President of the European Commission

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President of the
European Commission
European Commission logo.svg
Commission emblem
José Manuel Barroso MEDEF.jpg
José Manuel Barroso

since 23 November 2004
Member of European Commission
Seat Berlaymont building, Brussels, Belgium
Nominator European Council
on the basis of the latest European elections
Appointer European Parliament
Term length Five years
Constituting instrument Treaties of the European Union
Inaugural holder Walter Hallstein
Formation 1 January 1958
Deputy Vice-President of the European Commission
Salary €24,422.80 per month

The President of the European Commission is the head of the European Commission ― the executive branch of the European Union (EU) ― the most powerful officeholder in the EU.[1] The President is responsible for allocating portfolios to members of the Commission and can reshuffle or dismiss them if needed. They determine the Commission's policy agenda and all the legislative proposals it produces (the Commission is the only body that can propose EU laws).

The Commission President also represents the EU abroad, although they do this alongside the President of the European Council and, at foreign minister's level, the High Representative (who sits in his Commission as Vice-President). However the President, unlike a normal head of government, does not form foreign policy, command troops or raise taxes as these are largely outside the remit of the EU.

The post was established in 1958 and is elected by the European Parliament, on a proposal of the European Council for five-year terms. Once elected, he or she, along with the Commission, is responsible to Parliament which can censure the President. The current President is José Manuel Barroso, who took office in October 2004. He is a member of the European People's Party (EPP) and is the former Prime Minister of Portugal. Barroso is the eleventh President and in 2009 was re-elected for a further five years. His vice-president, as of 2010, is High Representative Catherine Ashton, Baroness Ashton of Upholland.


Walter Hallstein, the first President of the Commission

The President of the European Commission was established in 1957 with the European Commission. Previously it was merely a post of primus inter pares but had an increasing impact on the Community. Under Jacques Delors it became increasingly presidential in style and now is the dominant force in the Commission, although curbed by crises such as the resignation of the Santer Commission.


Before the establishment of the present European Commission, there was the High Authority of the European Coal and Steel Community. In 1957 the present Commission was established by the Treaty of Rome, and it also replaced the High Authority and the Commission of Euratom in 1967.[2] The Commission's first president was Walter Hallstein (see Hallstein Commission) who started consolidating European law and began to impact on national legislation. National governments took little heed of his administration at first with the President having to stamp the Commission's authority early on. With the aid of the European Court of Justice the Commission began to be taken more seriously.[3]

In 1965 Hallstein put forward his proposals for the Common Agricultural Policy, which would give the Community its own financial resources while giving more power to the Commission and Parliament and removing the veto power over Agriculture in the Council. These proposals led to an immediate backlash from France.[4] Hallstein knew the proposals would be contentious, and took personal charge of drafting them, over-riding the Agriculture Commissioner. However he did gain the support of Parliament through his proposals to increase its powers, and he also presented his policy to Parliament a week before he submitted them to the Council. He aimed to demonstrate how he thought the Community ought to be run, in the hopes of generating a wave of pro-Europeanism big enough to get past the objections of member states. However in this it proved that, despite its past successes, Hallstein was overconfident in his risky proposals.[5]

President Mansholt opened the first enlargement talks with Denmark, Ireland, Norway and the United Kingdom

In reaction to Hallstein's proposals and actions, then-French President, Charles de Gaulle, who was sceptical of the rising supranational power of the Commission, accused Hallstein of acting as if he were a head of state. France eventually withdrew its representative from the Council, triggering the notorious "empty chair crisis".[4] Although this was resolved under the "Luxembourg compromise", Hallstein became the scapegoat for the crisis. The Council refused to renew his term, despite being the most 'dynamic' leader until Jacques Delors.[5]


Hallstein's work did enable the Commission to be a real player. During the 1970s the presidents were involved in the major political projects of the day, such as the European Monetary Union.[6] In 1970, President Jean Rey secured the Community's own financial resources[7] and in 1977, President Roy Jenkins became the first Commission President to attend a G7 summit on behalf of the Community.[8]

