The European Union (EU) is an economic and political union of 28 member states. The EU operates through a system of supranational independent institutions and intergovernmental decisions negotiated by the member states. Main institutions of the EU are: European Commission, Council of the EU, European Council, European Court of Justice, European Central Bank, Court of Auditors and European Parliament.
The European Commission is one of the main institutions of the European Union. The Commission has the right to draft proposals for new EU legislation which it then forwards to the Council and Parliament for discussions and approval. Its members are appointed for a five year mandate, through an intergovernmental agreement, which is then subjected to approval by the European Parliament. The appointment of all Commissioners, including the President, is subject to the approval of the European Parliament.
Commission consists of a member of the Commission (Commissioner) from each EU country, including the President of the Commission and the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, which is the Vice-President of the Commission.
The Commission enjoys a high level of independence in exercising its powers. Its duties are to represent and uphold the interests of the EU as a whole. Having the role of the ‘Protector of the Treaty’, the Commission must ensure that rules and directives approved by the Council and Parliament are being implemented in member states. If they are not implemented, then the commission can bring the party in breach in front of the Court of Justice, so as to oblige them to comply with EU Law.
Having the role of the EU executive branch, the Commission executes decisions approved by the Council, in fields such as common agricultural policy, internal market, competition, energy, transport, rural development, education, science and technology, consumer rights etc. The Commission has large powers in managing common EU policies such as research and technology, international aid and regional development. The Commission also manages the funds on these policies. Commissioners are aided by the civil service, with headquarters in Brussels and Luxemburg, divided into 28 Directorates General. There are also certain independent agencies in existence, established to execute specific duties for the Commission, which are located in other European cities.
Council of the EU
Council (also known as Council of Ministers) consists of national governments of EU members. Member states in turn hold the Presidency of the Council for a six month period. A minister for each EU member state attends each meeting of the Council. Which ministers would attend depends on the topic set out in the agenda for the meeting: foreign affairs, agriculture, industry, transport, environment, etc.
The main responsibility of the Council is approval of EU laws. Usually this responsibility of the Council is shared with the European Parliament. The Council and the Parliament have also equal responsibility relating to the approval of the budget. Furthermore, the Council has exclusive rights to sign international agreements negotiated by the Commission.
According to the Lisbon Treaty, the Council must reach its decisions either through a simple majority vote, ‘qualified majority’ vote or unanimously, depending on the topic. The Council needs to reach unanimous agreements relating to important issues such as taxation, asylum policies, amending of treaties or accepting membership of a new country into the Union. In the majority of cases, a qualified majority vote is used. This means that a decision of the Council is approved if a certain minimum number of votes are cast. The number of votes given to each EU country approximately reflects the size of its population. By 1 November 2014, if we assume that the EU will still have 28 member states, a decision will be approved: if at least 255 out of 347 votes (or 73.91%) are in favor of the decision; if the decision is approved by the majority of member states, meaning at least 14; if these countries represent at least 62% of EU population. From the 1st of November 2014, according to the Lisbon Treaty, this system shall be simplified. A decision shall be approved if 55% of member states (meaning at least 15) vote in favor of the decision and if these states represent at least 65% of the overall EU population.
European Council – EU Summits
European Council is the highest political institution of the EU. This institution comprises of the heads of the States or Governments – Presidents and/or Prime Ministers – of all EU member states, plus the President of the European Commission and the President of the European Union. The Council usually holds meetings four times a year in Brussels and with the Treaty of Lisbon coming into force it has its own President – Herman Van Rompuy. His duties are to coordinate the work of the European Council as well as prepare and chair the meetings of the European Council. The president is elected (through a qualified majority vote) for a two and a half year term and may be reappointed only once. The European Council defines EU political goals and determines the course to achieve those goals, but does not have powers to pass laws. The Council stimulates initiatives of key EU policies and reaches decisions on difficult problems for which no solution was found by the Council of Ministers. The European Council also treats current international problems through ‘common foreign and security policies’ — which represents a mechanism for coordinating foreign policies of EU member states.
The European Parliament is the institution that represents EU citizens. The Parliament oversees EU activities and together with the Council approves EU legislation. Since 1979, the MPs of the European Parliament are elected directly by universal suffrage. Parliamentary elections are held every five years, the next one will be held in summer 2014.
