Leave campaigners love to claim that the European Commission is made up of unaccountable faceless bureaucrats, but that is entirely false. The claim may have been true in the 1980s, but the EU has transformed since then, and the Commission is democratically accountable and replaceable.
The democratically elected heads of national governments together, propose a candidate for the Commission President by “taking into account the outcome of the elections of the European Parliament”. The candidate President of the Commission must then be elected by the European Parliament.
Once the President is elected, the individual Commissioners are designated by the heads of government working in cooperation with the Commission President. Once again, the makeup of the Commission must be put to the vote before the European Parliament (art. 17.7, TEU).
The Parliament conducts detailed hearings with designated commissioners, extracting clear commitments from the Commission individually and as a whole, before voting to approve the appointment. The threat of a veto from the Parliament or a large political group, has been enough to make changes in the make-up designated Commission.
From 2014, the Commission President is the candidate of the political group which won the most seats in the European Parliament elections. This means that the EU now operates like any coalition-based parliamentary democracy in Europe: just like Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, or basically any EU member state except the UK and France, which have slightly different systems.
If you are a citizen of an EU member state, and you have voted in your general elections and in the European elections, you have voted for your European Commission.
This process may not be perfect, and could be improved if citizens EU and governments want to improve it. But it is arguably more democratic that the UK’s first-past-the-post voting system, unelected House of Lords, and unelected head of state.
The Commission does not legislate, and does not have the power to “impose” laws. It drafts and proposes legislation, which it must do in close consultation with the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, as well as civil society organisations. The Parliament and Council then amend the draft laws as they see fit, with the Commission acting as mediator.
The Parliament has the power to request a proposal, and makes its positions known through a continuous exchange of publications and agreements between the institutions.
The European Council, made up of the elected heads of governments, sets the overall political and strategic direction for the EU on key issues.
Dismissing the Commission:
The European Parliament has the power to propose and adopt a Motion of Censure, a vote of no confidence in the Commission. If such a motion of no confidence is adopted by a two-third majority, the Commission is dismissed (art. 234 TFEU).
In response to years of criticism, the Commission has put in place measures ensuring a high level of transparency in decision-making, particularly when compared to many national governments. The Commission hold stakeholder consultations with civil society, as well as public consultations with citizens. It is implementing a transparency register of lobbyists. It publishes all of its policy documents.
Outters like to talk about ‘armies of EU bureaucrats’. In fact, the European Commission employs only about 32,900 people, much less than many government ministries or city councils. For the amount of work that the European Commission does, that is comparatively very small number of people.