The Real Decision-Makers at the European Commission
Career civil servants in the European Union’s largest bureaucracy play an influential and overlooked role in determining Europe’s political and economic future.
The European Union (EU) is a global institutional outlier that defies conventional classification. If treated as a state, the EU would have been the second largest economy in the world in 2020, with a nominal GDP of nearly $15.3 trillion, greater than China and second only to the United States.1 With a population of nearly 450 million people, the EU would be the third most populous state in the world, surpassing the U.S.’ population of about 330 million. The European Commission is the executive branch of the European Union, tasked with upholding and enforcing EU laws and treaties and administering the approximately €150 billion annual budget of the EU. The Commission is headquartered in Brussels, Belgium and employs a permanent civil service of over 30,000 staff organized into 33 Directorates-General in addition to an assortment of executive agencies and service departments.2 The Commission is led by the Commission President—since 2019, the former German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen. Counterintuitively, it is not the European Parliament which proposes EU legislation, but the Commission. The Commission has the “right of initiative” to propose new legislation and the EU’s two official legislative bodies, the Parliament and the Council of Ministers, simply approve or reject it, though all of the EU’s decision-making bodies have the option to request legislation from the Commission. The Commission thus acts as both the primary legislator and primary enforcer of EU law.