The European Commission was created by the 1967 Merger Treaty, replacing the 'High Authorities' that administered the ECSC, EURATOM and the early EEC.
The European Commission is sometimes called the civil service of the EU, but it is also sometimes called the government of the EU. This seemingly paradoxical situation stems from the unusual position the commission occupies in the EU system of government. The powers of the commission have been steadily increased by the new treaties adopted since 1987.
The European Commission comprises 27 commissioners, one of whom is the president of the commission and seven of whom are vice presidents. Until the accession of the Barroso commission, the five large member states - Germany, France, the UK, Italy and Spain - nominated two members each, and the other member states nominated one member each. Since November 2004, every member state has had one commissioner. The allocation of the presidential and vice presidential roles are matters of political negotiation between member states.
While commissioners are appointed by member states' governments, they are not national delegates, owing their loyalty rather to the EU and the promotion of its interests as a whole. Although commissioners (and the president and vice presidents) are nominated by member states, their appointments are subject to ratification by the European parliament. Commissioners are appointed for a five-year period.
Each commissioner is responsible for one or more areas of policy within the EU - and heads one or more civil service departments, called 'directorates general (DGs)'. The DGs and the various specialist services and units are based in Brussels and Luxembourg, and have responsibility for implementing common policies and general administration in specific areas.
The commissioners' position in relation to the DGs is not precisely parallel to that of UK ministers in relation to civil service departments. Their positions are somewhere between that of a minister and a permanent secretary: while they are the principal EU spokespersons in their areas of responsibility, commissioners are not parallel to ministers because (as is explained below) they do not have decision-making powers, which are reserved to the Council of Ministers and the European parliament.
Each commissioner is assisted by a small personal cabinet of advisers and experts, in addition to the DG's permanent bureaucracies.
It is important to note that the DGs are significantly smaller than their domestic counterparts - overall, the commission employs fewer civil servants (around 25,000) than many UK government departments.
The current composition of the European Commission (2010-2014) is as follows:
José Manuel Durão Barroso (Portugal) - President of the European Commission
Catherine Ashton (UK) - Vice-President; High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy
Viviane Reading (Luxembourg) - Vice-President; Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship
Joaquin Almunia (Spain) - Vice-President; Competition
Siim Kallas (Estonia) - Vice-President; Transport
Neelie Kroes (The Netherlands) - Vice-President; Digital Agenda
Antonio Tajani (Italy) - Vice-President; Industry and Entrepreneurship
Maros Sefcovic (Slovakia) - Vice-President; Inter-Institutional Relations and Administration
Janez Potocnik (Slovenia) - Environment
Olli Rehn (Finland) - Economic and Monetary Affairs
Andris Piebalgs (Latvia) - Development
Michel Barnier (France) - Internal Market and Services
Androulla Vassiliou (Cyprus) - Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth
Algirdas Semeta (Lithuania) - Taxation and Customs Union, Audit and Anti-Fraud
Karel De Gucht (Belgium) - Trade
John Dalli (Malta) - Health and Consumer Policy
Maire Geoghegan-Quinn (Ireland) - Research, Innovation and Science
Janusz Lewandowski (Poland) - Financial Programming and Budget
Maria Damanaki (Greece) - Maritime affairs and fisheries
Kristalina Georgieva (Bulgaria) - International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response
Günther Oettinger (Germany) - Energy
Johannes Hahn (Austria) - Regional Policy
Connie Hedegaard (Denmark) - Climate Action
Stefan Fule (Czech Republic) - Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy
Laszlo Andor (Hungary) - Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion
Cecilia Malmstrom (Sweden) - Home Affairs
Dacian Ciolos (Romania) - Agriculture and Rural Development
The European Commission performs a number of critical functions within the EU.
1. The commission has a monopoly on the power of initiation of legislation and other policy proposals within the majority of areas of EU action.
2. The commission exercises executive functions, implementing the legislation agreed by the other institutions, and delegating powers to make rules covering the details of legislation.
3. The commission is the 'guardian of the treaties' and ensures that they are observed by member states and other bodies subject to them, initiating remedial action where breaches are committed. One particularly important aspect of this role is the enforcement of competition and single market rules.
4. The commission manages the EU's annual budget and administers the funding of the EU's spending programmes.
5. The commission negotiates on behalf of the EU and its member states in international trade talks.
It is, however, equally important to understand what the commission does not do.
1. The commission has no decision-making powers as such. EU legislation can only be made by the assent of the Council of Ministers (sometimes along with that of the European parliament). While the commission has the sole right to present proposals for legislation, it has extensive powers to intervene in the deliberations of the other institutions to promote agreement and is empowered to ignore and overrule suggestions put to it by the parliament, it ultimately has no law-making powers of its own.
2. The commission does not decide whether member states or other bodies are in breach of the treaties or other EU law. While it initiates 'failure to act' proceedings, the European courts deliver the rulings.
The Commission has no formal role in relation to Common Foreign and Security Policy, which is the prerogative of the Council of Ministers and the European Council.