However due to problems such as the 1973 oil crisis and the 1979 energy crisis, economic hardship put the European ideal on the back burner, with only the President trying to keep the idea alive. The member states had the upper hand and they created the European Council to discuss topical problems, yet the Council was unable to keep the major projects on track such as the Common Agricultural Policy.[9] The Community entered a period of eurosclerosis due to economic difficulties and disagreements on the Community budget, and by the Thorn Commission the President was unable to exert his influence to any significant extent.[10]


Jacques Delors (left) breathed new life into the European Commission Presidency after a period of 'eurosclerosis' under his predecessor, Gaston Thorn (right)

However the Commission began to recover under President Jacques Delors' Commission. He is seen as the most successful President, being credited with having given the Community a sense of direction and dynamism.[11] The International Herald Tribune noted the work of Delors at the end of his second term in 1992: "Mr. Delors rescued the European Community from the doldrums. He arrived when Europessimism was at its worst. Although he was a little-known (outside France) finance minister and former MEP, he breathed life and hope into the EC and into the dispirited Brussels Commission. In his first term, from 1985 to 1988, he rallied Europe to the call of the single market, and when appointed to a second term he began urging Europeans toward the far more ambitious goals of economic, monetary and political union."[12]

But Delors not only turned the Community around, he signalled a change in the Presidency. Before he came to power the Commission President still was a position of first among equals, when he left office he was the undisputed icon and leader of the Community. His tenure had produced a strong Presidency and a strong Commission as the President became more important. Following treaties cemented this change, with the President being given control over the allocation of portfolios and being able to force the resignation of Commissioners. When President Romano Prodi took office with the new powers of the Treaty of Amsterdam, he was dubbed by the press as Europe's first Prime Minister.[13][14] President Delors' work had increased the powers of Parliament, whose support he had enjoyed. However, later Commissions did not enjoy the same support and in 1999 parliament used its powers to force the Santer Commission to resign.[15]

Parliamentary oversight[edit]

President Prodi was dubbed by the press as "Europe's first Prime Minister" due to his new powers

Historically, the Council appointed the Commission President and the whole body by unanimity without input from Parliament. However with the Treaty on European Union in 1993, Parliament gained the right to be 'consulted' on the appointment of the President and to veto the Commission as a whole. Parliament decided to interpret its right to be consulted as a right to veto the President, which the Council reluctantly accepted[16] This right of veto was formalised in the Amsterdam Treaty. The Treaty of Nice changed the Council's vote from a unanimous choice to one that merely needed a qualified majority. This meant that the weight of the Parliament in the process increased resulting in a quasi-parliamentary system where one group could be 'in government'. This became evident in 2004 when numerous candidates were put forward and a centre-right vote won out over left wing groups and France & Germany.[17] Barroso was then forced to back down over his choice of Commissioners due to Parliament's threat that it would not approve his Commission.[18]

In 2009, the European People's Party endorsed Barroso as their candidate for Commission President and the party subsequently retained their position as largest group in that year's elections. The Socialists responded by pledging to put forward a rival candidate at future elections.[19] Barroso once again was forced by Parliament to make a change to his proposed Commission[20] but eventually received assent. However in exchange for approval, Parliament forced some concessions from Barroso in terms of Parliamentary representation at Commission and international meetings.[21] On 7 September 2010, Barroso gave the first US-style State of the Union address to Parliament; which focused primarily on the EU's economic recovery and human rights. The speech is to be annual.[22]


President Barroso, from the EPP which was the largest party after the 2004 and 2009 elections

Article 17 of the Treaty on European Union, as amended by the Treaty of Lisbon, lays out the procedure for appointing the President and his team. The European Council votes by qualified majority for a nominee for the post of President, taking account of the latest European elections. This proposal is then put before Parliament which must approve or veto the appointment. If an absolute majority of MEPs support the nominee, he/she is elected. The President then, together with the Council, puts forward his team to the Parliament to be scrutinised. The Parliament normally insists that each one of them appear before the parliamentary committee that corresponds to their prospective portfolio for a public hearing. The Parliament then votes on the Commission as a whole and, if approved, the European Council, acting by a qualified majority, appoints the President and his team to office.[23]


