Is the EU run by ‘unelected bureaucrats’?

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Many claim that the decisions taken in the EU are exclusively made by unelected bureaucrats, normally in reference to the Commission. However, when one looks at how decision making actually happens and where EU actors get their mandate from, it can be seen that the vast majority of decisions have democratic legitimacy through one way or more.

The most traditional criticism is that the Commission is ‘unelected’ and that it makes decisions with no democratic legitimacy whatsoever. The Commission President & the College of Commissioners, however, are elected and approved respectively by the European Parliament and are also accountable to it through a potential censure vote. It’s also a rare occurrence in a democracy to directly elect ministers, and questions are raised as to how that would work in practice.

Since the 2014 European elections, the Commission President is chosen by the largest party in the European Parliament, similar to how the Prime Minister is chosen in parliamentary systems such as the UK, Germany, Poland, … .

The European Parliament & Council of the EU both have to approve proposed EU legislation for it to become law. The European Parliament is, of course, directly elected by the citizens of Europe, giving the vast majority of laws direct legitimacy. The Council of the EU is comprised of the national ministers of EU member states, which gain their own legitimacy from national elections. There is also the European Council, which takes the ‘big decisions’, made up of the heads of state or government of the EU member states. They also have their own mandate either through a direct election or commanding the confidence of a Parliament, to which they remain accountable. To say that the decisions and laws of the EU have no mandate or legitimacy from the people, or that the decisions are made by unelected bureaucrats, isn’t quite true.

The Commission’s bureaucracy is also relatively small compared to national bureaucracies, with only around 33,000 employees to manage a Union of over 500 million people. Most EU legislation & funding is implemented by national and regional authorities, working with the Commission when needed.

While the Commission isn’t directly elected, the European Parliament has the final say on the appointment and removal of it, which is similar to systems in some of the member states. The vast majority of proposals have to be approved by the Council & the EP, if not just the Council, meaning that almost all EU laws have been endorsed by democratically elected figures. Also, most EU laws are implemented by national & regional authorities, not the Commission directly.