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Guide to the European Union

Guide to the European Union banner

What are the main institutions of the European Union?

The main institutions of the EU are those that were created in 1957, though the way that they work and the relationships between them have changed considerably.

They are:-

The European Commission which consist of Commissioners appointed by the member countries and full time officials.

A Council of Ministers, consisting of the Leaders of the member countries and also the Ministers from each country, such as the Agriculture or Transport ministers, who meet to agree key issues and legislation.

A European Parliament of 751 Members elected every 5 years by European voters.

A Court of Justice of the European Union which hears cases arising from EU laws.

On the surface the institutions of the EU look like those of a nation state with a Parliament, a Supreme Court, an Executive (the Commission) and a Cabinet (the Council of Ministers) but actually there is no central powerhouse in the way that the Prime Minister’s Office and the Prime Minister in the UK directs overall policy.  The various institutions all have powers and form networks of influence through which compromises are made. Parliament, the Commission and the Council are all involved in both legislation and the budget.

What are the character and powers of these institutions?

The European Commission

The Commission is the main bureaucracy of the European Commission.

It consists of some 23,000 staff in 33 Directorates General who deal with different areas of policy such as Education and Culture and Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.

There is political control through the Commissioners who are nominated, one for each member country, and a President who is nominated by the Council and approved by the Parliament.

Political groups chose a Presidential candidate for the European election and the Council is expected to choose the nominee of the group that wins most votes.

The President allocates 20 of the nominated people to take over a policy area and seven to be Vice-Presidents who coordinate a group of Commissioners with final approval by the Parliament.

The Commission drafts all legislation, though the Council and the Parliament may have made suggestions.

It makes sure that legislation is carried out and looks after the budget that has been agreed by the Parliament and the Council. It negotiated trade agreements with other countries.

It is also initiates legal action if countries do not carry out EU law.

The European Parliament

The Parliament consists of 751 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) elected, every five years, by different methods in each country.  Britain has 73 MEPS and they are elected by what is called the party list system.  Each party that contests the election puts up a list of candidates in each region, generally to cover the number of places available for that region and voters have to vote for the party rather than individual candidates. MEPs are allocated to the places for that region by a proportionate system depending on how big the party vote is. The top people on the list, decided by the party organisation, are the only ones likely to be elected.  They go to the Parliament in Strasbourg and sit in groups based on political ideology. The centre left, Socialist and Democrats, and the centre right, European People’s Party are the biggest groups and there are more left wing, more right-wing, liberal and Green groups.

Two differences from Westminster are:-

        The groups are not parties as such and, though they have group meetings and leader, there is no party discipline or whipping to vote in a particular way.

        MEPs do not become Ministers so all their work is in the Parliament and they are well resourced to do this.

The powers of the European Parliament are:-

        It amends and approves legislation, which has been produced by the Commission, after it has agreed the details with the Council.

        It approves international agreements.

        It agrees the annual budget with the Council.

        It agrees the enlargement of the EU to admit new members.

        It elects the President of the EU and approves the appointment of the Commissioners.

        It has links to interest groups and can commission enquiries and review what the Commission is doing.

The European Council

The European Council, consisting of the leaders of the members states, and the Council of the EU, which is made up of different groupings of the ministers of each member state, directly represent the interests of the various nation states.  Each country has permanent civil servants in Brussels and the chief civil servants meet as the Committee of Permanent Representatives (COREPER) to agree the agenda for Council meetings.

The European Council meets about four times a year.  These summits of the country leaders agree the overall direction of the EU, particularly foreign and defence policy, and sorts out conflicts between countries and will negotiate the broad size of the budget.  It can ask the Commission to start work on an issue. However, it only meets a few times a year and for a short time and so can only deal with pressing issues. The Council of the EU, in its different grouping, does the bulk of the work in agreeing legislation and spending.

The European Parliament and the European Council jointly agree EU legislation. This is of two types:-

        A regulation which is a law that is binding everywhere in the EU and is immediately part of the law of each country. For example Regulation 834/2007 defines what organic products are and how they should be labelled.

        A directive which sets out an aim and then allows leeway for each country to decide how it will implement the directive. For example, the Working Time Directive 88/2003 covers working hours, holidays, night work and rest breaks.  Each country passes its own legislation to implement the directive.

The European Court of Justice is able to enforce regulations and also rule if a directive has not been implemented or not properly implemented in any individual country. (It is quite different from the European Court of Human Rights in The Hague which is not part of the EU)