Qualified majority in the Council has led to more candidates being fielded while there has been greater politicisation due to the involvement of Parliament and the change of policy direction in the EU from the creation of the single market to reform of it.[24] However despite this, the choice within the Council remains largely behind closed doors. During the appointment of Santer, discussions were kept in private with the media relying on insider leaks. MEPs were angry with the process, against the spirit of consultation that the new EU treaty brought in. Pauline Green MEP, leader of the Socialist group, stated that her group thought "Parliament should refuse to condone a practice which so sullies the democratic process".[25] There were similar deals in 1999 and 2004 saw a repeat of Santer's appointment when Barroso was appointed through a series of secret meetings between leaders with no press releases on the negotiations being released.[26] This was sharply criticised by MEPs such as the liberal group leader Graham Watson who described the procedure as a "Justus Lipsius carpet market" producing only the "lowest common denominator"; while Green-EFA co-leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit asked Barroso after his first speech "If you are the best candidate, why were you not the first?"[27][28]


Map showing the number of presidents from each EU member state.

The candidate selected by the Council has often been a leading national politician but this is not a requirement. The choice of President must take into account the result of the latest Parliamentary elections (i.e. the candidate supported by the victorious European political party in particular, or at least someone from that political family[according to whom?]). That provision was not in force in the nomination in 2004, but the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) who won the elections pressured for a candidate from its own ranks. In the end, the EPP candidate was chosen: José Manuel Barroso.[29] On the same basis, the EPP endorsed again Barroso for a second term during the 2009 European elections campaign and, after winning again the elections, was able to secure his nomination by the European Council[citation needed].

Further criteria seen to be influencing the choice of the Council include: which area of Europe the candidate comes from, favoured as Southern Europe in 2004; the candidate's political influence, credible yet not overpowering members; language, proficiency in French considered necessary by France; and degree of integration, their state being a member of both the eurozone and the Schengen Agreement.[30][31][32]

There is an assumption that there is a rolling agreement along these lines that a president from a large state is followed by a president from a small state, and one from the political left will be followed by one from the political right: Roy Jenkins (British socialist) was followed by Gaston Thorn (Luxembourg liberal), Jacques Delors (French socialist), Jacques Santer (Luxembourg Christian democrat), Romano Prodi (Italian left wing Christian democrat) and Jose Barroso (Portuguese Christian democrat). However, despite these assumptions these presidents have usually been chosen during political battles and coalition building. Delors was chosen following a Franco-British disagreement over Claude Cheysson, Santer was a compromise after Britain vetoes Jean-Luc Dehaene and Prodi was backed by a coalition of thirteen states against the Franco-German preference for Guy Verhofstadt.[33]


In February 2008, President Barroso admitted that despite the President having in theory as much legitimacy as heads of governments, in practice it was not the case. The low voter turnout creates a problem for the President's legitimacy, with the lack of a "European political sphere", but analysts claim that if citizens were voting for a list of candidates for the post of President, turn out would be much higher than that seen in recent years.[34]

Under the Treaty of Lisbon the European Council has to take into account the results of the latest European elections and, furthermore, the Parliament elects, rather than simply approve, the Council's proposed candidate. This was taken as the parliament's cue to have its parties run with candidates for the President of the Commission with the candidate of the winning party being proposed by the Council.[35] This was partly put into practice in 2004 when the European Council selected a candidate from the political party which secured a plurality of votes in that year's election. However at that time only a minor party had run with a specific candidate: the then fourth placed European Green Party, who had the first true pan-European political party with a common campaign,[36] put forward Daniel Cohn-Bendit and lost even their fourth place in the following election becoming only the fifth largest group in 2009 and diminishing their candidate's chances further.[35] However the winning European People's Party only mentioned four or five people as candidates for President.[37]

There have been plans to strengthen the European political parties[38] in order for them to propose candidate for future elections.[39][40] The European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party indicated, in its October 2007 congress, its intention to forward a candidate for the post as part of a common campaign but failed to do so.[41] However the European People's Party did select Barroso as their candidate and, as the largest party, Barroso's turn was renewed.

