It all started as a way to ensure Europe never went to war with itself again, and on that front, it has been remarkably successful for nearly 70 years.
That led in 1950 to the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community, comprising Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Since then, matters have gotten bigger and more complex.
European politics can be confusing even when running smoothly, with a variety of institutions – some elected, some not – dealing with eye-watering sums of taxpayer money in intricate ways.
Here is a brief explanation one of the most misunderstood European institutions: the European Commission.
What is it?
To understand the Commission, another institution must be explained, the European Council.
The Council is made up of the leaders of all 28 member nations of the European Union (EU), who together decide on the main priorities for Europe. They also elect individuals to fill the top EU jobs, including that of president of the European Commission, who is then confirmed by a vote in the European Parliament.
Once the president of the European Commission is elected, the Council appoints 27 other commissioners – one from each member nation, each with a specific area of responsibility such as agriculture or justice. Together, the 28 officials make up the Commission.
What does it do?
The commissioners meet every week and formulate proposed EU laws – though it’s up to the European Parliament (directly elected by the people of Europe) and the governments of member states to decide whether to accept or reject those proposals.
The commissioners also draw up the annual EU budget of around $170bn – roughly equivalent to a little less than a dollar a day for each of the 500 million people who live in the EU.
The Commission also enforces existing laws and can punish member states who fall foul of them.
Are they the ‘unelected Eurocrats’ Eurosceptics disapprove of?
Yes and no. The Commission employs more than 30,000 civil servants, working in 24 official languages, to aid its work and oversee the implementation of European laws.
The civil servants aren’t elected, they are employed in much the same way as any domestic civil service is. Their job is to facilitate policies decided upon by the directly elected European Parliament.
The Commission’s president is elected by a majority vote of the directly-elected Parliament, though this is usually a rubber-stamp exercise after the recommendation by the Council.
The commissioners themselves are unelected, they are recommended by national leaders, who are elected by the people of their home countries. The elected Parliament will then approve or reject the Commission as a whole (not individual commissioners), though, again, this is usually a formality.
Why is it so unpopular?
That is really a question about EU institutions as a whole. There isn’t a great deal of communication between the EU and the citizens of its member nations. Few people could name their own MEP, let alone the Commissioner recommended by their government, or what their portfolio is.
Ahead of Britain’s 2016 vote to leave the EU, a Pew poll surveying respondents across Europe said much of the disaffection had been sparked by the migration crisis and economic issues.
A majority of people in every country polled – including 94 percent in Greece, 88 percent in Sweden and 77 percent in Italy – disapproved of how the EU had handled the influx of refugees, Time magazine reported. This coincided with a rise in populist rhetoric across the continent.
Likewise, a majority of people in eight of the 10 countries polled disapproved of how the EU managed the continent-wide economic downturn. This included around 90 percent of Greeks, 68 percent of Italians, 66 percent of the French and 65 percent of Spanish respondents.
The EU a whole has also long been a favourite target of xenophobic populist media figures, such as former Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, Boris Johnson, now the frontrunner in the race to be the next prime minister of the United Kingdom.
Johnson exploited a lack of general knowledge over the bloc’s sometimes arcane practices to score political points and create scapegoats by publishing “Euromyths” such as Europe banning “bendy bananas”.