European Union - guide

European Union

The European Union is a supranational and international organisation that brings together 27 member states under a common system of law, established by a series of treaties.

The member states are as follows:

Belgium
Germany
France
Luxembourg
Italy
Netherlands
UK
Ireland
Denmark
Greece
Spain
Portugal
Austria
Sweden
Finland
Cyprus
Czech Republic
Estonia
Hungary
Latvia
Lithuania
Malta
Poland
Slovenia
Slovak Republic
Romania
Bulgaria

Trying to provide a definition of what the EU is presents difficulties because its purpose is contested - and as such, the very definition of the EU is an irremediably political question. Its scope and purpose has changed and developed over the past half a century, and as this process has progressed, the terms of the debate as to what the EU is and what it should be have shifted.

Even today, some regard it just as a means for co-ordinating policies between closely linked member states, others as a stage towards the creation of a unified European 'superstate'.

Institutions of the European Union

The European Union has a number of decision-making, supervisory and consultative bodies, which function autonomously within the frameworks laid out in EU law, and which interact with one another in line with those frameworks.

However, the EU is inherently a political organisation, and how they interact and how the processes are implemented in any given situation is influenced by a range of outside factors.

European Commission

The European Commission was created by the 1967 Merger Treaty, replacing the 'High Authorities' that administered the ECSC, EURATOM and the early EEC.

The European Commission is sometimes called the civil service of the EU, but it is also sometimes called the government of the EU. This seemingly paradoxical situation stems from the unusual position the commission occupies in the EU system of government. The powers of the commission have been steadily increased by the new treaties adopted since 1987.

The European Commission comprises 27 commissioners, one of whom is the President of the commission and seven of whom are vice-presidents. Until the accession of the Barroso commission, the five large member states - Germany, France, the UK, Italy and Spain - nominated two members each, and the other member states nominated one member each. Since November 2004, every member state has had one commissioner. The allocation of the presidential and vice-presidential roles are matters of political negotiation between member states.

While commissioners are appointed by member states' governments, they are not national delegates, owing their loyalty rather to the EU and the promotion of its interests as a whole. Although commissioners (and the president and vice presidents) are nominated by member states, their appointments are subject to ratification by the European parliament. Commissioners are appointed for a five-year period.

Each commissioner is responsible for one or more areas of policy within the EU - and heads one or more civil service departments, called 'directorates general (DGs)'. The DGs and the various specialist services and units are based in Brussels and Luxembourg, and have responsibility for implementing common policies and general administration in specific areas.

The commissioners' position in relation to the DGs is not precisely parallel to that of UK ministers in relation to civil service departments. Their positions are somewhere between that of a minister and a permanent secretary: while they are the principal EU spokespersons in their areas of responsibility, commissioners are not parallel to ministers because (as is explained below) they do not have decision-making powers, which are reserved to the Council of Ministers and the European parliament.

Each commissioner is assisted by a small personal cabinet of advisers and experts, in addition to the DG's permanent bureaucracies.

It is important to note that the DGs are significantly smaller than their domestic counterparts - overall, the commission employs fewer civil servants (around 25,000) than many UK government departments.

The current composition of the European Commission (2010-2014) is as follows:

José Manuel Durão Barroso (Portugal) - President of the European Commission

Catherine Ashton (UK) - Vice-President; High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy
Viviane Reading (Luxembourg) - Vice-President; Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship
Joaquin Almunia (Spain) - Vice-President; Competition
Siim Kallas (Estonia) - Vice-President; Transport
Neelie Kroes (The Netherlands) - Vice-President; Digital Agenda
Antonio Tajani (Italy) - Vice-President; Industry and Entrepreneurship
Maros Sefcovic (Slovakia) - Vice-President; Inter-Institutional Relations and Administration

Janez Potocnik (Slovenia) - Environment
Olli Rehn (Finland) - Economic and Monetary Affairs
Andris Piebalgs (Latvia) - Development
Michel Barnier (France) - Internal Market and Services
Androulla Vassiliou (Cyprus) - Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth
Algirdas Semeta (Lithuania) - Taxation and Customs Union, Audit and Anti-Fraud
Karel De Gucht (Belgium) - Trade
John Dalli (Malta) - Health and Consumer Policy
Maire Geoghegan-Quinn (Ireland) - Research, Innovation and Science
Janusz Lewandowski (Poland) - Financial Programming and Budget
Maria Damanaki (Greece) - Maritime affairs and fisheries
Kristalina Georgieva (Bulgaria) - International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response
Günther Oettinger (Germany) - Energy
Johannes Hahn (Austria) - Regional Policy
Connie Hedegaard (Denmark) - Climate Action
Stefan Fule (Czech Republic) - Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy
Laszlo Andor (Hungary) - Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion
Cecilia Malmstrom (Sweden) - Home Affairs
Dacian Ciolos (Romania) - Agriculture and Rural Development

The European Commission performs a number of critical functions within the EU.

