What is the European Union?
The European Union (EU) is a political and economic union of 27 European states, the UK as the 28th being in the process of leaving. It is a quasi-supranational body that possesses certain powers over member states and its citizens through a body of law that it can enforce. Through its institutions, it can legislate, carry out administrative tasks and arbitrate in legal disputes. It consists of a single market in the trade of goods and certain services and aims to ensure the Four Freedoms of Movement of goods, people, services and capital. Passports have been abolished within the Schengen area for certain members, and there is a monetary union for certain members too, the Eurozone. It is developing a common foreign and defence policy.
The EU is not yet however a federation of states such as the USA, but does not have the degree of autonomy for a nation of a confederation. It is rather seen as a unique hybrid with supranational and intergovernmental elements.
The EU embodies the hopes and aspirations of a continent with a long history of conflict that, after the horrors of the Second World War, wished to create a unity of nations that would enhance the continent’s peace, harmony and prosperity.
Institutional structure of the EU
It is important to note that the EU combines strong executive, legislative and judicial functions with a high degree of national influence over the way the EU operates. This is best seen in the respective roles of the Council of European Ministers, the European Parliament and the Commission. There is a balance between the directly elected European Parliament, the appointed executive heads or Commissioners, and the powerful role of national governments that retain a high degree of autonomy and influence. For the system to work, a degree of harmony between these institutions must operate. Achieving change can be a slow and complex process.
(1) The European Council
This body, which meets at least four times a year but in practice more frequently, consists of the Heads of State or of Government of the member states, the EU Commission President and the High Representative for foreign affairs and security policy. It sets the overall policy and direction of the EU. Its current President is Donald Tusk. It is seen as the EU’s supreme political authority. It negotiates treaty changes, discusses foreign policy, is involved in senior appointments to the European Commission and Parliament, and can be an effective court of appeal for individual states in disputes under an “emergency break” arrangement. A nation can be outvoted at this body, depending on the issue, by a qualified majority. Discussions are generally in private.
(2) The Council of the European Union
This body consists of ministers from each member state and, together with the European Parliament, considers proposals from the European Commission and negotiates and adopts EU laws and the EU budget. It coordinates and develops policy in alignment with the overall policy as agreed in the European Council, and makes agreements with non-EU countries. The ministers attending will vary according to the issue under discussion.
The Eurozone ministers meet separately, before the main Council, and the main Council will then formally agree (non-Eurozone members not voting) what has been already agreed in the Eurozone group’s meeting.
Measures are passed by a qualified majority of 55% and those voting in favour must represent at least 65% of the EU population. A minority of at least 4 countries with 35% of the population can block measures. Sensitive matters like foreign policy or taxation require unanimity, and adminstrative and routine matters a simple majority.
Note: Neither of the above councils should be confused with the Council of Europe, a non-EU international organisation whose stated aim is to uphold human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Europe. It has 47 member states.
(3) European Commission
The EU Commission proposes legislation to be agreed upon by the Council of European Ministers and the European Parliament, and it implements agreed legislation and policy. It manages the EU budget decides spending priorities along with the Council and Parliament and supervises spending (scrutinised by the Council of Auditors). It is the executive arm of the EU. It ensures the enforcement of EU law, along with the EU Court of Justice. It represents the EU in international bodies and negotiates international agreements.
It consists of one Commissioner from each member state and is thus an appointed body. Its current President is Jean-Claude Junker. The President is nominated by the European Council and agreed to by the European Parliament. Commissioners are nominated by national governments, put together as a team by the President based on national government suggestions and the team has to be agreed to by the European Parliament, before finally being voted on by the European Council.
(4) European Parliament
The Parliament is the EU’s legislative body in cooperation with the Council of the European Union, based on EU Commission proposals. It is directly elected by proportional representation, with the number of MEP’s roughly proportional to member country populations. Its President represents Parliament. It has legislative, budgetary and supervisory functions. The first two are decided along with the Council. The third involves scrutiny of EU institutions and expenditure. It agrees the Commission President and has an ultimate reserve power of being able to block or dismiss the entire Commission. It receives petitions and sets up enquiries. It questions the Commission and Council. It reviews monetary policy with the European Central Bank.
(5) The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU)
The CJEU interprets and enforces EU law such that it is applied equally across the EU, resolves disputes, annuls actions by EU institutions where a conflict with EU law is found, and sanctions EU institutions on behalf of individuals, corporations or national governments. It also ensures that national law is consistent with EU law, and act as a point of reference for national courts. Appeals may be referred to it by national courts. It consists of two courts, the Court of Justice and the General Court.
Note: This body should not be confused with the European Court of Human Rights, an entirely separate body, an international court set up in 1959. It rules on individual or state applications alleging violations of the civil and political rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights.
(6) The European Central Bank (ECB)
The ECB oversees the monetary policy of the Eurozone.
(7) The Court of Auditors
Checks the proper implementation of the EU budget
The Treaties of the EU
The EU is founded on the Treaties that established it, and in particular the Lisbon Treaty of 2009 which created the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. These treaties serve as the constitution of the EU in so far as one exists. Membership of the EU also requires a state to sign the European Convention on Human Rights. Fundamental changes require an amendment to the Treaties, which in turn require ratification by the member states and often trigger referendums in many states.
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