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A SHORT GUIDE TO HOW
THE EUROPEAN UNION WORKS
WHY THE EUROPEAN UNION WAS FOUNDED
What is now called the European Union was created in the aftermath of the Second World War at the initiative of France with the support of five other European states, mostly notably West Germany (as it then was). It was an economic initiative with an explicit political objective.
The intention was that, by combining coal and steel resources and later by combining atomic energy resources and developing a common market for goods and services, this would make war between the member states effectively impossible. It should be remembered that the principal drivers of the concept – France and Germany - had gone to war against each other three times in less than a century: the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, the First World War of 1914-1918, and the Second World War of 1939-1945.
In subsequent years, another nine states signed up to this proposition by becoming members.
Once the Cold War effectively ended with the revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the new political imperative became the integration of the former Communist states to embed democratic institutions and free markets. Since 2004, 13 more countries have joined and 11 of them were formerly Communist.
So what started as a form of economic union has always had fundamentally political objectives. Now that the European Union has 28 Member States, there are inevitably different approaches and different aspirations from different nations.
Essentially there are two cleavages: first, between those who simply seek economic co-operation (notably the UK) rather than full-scale economic integration (such as those countries which have joined the Eurozone) and second, those countries that believe that economic integration does not require political integration (such as Greece) and those that believe that economic integration cannot work in the end without political integration (such as Germany).
HOW THE EUROPEAN UNION HAS EVOLVED
What is now called the European Union has evolved over more than six decades, through a variety of institutional forms, which can be summarised as follows:
Link: the history of the European Union click here
- European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) – This was created in 1952 by the Treaty of Paris of 1951 with six founding member states.
- The European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) - This was created in 1958 by the Euratom Treaty of 1957 with the same six founding member states.
- European Economic Community (EEC) - The EEC – often called the Common Market – was created in 1958 by the Treaty of Rome of 1957 with the same six founding member states.
- The European Communities (EC) – This was created in 1967 by the Merger Treaty as a result of the adoption of the same set of governing institutions for the European Coal and Steel Community, the European Atomic Energy Community, and the European Economic Community.
- The European Union (EU) – This was created in 1993 by the Treaty of Maastricht of 1992 and was a renaming and strengthening of the European Communities.
THE GROWING MEMBERSHIP OF THE EU
What is now called the European Union has grown in stages, from an original six members to the current 28 members, as follows:
So the current 28 Member States of the European Union in alphabetical order in English are as follows: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Republic of Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the UK.
This means that the total population of the EU is just over 500 million (compared to the USA of 320 million) and the nominal gross domestic product totals $16.5 trillion (compared to the USA of $17.4 trillion).
The following five countries are classed as candidates for future membership: Albania, Montenegro, Serbia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Turkey.
The following two countries are classed as potential candidates for future membership: Bosnia & Herzegovina and Kosovo.
Note : The eurozone is a monetary sub-set of the European Union members. It comprises those Member States which have given up their national currency and adopted the EU currency called the Euro. The eurozone consists of 19 members: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain. Other EU states (except for Denmark and the United Kingdom) are obliged to join once they meet the criteria to do so.
THE INSTITUTIONS OF THE EU
- 1951: Founding members: Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands
- Joined on 1 January 1973: Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom
- Joined on 1 January 1981: Greece
- Joined on 1 January 1986: Portugal, Spain
- Joined on 1 January 1995: Austria, Finland, Sweden
- Joined on 1 May 2004: Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia
- Joined on 1 January 2007: Bulgaria, Romania
- Joined on 1 July 2013: Croatia
The European Union is not a state. But the easiest way to understand how its various institutions interact with one another is to use the analogy of a nation state, accepting that this is only a guide.
So the European Council is in a sense the government or the executive of the EU – the body with ultimately the greatest power. However, unlike most nation states, its members are not draw from, or made members of, the legislature. Also, unlike in nation states, the Council does not propose legislation but has a joint role (with the Parliament) in approving legislation.
The European Commission can be thought of as the civil service of the EU. However, unlike civil servants in most national states, it plays a very active role in advocating and promoting policy and it initiates all legislation.
The European Parliament is the legislature of the EU. However, it does not have the authority or the power of a legislature in a democratic nation state. Instead it shares the legislative role of the EU with the Council.
The European Court is in effect the judiciary of the EU. It rules on the exercise of powers by the other institutions in accordance with the various treaties which have been approved by the Member States.