The Socialists, disappointed at the 2009 election, agreed to put forward a candidate for Commission President at all subsequent elections.[42] After a campaign within that party to have open primaries for said candidate,[19] the PES Congress gathering in Brussels in November 2011 decided that PES would designate its candidate for Commission president through primaries taking place in January 2014 in each of its member parties and organisations,[43] before a ratification of the results by an Extraordinary PES Congress in February 2014. The EPP will choose its candidate at its next Congress on 6–7 March 2014 in Dublin, for which the nomination process started on 13 February 2014.[44][45]

Term of office[edit]

The President is elected for a renewable five-year term starting six months after the elections to the European Parliament. These were brought into alignment via the Maastricht Treaty and the elections take place in June every five years (the first election was held in 1979, hence all subsequent elections are held on years ending in 4 and 9).[46] This alignment has led to a closer relationship between the elections and the President himself with the above mentioned proposals for political parties running with candidates.

The President and his Commission may be removed from office by a vote of censure from Parliament. Parliament has never done this to date, however the threat of this happening in 1999 due to allegations of financial mismanagement led to the Santer Commission resigning on its own accord, before the Parliament forced them out.[47]

Duties and powers[edit]

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The President of the European Commission is the most powerful position in the European Union,[1] controlling the Commission which collectively has a monopoly on all Union legislation and is responsible for ensuring its enforcement.[1][48] The President controls the policy agenda of the Commission for his term and in practice no policy can be proposed without the President's agreement.[1]

The role of the President is to lead the Commission, and give direction to the Commission and the Union as a whole. The treaties state that "the Commission shall work under the political guidance of its President" (Article 219 TEC), this is conducted through his calling and chairing of meetings of the college of Commissioners,[46] his personal cabinet and the meetings of the heads of each commissioner's cabinet (the Hebdo).[1][46] The president may also force a Commissioner to resign.[46] The work of the Commission as a body is based on the principle of Cabinet collective responsibility, however in his powers he acts as more than a first among equals.[46] The role of the President is similar to that of a national Prime Minister chairing a cabinet.[1]

The President also has responsibility for representing the Commission in the Union and beyond. For example, he is a member of the European Council and takes part in debates in Parliament and the Council of Ministers. Outside the Union he attends the meetings of the G8 to represent the Union.[46] However in foreign affairs, he does have to compete with several Commissioners with foreign affairs related portfolios: the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy and the President of the European Council.[49]

The Presidential system had started to develop since Jacques Delors and has since been cemented. However, externally he is still dependent on support from the Council and Parliament. Delors had enjoyed the Parliament's and the Council's support for his whole term, and due to his work the Parliament increased in powers and the Council increased in membership. The membership is now so large the President is increasingly unable to garner the support of all the states, even though the job is supposed to try to keep everyone happy. The Parliament now has more powers over the Commission and can reject its proposals, although the Commission has little power over Parliament, such as the ability to dissolve it to call new elections.[50]

The President's office is on the top, 13th, floor of the Berlaymont building in Brussels. The president receives his political guidance from his cabinet, the head of which acts as a political bodyguard for the President. Such factors can lead to an isolation of the President from outside events.[51] For the European Civil Service the President has a very high status, due to his immense authority and symbolism within the body.[52] The President exercises further authority through the legal service and Secretariat-General of the Commission. The former has the power to strike down proposals on legal technicalities while the latter organises meetings, agendas and minutes. His control over these areas gives the President further political tools when directing the work of the Commission. This has also increased the Presidential style of the Commission President.[53]