1. The commission has a monopoly on the power of initiation of legislation and other policy proposals within the majority of areas of EU action.
2. The commission exercises executive functions, implementing the legislation agreed by the other institutions, and delegating powers to make rules covering the details of legislation.
3. The commission is the 'guardian of the treaties' and ensures that they are observed by member states and other bodies subject to them, initiating remedial action where breaches are committed. One particularly important aspect of this role is the enforcement of competition and single market rules.
4. The commission manages the EU's annual budget and administers the funding of the EU's spending programmes.
5. The commission negotiates on behalf of the EU and its member states in international trade talks.

It is, however, equally important to understand what the commission does not do.

1. The commission has no decision-making powers as such. EU legislation can only be made by the assent of the Council of Ministers (sometimes along with that of the European parliament). While the commission has the sole right to present proposals for legislation, it has extensive powers to intervene in the deliberations of the other institutions to promote agreement and is empowered to ignore and overrule suggestions put to it by the parliament, it ultimately has no law-making powers of its own.
2. The commission does not decide whether member states or other bodies are in breach of the treaties or other EU law. While it initiates 'failure to act' proceedings, the European courts deliver the rulings.

The Commission has no formal role in relation to Common Foreign and Security Policy, which is the prerogative of the Council of Ministers and the European Council.

Council of Ministers

The Council of Ministers, typically referred to as just 'the Council', is the EU's main decision-making and legislative body. In conjunction with the European Parliament, the Council of Ministers forms the EU's legislature.

The Council of Ministers should not be confused either with the European Council or the Council of Europe. The former is a distinct EU institution that is discussed under below. The latter is an international body, completely separate from the EU, set up in 1949 with the aim of promoting democracy, human rights and the rule of law within its 40 member states.

The Council of Ministers comprises ministers from each member state with responsibility for the policy area under discussion. As such, the Council of Ministers is not a body that has a fixed membership - rather it is a legislative concept that is given expression at any given time in one of nine distinct 'councils'.

1. General affairs and external relations Council
2. Economic and financial affairs council (ECOFIN)
3. Justice and home affairs council
4. Employment, social policy, health and consumer affairs council
5. Competitiveness (internal market, industry and research) council
6. Transport, telecommunications and energy council
7. Agriculture and fisheries council
8. Environment council
9. Education, youth and culture council

The general affairs council (GAC) discusses international policy and general policy matters - it is comprised of member states' foreign ministers or ministers with responsibility for EU matters. The GAC and ECOFIN are regarded as the most 'senior' Councils. The GAC, ECOFIN and the agriculture council meet every month, while the other councils meet between twice and four times per year.

Between actual meetings of the Council of Ministers, the work of the councils is carried on by a set of national delegations or 'permanent representations'. They interact with one another in a body called the committee of permanent representatives, or COREPER, which meets around once a week.

There are in fact a number of bodies under the COREPER heading.

COREPER 2 - the senior body, comprising the permanent representatives and their staffs, which typically works primarily for the GAC and ECOFIN.
Special committee on agriculture (SCA) - this comprises senior staff from the permanent representations and national agriculture ministry staff, and deals with the work of the agriculture council
COREPER 1 - the junior body, comprising deputy permanent representatives and their staffs, which typically deals with the work of the other councils

COREPER, by virtue of its permanence, tends to function as the commission's main channel of communication with the Council of Ministers, as well as between the EU and member states' national governments. It tends to decide on non-controversial and technical matters on behalf of the council, leaving the more political and contentious matters to the full councils.

Member states take it in turns to assume the presidency of the Council of Ministers for six months at a time in accordance with a pre-established rota. In the context of May 2004's enlargement, it was decided that the previous six months rotation between the 15 pre-enlargement member states would continue until 2006.