To understand more fully the powers and responsibilities of the various EU institutions, we need to look at each in turn and in more detail.
THE EUROPEAN COUNCIL
The European Council is the institution of the European Union that comprises the heads of state or government of the Member States, along with the Council's own President and the President of the Commission. The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy also takes part in its meetings. The European Council was established as an informal summit in 1975 and then formalised as an institution in 2009 upon the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon.
Although the European Council has few formal powers specified in the treaties, for all practical purposes it is the supreme political authority of the European Union because of its political membership. It is the political powerhouse of the EU and defines its policy agenda.
Formal powers include the following:
The current President of the European Council is Donald Tusk of Poland and the current High Representative for Foreign Affairs is Federica Mogherini of Italy.
The Council usually meets in the country which is chairing the institution at that time and the chairing role - the Presidency of the European Council - changes every six months in accordance with a pre-determined schedule. For the future schedule up to 2030 click here'
- It appoints its own President
- It appoints the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy
- It appoints the President of the European Central Bank
- It proposes, to the European Parliament, a candidate for President of the European Commission
Most meetings of this kind do not involve the head of state of each member country but the national minister responsible for the subject under discussion. For these kind of meetings, the term the Council of the EU is used. The Council of the EU is a single legal entity, but it meets in 10 different 'configurations', depending on the subject being discussed. There is no hierarchy among the Council configurations, although the General Affairs Council has a special coordination role and is responsible for institutional, administrative and horizontal matters. The Foreign Affairs Council also has a special remit.
As with the European Council, the Council of the EU is chaired by the Member State holding the presidency of the Council with the exception of the Foreign Affairs configuration which is chaired by the High Representative for Foreign Affairs.
The European Council and the Council of the EU have similar names and share the same buildings and staff - the General Secretariat of the Council (GSC) – but they have different roles and different membership.
Link: the European Council click here
THE EUROPEAN COMMISSION
The European Commission (EC) is the executive body of the European Union. Its main responsibilities are as follows:
Currently the Commission has 28 members - one member for each Member State, though members are bound to represent the interests of the EU as a whole rather than their home state.
One of the 28 is the Commission President, proposed by the European Council and elected by the European Parliament. The Council then appoints the other 27 members of the Commission in agreement with the nominated President and the 28 members as a single body are then subject to a vote of approval by the European Parliament.
Currently the President of the European Commission is Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg. There is a First Vice-President and another six Vice-Presidents.
In the same way that the work of national governments is organised into ministries or departments, so the work of the European Commission is organised into what are called Directorate-Generals (DGs). Currently there are 33 DGs. Directorate-Generals used to have names and (roman) numbers, but now they have names and (kind of) acronyms such as Communications Networks, Content and Technology (CNECT) and Financial Stability, Financial Services and Capital Markets Union (FISMA).
The Commission is headquartered in Brussels (Belgium). It meets weekly (usually on a Wednesday).
Link: the European Commission click here
THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT
- It proposes legislation to the Parliament and the Council
- It manages and implements EU policies and the budget
- It upholds the EU treaties and laws (jointly with the Court of Justice)
- It manages the day-to-day business of the EU
- It represents the EU around the world
Originally this institution was called the European Assembly and its members were appointed by the Governments of the Member States from the membership of the various national legislatures. Today the institution is called the European Parliament and, since 1979, all its members are directly elected by voters in the various Member States.
Over the years, the European Assembly, and then the European Parliament, has acquired greater and greater budgetary and legislative powers, but it still does not have the equivalent role of a national legislature, sharing its power with the Council, and, unlike most national legislatures, not having the power to initiate legislation.
The main powers of the European Parliament are as follows:
Currently there are total of 751 seats in the European Parliament. Seats are allocated to Member States roughly on the basis of population but using a principle called 'degressive proportionality' which means that countries with smaller populations have more seats than strict proportionality would imply. The four largest memberships are for Germany (96), France (74), the United Kingdom (73) and Italy (73). The four smallest memberships are for Cyprus, Estonia, Luxembourg and Malta (each six seats).
Elections to the European Parliament are held every five years under a version of proportional representation chosen by the Member State. The last election was in May 2014 and therefore the next elections will be in May 2019. Turnout at elections has fallen consecutively at each election and has been under 50% since 1999. Turnout in 2014 was 42.54% .