With the reorganisation of leading EU posts under the Lisbon Treaty, there was some criticism of each posts vague responsibilities. Ukrainian ambassador to the EU Andriy Veselovsky praised the framework and clarified it in his own terms: The Commission President speaks as the EU's "government" while the President of the European Council is a "strategist". The High Representative specialises in "bilateral relations" while the European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy deals in technical matters such as the free trade agreement with Ukraine. The President of the European Parliament meanwhile articulates the EU's values.[54]

Relationship to European Council Presidency[edit]

Having both a Commission President (Barroso, left) and a European Council President (Van Rompuy, right) led to concerns over confusion and infighting

Despite the recent Presidential style, the President has also begun to lose ground to the larger member states as countries such as France, Italy, the UK and Germany seek to sideline its role. This may increase with the recent creation of the permanent President of the European Council.[55] There has been disagreement and concern over competition between the President of the European Council Van Rompuy and the Commission President Barroso due to the vague language of the treaty. Some clarifications see Van Rompuy as the "strategist" and Barroso as a head of government. In terms of economic planning Van Rompuy saw the Commission as dealing with the content of the plan and the European Council as dealing with the means and implementing it. Despite weekly breakfasts together there is a certain extent of rivalry between the two yet-defined posts, including the High Representative.[54][56][57]

Although there are concerns that competition with the new Council President would lead to increased infighting,[58] there are provisions for combining the two offices. The European Council President may not hold a national office, such as a Prime Minister of a member state, but there is no such restraint on European offices. So the Commission President, who already sits in the European Council, could also be appointed as its President. This would allow the European Council to combine the position, with its powers, of both executive bodies into a single President of the European Union.[59]

Since the creation of the European Council presidency, President Van Rompuy and Commission President Barroso have begun to compete with each other as Van Rompuy has benefited from the general shift in power from the Commission to the Council yet with Barroso still holding the real powers. At international summits there was no agreement as to who should represent the EU, so they agreed to both go at the same time. The complicated situation has renewed some calls to merge the posts, possibly at the end of Barroso's term in 2014 or even as early as mid-2012 when Van Rompuy's present mandate ends. However some member states are expected to oppose the creation of such a high profile post.[56][57]

Privileges of office[edit]

The basic monthly salary of the President is fixed at 112.5% of the top civil service grade[60] which, in 2013, amounted to €25,351 per month or €304,212 per year plus an allowance for a residence equal to 15% of salary as well as other allowances including for children's schooling and household expenses.[61]

List of presidents[edit]

