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One Europe: The Dream of Unity : Profile : Neither a State Nor International Organization : The workings of the European Commission may be arcane, but it has power.


BRUSSELS — It was Friday, Jan. 10, another variable feast for the 17 members of the European Commission.

Frans Andriessen, the commissioner for external relations, was huddling with the foreign ministers of the 12 European Community nations to discuss crises in the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Meanwhile, Bruce Millan, responsible for developing the Community's poor regions, met with members of a Scottish association demanding development money for their area. And Jean Dondelinger, whose portfolio is cultural affairs, participated in the opening ceremony of the Brussels International Film Festival.

Holland's Andriessen, Britain's Millan and Luxembourg's Dondelinger sit at the top of what is, in the United States, one of Europe's least-understood yet most influential governmental institutions. It was the European Commission, for example, that initiated "EC '92"--the drive to tear down barriers to internal European Community trade--and has now set Europe on a course for political as well as economic union.

The commission, in turn, is just one element of a four-part government system unlike anything found in the United States or anywhere else on the globe.

"The European Community is not a political entity that is easily understood," writes University of Pittsburgh political scientist Alberta M. Sbragia. "Unique in its institutional structure, it is neither a state nor an international organization."

These are the pieces:

* The European Commission (based in Brussels). Although it is commonly described as the European Community's executive branch, the commission generally does not execute policy. (That job is left to the 12 member nations.) Rather, the commission derives most of its power from being the only unit of EC government that can initiate policies.

* The European Parliament (which meets one week a month in Strasbourg, France, but whose administrative offices are in Brussels). This is a 518-member legislative body that, by and large, does not legislate. Although it can veto some proposed EC policies, it acts mostly in an advisory role.

* The Council of Ministers (which meets wherever it chooses). This is the unit of government that makes most EC policy, subject in some cases to veto by the European Parliament and in many to approval by the 12 national parliaments. The heads of the 12 EC governments meet at least twice a year to set Community policy. But most decisions are delegated to a subordinate level: foreign or trade ministers, for example.

* The European Court of Justice (based in Luxembourg). The court actually does what its name implies: It adjudicates disputes between EC institutions and between the EC and its member nations.

In this constellation of peculiar institutions, the commission may be the most bizarre of all.

With one exception, its members are chosen for four-year terms by the leaders of the 12 national governments--and many of them were sent to Brussels to get them out of the way back home. "It's often akin to being put out to grass," admits one commission official.

The one exception is the commission president, who is chosen by a consensus of the heads of the 12 EC countries. In 1985 and again in 1989, the EC heads picked Jacques Delors, who had been France's finance minister.

Delors has, by all accounts, proved easily the most effective president the commission has ever had. As French President Francois Mitterrand's popularity at home has plunged, Delors has become France's most highly regarded politician, and he is considered likely to run for president when Mitterrand's term expires in 1995.

The other 16 commissioners come to Brussels without portfolios. It is the president's unenviable task to divvy up the jobs.

Most commissioners do not rank among Europe's leading political lights. A 1990 EC poll showed that only 45% of EC citizens knew of the commission; of that 45%, slightly more than half had a favorable impression.

The commissioners are not accountable to any voters; their allegiance is to the commission itself--and, if they want to be reappointed, to the prime minister who sent them to Brussels.

The commission generally meets every Wednesday. A majority of nine commissioners is enough to exercise the commission's unique power to send a proposal whirling through the EC's labyrinthine decision-making process.

Unlike a U.S. President's Cabinet, the EC's commissioners range all over the political spectrum. The present commission has room for Leon Brittan, a card-carrying British Conservative who is responsible for antitrust policy, and for Vasso Papandreou, an activist Greek Socialist who is in charge of such volatile issues as workers' rights.

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