The calendar of council presidency between 2010 and 2020 is as follows:

Spain January-June 2010
Belgium July-December 2010
Hungary January-June 2011
Poland July-December 2011
Denmark January-June 2012
Cyprus July-December 2012
Ireland January-June 2013
Lithuania July-December 2013
Greece January-June 2014
Italy July-December 2014
Latvia January-June 2015
Luxembourg July-December 2015
Netherlands January-June 2016
Slovakia July-December 2016
Malta January-June 2017
United Kingdom July-December 2017
Estonia January-June 2018
Bulgaria July-December 2018
Austria January-June 2019
Romania July-December 2019
Finland January-June 2020

During a member state's presidency, the ministerial representatives of that member state chair the council meetings.

Presidency of the council gives a member state substantial influence over the conduct of EU business during that six months (which run from January to June and from June to December each year).

1. The presidency represents the council in dealings with outside bodies, including other EU bodies.
2. The presidency and the council's general secretariat (the council's own civil service) set the agendas of meetings, the terms of meetings, and the frequency and location of meetings.
3. The presidency has responsibility for launching and building consensuses on initiatives - ie it takes the lead in promoting negotiations and agreement.

The Council of Ministers exercises the following functions.

1. The Council of Ministers is the EU's principal legislative body, with the unique power to make legislation in some areas. In others, this is exercised in conjunction with the European parliament.
2. The Council of Ministers (through ECOFIN) co-ordinates the domestic economic policies of member states.
3. The Council of Ministers concludes international agreements, negotiated by the Commission.
4. Along with the European parliament, the Council of Ministers authorises the budget proposed by the commission. The council has the final word in relation to 'compulsory' expenditure (eg CAP spending).
5. The Council of Ministers is the sole decision-making authority in respect of common foreign and security policy proposals, within the framework set by the European Council.
6. The Council of Ministers co-ordinates the activities of member states and adopts measures in relation to justice and home affairs policy.

The council votes either by unanimity of by qualified majority voting (QMV). The voting system used for a given decision depends on the policy area to which that decision belongs. According to the treaties, some subjects require unanimity, while others require only a qualified majority.

Under QMV each member state has a fixed (weighted) number of votes. The total number of votes is 345 and a qualified majority will be obtained if the decision receives at least 255 votes (the qualified majority threshold) and the decision is approved by a majority of the member states.

Where the council is required to act by a qualified majority, the votes of its members are weighted as follows:

Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom: 29
Spain and Poland: 27
Romania: 14
The Netherlands: 13
Belgium, Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary and Portugal: 12
Austria, Bulgaria and Sweden: 10
Denmark, Ireland, Lithuania, Slovakia and Finland: 7
Cyprus, Estonia, Latvia, Luxembourg and Slovenia: 4
Malta: 3

European parliament

The European parliament (EP) is the world's largest multinational parliamentary body, representing over 490 million citizens. It was originally constituted as the assembly of the ECSC, adopting the title 'European parliament' in 1962. As well as exercising an increasingly important legislative and supervisory role, the EP functions as the primary source of democratic authority and legitimacy within the EU.

Prior to 1979, it was not an elected body, with member states nominating delegations to the EP. From 1979, elections have been held to the EP every five years, with the last held in June 2009.

Today, the EP has 736 members from all 27 countries, with all currents of political thought represented therein. Each member state has a specific number of seats allocated to it, on the basis of population.

Number of seats per country (2009 - 2014 parliamentary term):

Germany - 99
United Kingdom - 72
France - 72
Italy - 72
Spain - 50
Poland - 50
Romania - 33
Netherlands - 25
Greece - 22
Czech Republic - 22
Belgium - 22
Hungary - 22
Portugal - 22
Sweden - 18
Austria - 17
Bulgaria - 17
Slovakia - 13
Denmark - 13
Finland - 13
Ireland - 12
Lithuania - 12
Latvia - 8
Slovenia - 7
Estonia - 6
Cyprus - 6
Luxembourg - 6
Malta - 5

The electoral systems used for EP elections vary between member states. Most member states treat the whole country as a single constituency - only the UK, Ireland, Italy and Belgium have separate electoral regions with MEPs specifically elected to represent them.

The electoral system used in Great Britain is a closed list proportional representation system - that is, the parties select their candidates and the order in which they appear on the list. Voters vote only for a party - and the number of seats allocated to the region are divided proportionally among the parties securing the most votes. The top candidates from the regional list then become MEPs. This gives great power to the larger parties to decide who will become MEPs, and the ordering of candidates is therefore a highly political and contentious issue, in which the public has no role.

