Understanding the EU: Part I — The Institutions

With Britain to hold a referendum on the proposed EU constitution sometime over the next 2 years, probably soon after the next general election, a considerable debate seems to be brewing. With the rise of the UKIP advocating withdrawal from the EU, the Tories opposing the constitution and the govt officially endorsing the constitution alongwith the Lib Dems, we can already see the battle lines being drawn. To understand what is going on, one will need to understand what the EU is, and what changes the constitution will make.

This is the first of a series of articles aimed at describing the EU as presently constituted. In it I shall describe the basic institutions of the EU and how they relate to each other. I base my descriptions on the information provided by these pages hosted by the EU itself.

I start with the institutions, as it seems to me the key to understanding how power is wielded by the EU lies in the relationship between these institutions.

The three main institutions of the EU are:

  • the European Commission
  • the Council of the European Union (or “the Council”, aka the Council of Ministers)
  • the European Parliament

The European Commission

This is a key body in the EU. One of the most important facts about it, is that it has the exclusive right to propose EU legislation. Its remit is to uphold the interests of the EU as a whole, to ensure that the regulations EU legislation adopted by the Council and the Parliament is being implemented and to take any offending parties to the European Court of Justice to oblige them to comply with EU law.

The Commission also manages the policies of the EU as decided in the Council, and manages the EU’s budget for these policies. The Commission (as a whole) can be dismissed by the Parliament, and is appointed by agreement between the governments of the member states, subject to the Parliament’s approval.

As of 1 May 2004 when 10 more countries joined the EU, the Commission consists of a President (still to be agreed) and 1 commmissioner per member state (25 in total), and is appointed for a five year term.

The Council of the European Union

Not to be confused with the European Council, this used to be known, and is sometimes still referred to as the Council of Ministers. Each council meeting is attended by 1 minister each from the member states, with different ministers attending depending on the subject matter. E.g. foreign policy will attract foreign affairs ministers whilst economic policy will be attended by finance ministers such as Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Council shares legislative power with the Parliament, and also determines the budget in conjunction with the Parliament. The Council also concludes international agreements that have been negotiated by the Commission.

Votes in the Council take one of two forms. They either require unanimity, or employ qualified majority voting where the number of votes cast by a member state is roughly proportional to the size of the member state’s population. The precise formula is given in this document but is in flux due to the enlargement.

The European Parliament

This is the only directly elected institution of the European Union. The Commission is appointed by member states’ governments and the Council of Ministers consists of ministers from those governments.

Prior to enlargement there were 26 Members of the European Parlliament (MEPs) but this will increase to 732 with the new members, and a further planned enlargement will increase it to 786. The document linked to above for the Council’s voting formula gives the numbers for each member state which are allocated to be roughly proportional to population size, but with a minimum of 5 MEPs per state.

The Parliament and Council share legislative power. The Parliament’s legislative power is as follows:

  • Under the “cooperation procedure”, the Parliament can give opinions on draft legislation proposed by the Commission.
  • Under the “assent procedure”, the Parliament must give assent to international treaties, to any proposed enlargement of the EU and any changes in election rules.
  • Under the “codecision procedure”, the Parliament can throw out legislation by a majority vote against it.

The codecision procedure is used in legislative areas such as the free movement of workers, the internal market, education, research, health, culture and consumer protection and “Trans European Networks”. The Treaty of Amsterdam and the Treaty of Nice added 30 areas to this list and the EU constitution is likely to add more.

The Parliament has to give its assent to the budget, if it rejects it the process of producing the budget is restarted.

The other institutions

  • The European Council. This is the meeting of heads of member states (i.e. Prime Ministers and Presidents) plus the head of the European Commission. It’s the highest level decision making body in the EU and tends to handle “high politics”, e.g. it handled the negotiations on the proposed EU constitution and it is the body where new EU treaties get negotiated. Since the Maastricht Treaty it holds the power to initiate the EU’s major policies and the power to settle issues when the Council of the European Union has failed to reach agreement.
  • The European Court of Justice. The job of the Court is to ensure that EU law is complied with and that EU treaties are correctly interpreted and applied. The Court can find states guilty of failing to fulfil treaty obligations and can also find the other EU institutions guilty of failing to act as they’re required to by EU treaties and law. 1 judge per member state is appointed assisted by 8 advocates general.
  • The Court of Auditors. Audits the handling of EU funds.
  • The European Economic and Social Committees. Represents various interest groups to the Council and Parliament. It has to be consulted before decisions are made in various areas.
  • The Committee of the Regions. Represents local and regional governments in the EU. Must be consulted on matters relevant to the regions and can adopt its own opinions on legislation.
  • The European Investment Bank. Finances development projects in less well off EU areas.
  • The European Central Bank. Sets monetary policy and manages the Euro.
  • The European Convention. A temporary body that produce the draft EU constitution which the European Council took forward in negotiations.

Conclusions

In order of decreasing importance I list institutions as the European Council, European Commission, the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament, followed by all the rest. The European Council handles the most far reaching topics, however the Commission sets the day to day legislative agenda.

The Council and the Parliament jointly form the equivalent of the legislature in most nation states. However these 2 bodies are there to provide assent or otherwise to legislation the Commission presents. They thus have less power over EU legislation than e.g. the British Parliament has over British legislation, where MPs can propose legislation as well as the executive.

Of course crucial issues include, what areas of legislative competence the EU has, how decisions are made in the Council and the Parliament and between the two bodies, and what power the national governments have. In the later articles in this series I will go into such issues in more detail.

For now I will point out a major difference between the EU institutions and those of a typical democratic state. In the latter, the institutions that govern the country would involve an executive (runs the country, proposes legislation), legislature (accepts, amends or rejects legislation) and judiciary (interprets and enforces the law). The executive would either be directly elected (e.g. the US) or formed from the largest political grouping in the legislature (e.g. the UK or other EU member state). Whichever occurs, the executive can be held accountable by the people, either by voting for a new executive directly or for a new party.

In the case of the EU, the Commission is the equivalent of the executive (though the European Council can also be considered as taking on this role, in matters of “high politics” when it meets). However its members do not have to stand for election to the Parliament and do not have to come from the largest political grouping in the Parliament. They are both proposed and appointed by other politicians. They are thus not accountable to the people of the EU, merely to the other politicians. And they set the day to day legislative agenda of the EU and propose laws which can and do affect every citizen of the EU. Their power grows with every new power accrued to the EU and every area in which qualified majority voting replaces the national veto.

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