-designate to their liking. From Barrosos initial selection, the EP made criticisms of five of the Commissioners-designate, and Barrosos eventual College-designate that was approved saw two of the Commissioners step down and be replaced, and one had his portfolio swapped. These changes werent made in response to a vote of no confidence; they were made because the EP put pressure on Barroso to change his College-designate before he even took it to be voted on. Nugent doesnt go on to discuss how this affects the independence and impartiality of the Commission, but it is clear to see that if there is a socialist/liberal/etc majority within the EP, it is possible for them to influence the President of the European Commission to include more socialist/liberal/etc Commissioners in the College-designate. This in turn degrades the Commissions independence. Joseph Joffe argues that The Parliaments power to punish the executive is but a theoretical one because the EP cant single out commissioners, and they require a two-thirds majority to dismiss the whole executive, which is realistically unattainable (Joffe, 1999: p.29). However, his article was written in 1999, before the Barroso college was so effectively altered by the EP, so this essay still contends that the EP can limit the Commission.

The European Council also places limitations on the Commission. The Commission has the sole right of legislative initiative, but in order for the legislation or policy to be

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Tim Cottrill B117019

12EUB601

Why does the European Union have a Commission, and what are the limitations of the Commission's role?

adopted it has to be passed by the Council. If they are unanimous, the Council can change the wording of the Commissions proposed legislation before passing it. The Commission ...is constrained by the Council, particularly where the unanimity procedure applies, though also by the use of QMV rather than simple majority voting (Pinder & Usherwood, 2007: p.55). However, Suzanne Schmidt asserts that QMV actually empowers the Commission and gives it ...agenda-setting powers since it is easier for the Council to adopt a proposal than to alter it... (Scmidt, 2000: p.38). While this may be the case, the Commission has experienced some undermining of its special position regarding policy initiation... (Nugent, 2010: p.177), as the Council is able to take decisions that will have legal effect. When this is the intention, the policy still has to follow the usual legislative procedures, but the initiative has come from the Council, rather than the Commission (Nugent, 2010: p.177).

The Council does limit the Commissions role as the sole initiator of legislation, but the Commission is not completely subservient to the Council. In 2009, the Commission took the Council to the European Court of Justice for failing to apply the Commissions recommendations regarding the pay increase for EU officials. The ECJ ruled on the side of the Commission (Judgement of the Court, 2010), and the Councils amendments were annulled and they were required to apply the Commissions recommendations.

This case highlights the main limitation of the European Commission, which is that it ...does not control any physical means of enforcement (Pinder & Usherwood, 2007: p.55). It works closely with the European Court of Justice, but in its role as guardian of the treaties, it can either be slow to react, or completely ineffective. An

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12EUB601

Why does the European Union have a Commission, and what are the limitations of the Commission's role?

investigation by the Commission into Microsoft found in 2004 that it had engaged in anti-competitive behaviour. EU regulators said the firm was the first to break an EU anti-trust ruling (BBC News, 2008). However, the sanctions werent applied until 2008. Another example of the slow response and lack of means of enforcement occurred in 1999:

The French government refused to accept the Communitys decision that British beef was by then safe to eat and its import should be allowed. The Court found in the UKs favour in late 2001, although it was not until 2006 that the other member states agreed to lift restrictions... (Pinder & Usherwood, 2007: p.52).

The Commission may well have accepted that British beef was safe and ordered the other member states to lift the embargo, but it was virtually powerless to make them actually start importing again. More recently, David Cameron has taken advantage of this lack of ability to enforce treaties or legislation. In response to the Syrian civil war, the EU has created an arms embargo, preventing EU member states from sending arms to Syria. But according to the Financial Times, Mr Cameron ...said Britain was keen to loosen the terms of the embargo (Financial Times, 2013). Indicating Britains willingness to act independently, the British Prime Minister was quoted as saying we are still an independent country, we can have an independent foreign policy. (Financial Times, 2013). This would be the second time in recent history that the UK has ignored EU rulings, the first incident being the bombing of Libya, in conjunction with France. Both countries defied EU policy and acted independently, and it was only after the bombing started that the EU changed its approach.

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Tim Cottrill B117019

12EUB601

Why does the European Union have a Commission, and what are the limitations of the Commission's role?

To conclude, the Commission exists to act as an independent, objective institution within the EU, which creates policy and legislation and, in conjunction with the ECJ, acts as a guardian of the existing treaties and legislation. Despite the increased power of the European Council, the Commission has few limitations upon it with regards to initiating legislation. The Council has undermined the Commissions role as the sole initiator, but the Commission has agenda-setting power over the Council. The European Parliament has begun to be more effective at influencing who is appointed to the Commission, but once the Commission is in place this essay agrees with Joffe: the Parliament is virtually powerless to place any limitations on the Commission. The major limitation can be found in its role as guardian of the treaties, as it is either too slow to react, or completely unable to stop member states from acting independently. It may have the right to initiate legislation, but once its been ratified, the Commission is virtually powerless to make member states stick to it.

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Tim Cottrill B117019

12EUB601

Why does the European Union have a Commission, and what are the limitations of the Commission's role?

Bibliography

BBC News Channel, (2008), EU fines Microsoft record $1.4bn, URL: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/7266629.stm [01/04/13]

Joffe, J 1999, 'A Parliament Without Power', Time International (South Pacific Edition), 4, p. 29, URL: http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?sid=2d0a4c6f633c-4623-90cb00e6d258b6ae%40sessionmgr14&vid=1&hid=9&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3Qt bGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=bth&AN=1493346 [01/04/13]

Nugent, N. (2010) The Government and Politics of the European Union, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Pinder, J. And Usherwood, S. (2007) The European Union: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Schmidt, S. (2000) Only an Agenda Setter? The European Commissions Power over the Council of Ministers, European Union Politics, vol.1, no.1, pp.37-61

Scully, R. (1999) The European parliament, euro-elections and the democratic deficit, Representation, vol.36, no.3, pp.235-242

Stacey, K., Spiegel, P. and Chaffin, J. (2013), UK willing to defy EU on Syrian arms, Financial Times, URL: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/f966e99a-8b3d-11e2b1a4-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2PK2kfawG [02/04/13]

The Treaty on European Union, (1992) URL: http://eurlex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:C:2010:083:0013:0046:en:P DF [02/04/2013]

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Why does the European Union have a Commission, and what are the limitations of the Commission's role?

The Treaty of Rome, (1957) URL: http://ec.europa.eu/economy_finance/emu_history/documents/treaties/rometr eaty2.pdf [02/04/13]

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