Written by Eponine Howarth (LLB)

The opinion that the European Union is governed by ‘unelected bureaucrats’ is commonly held by europhobes and an argument wielded by the Leave campaign in the referendum on the British exit of the European Union. The claim refers to the powers of the Commission in particular, one of the executive bodies of the EU, partly composed of a ‘bureaucracy’ of civil servants. However, the idea that ‘the EU is governed by unelected bureaucrats” exhibits a very strong misunderstanding of how the EU is governed, as well as the role played by the Commission in EU governance. This article explains the extent of the Commission’s powers in the EU’s institutional architecture and the extent to which the Commission is accountable when exercising those powers.

First of all, the claim that the EU is run by “unelected bureaucrats” shows a deep misunderstanding of European executive politics. The EU is governed by a dual executive: the Council and the Commission (Hix, 2011). The Council of the European Union where ministers from the member states meet regularly to adopt policies and legislation is divided by sector and deals with day-to-day policy making. The European Council is the formation where heads of state meet at least four times a year to discuss the overall direction of EU policies. The heads of state and government are not unelected bureaucrats, but directly or indirectly elected by voters in each member state. The ministers in the Council of the European Union are representatives of democratically elected national governments and therefore indirectly accountable, rather than being unelected bureaucrats.

Instead, the sentence ‘the EU is governed by unelected bureaucrats’ is directed at the role of the Commission. The Commission is composed of a bureaucracy or administration, divided into Directorates-General (DGs), run by civil servants, and a ‘government’, the College of Commissioners, where each member state nominates a commissioner that has to be approved by the European Parliament. However, although it is technically true to call one part of the Commission, the civil servants, ‘unelected bureaucrats’, the expression equally applies to national civil servants, which also happen to be ’unelected bureaucrats’. Every government has bureaucrats which are by nature unelected. While the EU has around 33,000 of them, the British government employs over 400,000 civil servants.  In addition, there is the complaint ‘that not only junior EU officials, but many senior ones are appointed rather than elected; yet this, too, is true of all governments. British papers that disparage the “unelected” Michel Barnier, the EU’s lead Brexit negotiator, would struggle to find a country that has a directly elected trade representative’ (The Economist 2017). Also Michel Barnier is accountable not only to the European Commission but also the 28 EU member states. But, what is the role of these ‘unelected bureaucrats’ in EU governance, and their influence of decision-making?

The main role of the Commission is to propose EU legislation, manage the implementation of policies and funds and represent the EU in bilateral or multilateral trade agreements. The European Commission is also “the guardian of the Treaties” and can take EU Member States that infringe EU law to the ECJ (European Court of Justice). The role of the Commission follows principal-agent theory: the principals are the member states in the Council, which delegate some powers to the agent, the Commission. Therefore, instead of having twenty-eight policy initiators, the member states delegate agenda-setting to the Commission in order to reduce transaction costs and increase policy-making credibility. The Commission therefore has the ability to change the direction of the original policy outcome, despite following the broader policy directions imposed by the heads of state in the European Council. Moreover, although agenda-setting does give some power to the Commission over policy direction, that is not the end of the story. The Council of the EU then has to approve legislation for it to become law. Under co-decision (II) and consent procedures, the Commission’s powers were also reduced, as the European Parliament has to approve legislation. Again, the European Parliament is directly accountable to citizens that elect their MEPs. So, despite the Commission holding a certain degree of leadership power, as it holds the power of legislative initiative, the role of the Commission in decision-making is much more limited than the ‘unelected bureaucrats’ claim leads us to believe.

The idea that the EU is governed by ‘unelected bureaucrats’ can also, clumsily, refer to the lack of accountability regarding the EU executive, and the Commission in particular. The accountability mechanism between voters and the Commission run in two steps: from the voters to national governments and the MEP; from the EU’s legislature to the Commission. The powers of the Commission, the agent, are limited through ex ante and ex post controls by the principal. Ex ante, the principal has a choice of which policy decisions it will delegate. Member states have retained control of macroeconomic policies and common foreign and security policy. Then, the ex post ‘police-patrol’ of the European Parliament, in particular, creates a relationship of accountability between the Commission to the European Parliament, which can use a vote of censure, close to the impeachment process in presidential elections, to ‘throw the rascals’ of the Commission out in case of serious criminal allegations.

In 1999, for example, the Santer Commission was indirectly forced to resign en masse, due to allegations of fraud, corruption and nepotism against two Commissioners, Edith Cresson and Manuel Marin, and the threat that the European Parliament would use a vote of censure – although it had failed the first time. The Commission is also accountable to the Council through the system of comitology, composed of national government officials who scrutinise the Commision’s implementation measures. Due to the separation of powers, the legislators are also able to scrutinise the executive. And although Hix (2000) is critical of the comitology system, due to its lack of transparency, amongst other things, these national civil servants are not governors of the European Union. Finally, the President of the Commission, since the Lisbon Treaty and the implementation of Article 17(7) of the TEU, is indirectly ‘elected’, as the Council has to ‘take into account’ the result of the European Parliament elections to nominate the Commission president (Hobolt 2014). Therefore, the head of the Commission, one of the executive bodies, is not an unelected bureaucrat either.

To conclude, the claim ‘the EU is run by unelected bureaucrats’ exhibits a deep misunderstanding of decision-making and executive politics in the European Union, a misunderstanding of the role of the Commission and a misunderstanding of the EU’s accountability mechanisms. As a final note, there are less eurocrats assisting with running of the EU than unelected officials assisting with the management of major cities like Paris or London.



Hix, S. and Hoyland, B. (2011) The political system of the European Union (3rd ed). Palgrave Macmillan.

Hobolt, S. (2014) “A Vote for the President? The Role of Spitzenkandidaten in the 2014 European Parliament Elections”, Journal of European Public Policy, 21:10. Pp. 1535-1537.

The Economist (2017) “Does it make sense to refer to EU officials as unelected bureaucrats” [online] Accesible at: https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2017/07/14/does-it-make-sense-to-refer-to-eu-officials-as-unelected-bureaucrats


Photo credits: https://www.binarytree.com/blog-portal/blog/2017/august/what-are-the-eu-model-clauses/

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