There are significant advantages – such as funding, speaking rights, committee membership and chairs – to MEPs organising themselves into political groups. For a political group to be recognized for the appropriate benefits, it must have at least 25 members and at least one-quarter of the Member States (that is, at lest seven) must be represented within the group. Members may not belong to more than one political group.
So the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) sit in political groups and no national groups. There are currently seven political groups in the European Parliament. Two of them are much larger than the others – a Christian Democrat group and a Social Democrat group. Some Members do not belong to any political group and are known as Non-attached Members.
The political groups in the current Parliament in order of size are:
- It elects the President of the Commission.
- It approves (or rejects) the appointment of the Commission as a whole.
- It can subsequently force the Commission as a body to resign by adopting a motion of censure.
Like national legislatures, most of the work of the European Parliament is done in committees which focus on particular areas of policy. There are 20 such committees and membership reflects the strength of the various political groups in the Parliament as a whole.
MEPs have the right to speak, listen read and write in any of the EU's 24 official languages. Statistically these languages can be combined in 552 ways (24 x 23). Around one-quarter of the Parliament's expenditure is spent on this multilingualism.
The European Parliament has three places of work: Brussels (Belgium), the city of Luxembourg (Luxembourg) and Strasbourg (France). Luxembourg is home to the administrative offices (the 'General Secretariat'). Meetings of the whole Parliament ('plenary sessions') take place in Brussels and Strasbourg. All Committee meetings are held in Brussels.
The choice of Strasbourg is historic. The town has alternated between France, then Germany (after the Franco-Prussian War), and back to France (after the First World War). Many MEPs feel that transporting members and materials between Brussels and Strasbourg is costly and inefficient but France has resisted all attempts to locate the Parliament permanently in Brussels. Since the current arrangements are incorporated into the EU Treaty, a change would require a new treaty which would have to be agreed by all 28 Member States and ratified by each of their national parliaments.
- Group of the European People’s Party (EPP)
- Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the EP (S&D)
- European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR)
- Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE)
- Confederal Group of the European United Left–Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL)
- Group of the Greens–European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA)
- Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD)
the European Parliament click here
BBC broadcasting of the proceedings of the Parliament click here
THE EUROPEAN COURT
The European Court of Justice is the highest court in the European Union in matters of European Union law.
Its roles are:
The Court is composed of one judge per Member State – currently 28 – although it normally hears cases in panels of 15, five or three judges.
The Court sits as a full court in the particular cases prescribed by the Statute of the Court (including proceedings to dismiss the European Ombudsman or a Member of the European Commission who has failed to fulfil his or her obligations) and where the Court considers that a case is of exceptional importance.
It sits in a Grand Chamber of 15 judges when a Member State or an institution which is a party to the proceedings so requests, and in particularly complex or important cases.
Other cases are heard by Chambers of five or three Judges. The Presidents of the Chambers of five Judges are elected for three years, and those of the Chambers of three Judges for one year.
The court has been led by president Vassilios Skouris of Greece since 2003.
The court is located in Luxembourg.
Note: the European Court of Justice (ECJ) is not to be confused with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The ECJ is an institution of the European Union, it interprets EU law, and it sits in Luxembourg. The ECHR is an institution of the Council of Europe, it interprets the European Convention on Human Rights, and it sits in Strasbourg.
Link: the European Court click here
HOW LEGISLATION IS ENACTED
There are two main types of EU legislation:
- to interpret EU law
- to ensure equal application of EU law across all EU Member States.
Most EU legislation is passed through the co-decision process, in which the Commission drafts a proposal, then both Parliament and Council discuss, amend and vote on the proposal through two ‘readings’. At the end of the processes, both Council and Parliament must reach an agreement on the final proposal which then enters into law on publication in the EU’s Official Journal.
The first reading has two key elements:
The European Parliament debates the proposal in its relevant committee, amendments are tabled and voted on in committee, then the report passes to the whole Parliament, which votes on it (and further amendments) in plenary.
Then the Council examines the legislation in detail; most of this discussion happens in a working group of civil servants. Many decisions are made at this technical level, or the levels just above it (e.g. COREPER – made up of Ambassadors), though some may remain to be finalised at the meetings of the relevant ministers. The Council will make a political agreement on the legislation – this may happen before or after the Parliament votes. Once the Parliament has voted, the political agreement will be converted into a formal Common Position.
If the Council's Common Position is different from the Parliament’s vote, then the legislation passes into second reading in order to resolve the differences. If there is no difference – which is rare and only usually happens in very uncontroversial situations – then the legislation will become law. This is called a First Reading agreement.