Portrait State and
previous post
HallsteinWalter Hallstein
Hallstein Commission
Bundesarchiv B 145 Bild-F004665-0003, Walter Hallstein.jpg  West Germany
Finance Minister
Christian Democratic Group
National: CDU
1 January 195830 June 1967 Established the Common Agricultural Policy and tackled the empty chair crisis that led to the Luxembourg compromise.
ReyJean Rey
Rey Commission
Jean Rey World Economic Forum 1975.jpg  Belgium
Finance Minister
Liberals and Allies Group
National: PRL
2 July 19671 July 1970 Began initiatives on European Political Cooperation and EMU.
MalfattiFranco Maria Malfatti
Malfatti Commission
Franco Maria Malfatti.jpg  Italy
Foreign Minister
Christian Democratic Group
National: DC
2 July 19701 March 1972 Made advances on the single market. Opened membership talks with the Denmark, Ireland, Norway, and the UK.
MansholtSicco Mansholt
Mansholt Commission
Sicco Mansholt (1967).jpg  Netherlands
Agriculture Minister
Socialist Group
National: PvdA
22 March 19725 January 1973 Oversaw creation of the European Monetary System and the first enlargement.
OrtoliFrançois-Xavier Ortoli
Ortoli Commission
François-Xavier Ortoli and Wilhelm Haferkamp.jpg  France
Finance Minister
Christian Democratic Group
National: RPR
6 January 19735 January 1977 Managed the enlarged Community during the instability of the 1973 oil crisis and the Turkish invasion of Cyprus.
JenkinsRoy Jenkins
Jenkins Commission
Roy Jenkins, Chancellor of Oxford.jpg  United Kingdom
Home Secretary
Party of European Socialists
National: Labour
6 January 197719 January 1981 Oversaw the development of the EMU and was the first President to attend the G8.
ThornGaston Thorn
Thorn Commission
Gaston Thorn - World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 1986.jpg  Luxembourg
Prime Minister
European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party
National: Democratic Party
20 January 19816 January 1985 Sped up enlargement while working on the Single European Act. However, with a period of eurosclerosis, Thorn was unable to exert his influence.
DelorsJacques Delors
Delors Commission
Bundesarchiv B 145 Bild-F078267-0023, Bonn, Ministerpräsidenten mit EU-Kommissar Delors-CROPPED.jpg  France
Finance Minister
Party of European Socialists
National: PS
7 January 198524 January 1995 Oversaw the enactment of both the Single European Act and the Treaty of Maastricht, was a principal architect behind the Committee of the Regions, and handled the 1995 enlargement.
SanterJacques Santer
Santer Commission
Jacques Santer.jpg  Luxembourg
Prime Minister
European People's Party
National: CSV
25 January 199515 March 1999
Santer worked on the Treaty of Amsterdam, Treaty of Nice, and the launch of the euro. However, this was overshadowed by his Commission's budget controversy.
MarinManuel Marín (Interim)[62]
Marín Commission
Manuel Marin.jpg  Spain
Minister for Europe
Party of European Socialists
National: PSOE
15 March 199917 September 1999 In the wake of Santer's early resignation, his commission continued under Manuel Marín as a caretaker administration.
ProdiRomano Prodi
Prodi Commission
Romano Prodi in Nova Gorica (2c).jpg  Italy
Prime Minister
European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party
National: The Democrats
17 September 199922 November 2004
Oversaw the enforcement of the Nice Treaty and the signing of the European Constitution. He also oversaw the launch of the physical euro in 2002.
BarrosoJosé Manuel Barroso
Barroso Commission
José Manuel Barroso MEDEF.jpg  Portugal
Prime Minister
European People's Party
National: PSD
22 November 2004November 2014 Barroso oversaw the Lisbon Treaty, the 2004 and 2007 enlargements, and major legislation including the REACH and Bolkestein Directives.
BarrosoJean-Claude Juncker
Juncker Commission
Ioannes Claudius Juncker die 7 Martis 2014.jpg  Luxembourg
Prime Minister
European People's Party
National: CSV
November 2014 Designate

See also[edit]


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    Hix, Simon (2008). What's wrong with the EU and how to fix it. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Polity. ISBN 978-0-7456-4205-5. 
    Endo, Ken (1999). The Presidency of the European Commission under Jacques Delors. Basingstoke: Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-333-72101-8. 
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  42. ^ (English) Resolution n°2 "A New Way Forward, A Stronger PES" adopted by the 8th PES Congress in Prague, 7–8 December 2009
  43. ^ (English) PES Resolution Selecting our common candidate in 2014, adopted by the PES Council on 24 November 2011
  44. ^ 6-7 March: EPP to hold Congress in Dublin with heads of state and government, 2,000 participants; process to select EPP candidate for EC President starts today, European People's Party, 13 February 2014 
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  50. ^ Eppink, 2007, p.226-8
  51. ^ Eppink, 2007, p.211-3
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  53. ^ Eppink, 2007, p.217-21
  54. ^ a b Rettman, Andrew (15 March 2010) Ukraine gives positive appraisal of new-model EU, EU Observer
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  62. ^ a b Santer resigned before his mandate expired. His commission served in caretaker capacity under Marín till September. Replaced by Prodi, who completed Santer's mandate to 22 January 2000, when they were reappointed on their own mandate.
  63. ^ Term expired 31 October 2004, but continued as caretaker until 22 November 2004 due to delay in appointment of Barroso Commission.

External links[edit]