The Parliament holds its own debates within committees in Brussels in which, in principle, all the MPs of the European Parliament participate. While the plenary sessions are usually held each month in Strasbourg and last for a week, part-sessions are held in Brussels and last 1 or 2 days. Preparatory work is also done in Brussels. ‘Conference of Presidents’ meaning the presidents of political groups with the President of the Parliament determine the agenda of plenary sessions, whereas the 20 parliamentary committees draft legislative amendments, which need to be discussed. Daily Parliament duties are carried out by the General Secretariat, with its headquarters in Luxembourg and Brussels. Every political group also has their own secretariat.
The Parliament participates in EU legislative work in two ways. Through ‘co-decision procedure’ which represents the ordinary legislative procedure, the Parliament has an equal responsibility with the Council for issuing laws in all the fields where a ‘qualified majority’ vote is required in the Council. From the entry in force of the Lisbon Treaty, these fields include around 95% of EU legislation. The Council and the Parliament can reach an agreement immediately after the first reading. Should they not come to an agreement even after the second reading, the proposal is sent to a conciliation committee. Second method is through the ‘approval’ procedure, the Parliament has to ratify international agreements of the EU (that have been negotiated by the Commission beforehand), including all the new treaties that are related to the expansion of the EU.
European Parliament is also on equal footing with the Council relating to the approval of the EU budget (which is proposed by the European Commission). The Parliament can refuse the proposed budget, which it has done on a number of occasions until now. When this occurs, the whole budget procedure has to start from the beginning. By using its budgetary powers, the Parliament has an important impact in EU policy-making.
Last but not least, European Parliament exercises a democratic supervision over the Union, and especially over the European Commission. Every five years, when the time comes to nominate a new Commission, the elected European Parliament may – through a simple majority vote – approve or reject the nominees of the European Council for the position of the President of the Commission. It is clear that this voting will reflect the results of the latest European Parliament elections. The Parliament also interviews all the proposed candidates before they vote to approve the new Commission in general. At any time, the Parliament may dismiss all of the Commission by approving a refusal to the proposal. Two thirds of the majority of the European Parliament is needed for this. The Parliament also supervises the daily managing of EU policies, in which case it forwards questions both verbally and in writing to the Commission and the Council.
Court of Justice of the European Union
Court of Justice of the European Union, with its headquarters in Luxemburg, consists of a judge from every EU country and eight permanent general members that have the role of aides. They are nominated through a joint agreement of member state governments, with a possibility of renewing the six year mandate. Their impartiality is guaranteed. The role of the Court is to guarantee the existence of compliance with EU laws, and correct interpretation and application of Treaties. The Court of Justice guarantees full respect for the EU law.
European Central Bank
European Central Bank, with its headquarters in Frankfurt, is responsible for the management of the Euro and EU monetary policies. The main task of the Bank is to maintain price stability and monetary policy within the Eurozone. Through the Lisbon Treaty, the Central Bank received the status of an EU institution.
European Court of Auditors
The European court of Auditors, with its headquarters in Luxemburg, was established in 1975. This Court is composed of one member from each EU country, appointed for a six year term, through an agreement between the member states, after consultation with the European Parliament. This Court checks to see if all of the EU income has been received, if all the expenditures have been done in a regular and legal manner and if the EU budget was managed properly.
Economic and Social Committee
When reaching decisions on certain political fields, the Council and Commission consult the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC). Its members represent various economic and social groups, which are collectively known as ‘organized civil society’ and are nominated by the Council for a five year term. The Committee may also issue opinions on its own initiative.
Committee of the Regions
Committee of Regions (CoR) consists of representatives of regional and local governments. The representatives of this Committee are nominated by the member states and appointed by the Council, also for a five year term. The Council and Commission must consult the Committee of Regions regarding relevant issues for European regions and especially for rural and regional development policies. Also, this Committee may also issue opinions of its own initiative.
European Investment Bank
European Investment Bank (EIB), with its headquarters in Luxemburg, offers loans and helps the less developed regions of the EU. Also, the Bank helps businesses to be more worthy for the competition within the internal EU market.