The question is if the European Commission is the most powerful institution in the EU, but the ECJ the most important. Is that true? It is, however, a mixed law and fact question. Looking at the power and the importance of these institutions leads into a similar direction. The Treaties give the institutions different rights and competencies. The factual importance can be measured by focusing on their actual achievements.
Power and Importance of the Institutions
The term “institution” refers to all facilities of the Community. The system of the arrangement of the institutions is not created following the principle of the balance of powers known from states’ constitutions. Especially there is no strict division between legislative and executive power. Only the judicial power has some kind of its own but factually not pure section. The four main institutions of the European Community are as set out in the Treaty the Parliament, the Council, the Commission and the Court of Justice. The rights of the Parliament are only a few. Generally the Council can be considered as the most powerful and therefore most important institution of the Community (art. 202 et seq. ECT) because it is the main legislator and executes all the important legislation (regulations, directives), only sometimes in co-operation with the Parliament (art. 251 ECT). In the order of importance it is followed by the Commission and the ECJ. Different opinions can be argued though. The question of importance may be up to the eye of the beholder. A general view shall be provided hereafter.
The European Commission, the most powerful institution?
The role of the institutions is described and stated in the ECT. The European Commission has got the legislative initiative, it monitors compliance with legislation and with the Treaties, and administers common policies.
Firstly the Commission has the right of initiative. Its proposal is needed for all new legislation. In addition to its power of proposal, the Commission acts as the EU executive body, as a manager and a negotiator. The executive responsibilities are wide; e.g. it manages the EU’s budget and negotiates trade and competition with other states. Furthermore the Commission has administrative responsibilities as the „guardian of the Treaties“. As a judicial role the Commission has to guarantee that the legislation is applied correctly by the Member States. It is the Commission that will bring actions against the Member States under art. 226 ECT. It investigates treaty violations. It can, for instance, institute legal proceedings against Member States or businesses that fail to comply with European law and bring them before the European Court of Justice.
The Commission shall generally sustain, manage and develop policies and shall represent the common interest. It often contributes with impulses towards the further development of the EU. It shall ensure that the EU can attain its goal of an ever-closer union of its members. Due to its right of initiative, the Commission has acted as the driving force in European integration. The Commission is often called the “motor“ or the “beating heart of the community”. It has always been the most important political force for integration and federalism. An example can be seen in the completion of the European single market at the beginning of 1993. The Commission also played a central role for creation of the economic and monetary union and the initiatives to reinforce the economic and social cohesion between the regions of Europe.
The Commission embodies, to a large degree, the personality of the Union. The Commission is “a curious hybrid of legislature, an executive and law enforcer”.
But the limits of the Commission’s authority are clearly defined. The extent of its powers to enact laws is almost entirely dependent on the Council’s willingness to delegate its legislative power to the Commission. The Council and the Parliament take legislative decisions. Although the Commission has the right of initiative, it does not take the main decisions on EU policies and priorities which is the responsibility of the Council of the EU. Its members are ministers from the Member States’ governments, and mostly of the European Parliament as well. Reality is therefore different from the popular misconceptions, which greatly exaggerate the power of the Commission. The most powerful institution is the Council. The Commission has few powers of coercion, although its neutral role and the depth of specialised knowledge it has acquired over the years give it plenty of scope for persuasion. The Commission is much less powerful than the Council.