Second reading will then begin, following a similar pattern to first reading, but this time with the Parliament examining, and voting on, the changes proposed by Council, and then the Council considering what the Parliament proposes. Second reading is a faster process than first reading, as only differences between Parliament and Council positions can be discussed, and various elements are time-limited.
It is possible that Parliament and Council will agree at this stage (a second reading agreement); if they do not, then the conciliation process will be used to bring about a compromise. Once a final text is agreed, and all translations have been done, the legislation will be published in the Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU). The legislation will specify when it must be implemented in the Member States, or when it comes into force in the case of a regulation.
How is EU legislation implemented and enforced?
The Commission can take Member States to court and fine them if EU legislation is not implemented. In the most extreme cases, Member States can be subject to a daily fine – this happened to Greece when it was fined for poor waste management on Crete.
Almost all enforcement of EU legislation occurs within the Member States. This leads to complaints about uneven implementation of regulations in different countries, but at the moment there is no sign that Member States wish to give more power to the Commission in this area. A small number of regulations are enforced at EU level, notably competition law, such as antitrust cases.
Note: A key principle of the EU is called subsidiarity. This means that the Union only acts where action will be more efective at EU level than at national level. In some cases, the treaties have given exclusive powers to the EU; in other cases, a judgement has to be made for each new law.
BRITISH MEMBERSHIP OF THE EU
The United Kingdom came late to what is now called the European Union, not being one of the six founding Member States. Indeed General de Gaulle of France vetoed two approaches from the UK to join the organisation (1963 and 1967), before the Conservative Government of Edward Heath finally took Britain into the EU on 1 January 1973.
Membership of the EU has always been a more controversial matter in the UK than in most other Member States. Initially it was the Labour Party that was most divided over the issue of continued membership. Following a renegotiation process by the Labour Government of Harold Wilson, a referendum was held on 6 June 1975 in which a majority (67%) of those voting supported membership.
The UK was due to assume the rotating Presidency of the European Council from 1 July-31 December 2017 but this will now not happen in the light of the referendum decision that the UK should leave the EU. Like all Member States, the UK has a member of the European Commission. This was Jonathan Hill (formally Lord Hill of Oareford) who had responsibility for financial stability, financial services and the Capital Markets Union. However, following the referendum, Hill resigned his post on the Commission. His replacement is Sir Julian King who has responsibility for security (note: unlike all previous UK Commissioners, he is not a politician but a career civil servant).
There are 73 UK Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and they are elected on a regional list system. For this purpose, the UK is divided into 12 electoral regions made up of the nations and regions of the UK. Each region has between three and ten MEPs and each MEP in a region represents each person living there: Eastern - 7, East Midlands - 5, London - 8, North East - 3, North West - 8, South East - 10, South West - 6, West Midlands - 7, Yorkshire and Humber - 6, Scotland - 6, Wales - 4, Northern Ireland - 3. The three major winners of UK seats in the European Parliament in May 2019 were respectively: the Brexit Party with 29 seats (31.6% of the vote), the Liberal Democrats with 16 seats (20.3% of the votes), and the Labour Party with 10 seats (14.1%).
Ever since the days of Margaret Thatcher as British Prime Minister when she famously renegotiated the EU budget contribution of the UK, it has been the Conservative Party that has been most divided over the issue and, during John Major’s tenure as PM, the subject occasioned much bitterness. The Conservative Party remained deeply conflicted on the issue of EU membership and the then Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron completed a renegotiation process followed by an in/out referendum on 23 June 2016.
- Directives which must be incorporated into the law of the Member States – each Directive includes a date by which this implementation must have been completed.
- Regulations which are legally binding in all Member States from the date(s) stated within them.
On a high turnout of 71.8% (the highest turnout in a UK-wide vote since the 1992 general election), 51.9% voted for the UK to leave the EU and 48.1% to remain in it. On 29 March 2017, the then British Prime Minister Theresa May activated Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon to give notice of the nation's intended withdrawal from the EU and there was then a period of up to two years for negotiations on the future relationship between the UK and the EU. At the end of this two year period, no deal had been agreed by the British Parliament and an extension was agreed to 31 October 2019. Following the election of a new government led by Boris Johnson, the UK finally left the European Union on 31 January 2020 with a one-year transition period to negotiate the future relationship between the two bodies.
Last modified on 17 June 2020
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