In Northern Ireland, a single transferable vote system is used, in which voters vote for a number of candidates in order of preference.

72 UK MEPs were elected in the European Parliament elections on 4 June 2009.

The regions of the UK and the number of seats allocated to each are as follows.

Eastern - 7, East Midlands - 5, London - 8, North East - 3, North West - 8, South East - 10, South West - 6, West Midlands - 6, Yorkshire and Humber - 6, Wales - 4, Scotland - 6, Northern Ireland - 3.

MEPs representing parties from different countries that share similar views sit together in the EP, as party groups. These groups are very broad churches, accommodating wide spectrums of views. For example, the EPP-ED group has a formally federalist position and includes shades of opinion from Christian Democrats to the far-right.

The groups in the EP are as follows.

European People's party - European Democrats Group (EPP-ED) - which includes centre-right to right wing parties.
Party of European Socialists Group (PES) - which includes centre-left, soft-left and social democrat parties. The Labour party and the SDLP sit with this group.
Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) - which includes liberal democrat and centre-left parties. The Liberal Democrats sit with this group.
Group of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left Group (EUL-NGL) - which includes hard-left and communist parties.
Greens/European Free Alliance Group (Greens/EFA) - which includes green parties and internationalist and pacifist progressive parties. The UK's Green party, Plaid Cymru and the SNP sit with this group.
Confederal Group of the European United Left - Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) - which includes more radical left-wing parties such as the Communists in Portugal and Greece, and Spain's United Left.
Independence and Democracy Group (IND/DEM) - which includes those opposed to European integration in preference for a more 'confederal' Europe based on co-operation between nation states rather than supranational governance. The parties comprising the IND/DEM Group are generally rightist in character. The UK Independence Party sits with this group. The IND/DEM was formerly known as the Group of Europe of Democracies and Diversities
Union for a Europe of the Nations Group (UEN) - another group that includes those opposed to further EU integration and which is rightist in character.
Non Attached MEPs (Ind) - The Democratic Unionist party sits with this Group.

The EP meets in plenary sessions (ie full sessions open to all MEPs) in Strasbourg. There are 12 of these 'part sessions' per year - one per month, except in August, and two in October, when the budget receives its first reading. In addition to these sessions, between four and six two-day sessions are held each year in Brussels.

Work that is undertaken in plenary sessions includes:

Question times, when representatives of the commission and the Council of Ministers answer questions from MEPs.
Urgent and topical (non-legislative) debates.
Consideration of committee reports, as part of the legislative process.
A twice-yearly address by the head of government of the presidency, reporting on European Council proceedings.
Hearing statements from the commission and council and addresses from distinguished visitors.

The agenda of business is decided by the president of the European parliament and the conference of presidents (a body comprising the leaders of the party groups), in consultation with the conference of committee chairmen and the EP secretariat. The resulting order of business is an item of business requiring approval by the EP itself.

The European parliament does much of its work in a series of committees. There are 22 standing or permanent committees, two subcommittees and a number of ad hoc committees, set up to investigate specific issues (eg the BSE crisis). Most committees have around 50 to 60 members, and a similar number of substitute members.

The permanent committees on internal policies are:

BUDG - Budgets
CONT - Budgetary control
LIBE - Civil liberties, justice and home affairs
ECON - Economic and monetary affairs
JURI - Legal affairs
ITRE - Industry, research and energy
IMCO - Internal market and consumer protection
TRAN - Transport and tourism
EMPL - Employment and social affairs
ENVI - Environment, public health and food safety
AGRI - Agriculture
PECH - Fisheries
REGI -Regional development
CULT - Culture and education
AFCO - Constitutional affairs
FEMM - Women's rights and gender equality
PETI - Petitions

The permanent committees on external policies are:

AFET - Foreign affairs
DROI - Subcommittee on human rights
SEDE - Subcommittee on security and defence
DEVE - Development
INTA - International trade

Other committees are:

CODE - Conciliation
CONV - Parliamentary delegation to the convention on the future of Europe

The European parliament has long been seen as an ineffectual body, with real power within the EU being exercised by the commission and the council and the EP serving as a democratic fig leaf. But treaties since the Single European Act have increased the powers of the EP, so that it now exercises a number of important functions.

1. The EP exercises joint decision-making power with the Council of Ministers in a wide range of policy areas.
2. The EP authorises the annual budget, prepared by the commission. The EP has the final word on 'non compulsory' expenditure, which it can alter within the terms set by the treaties. The EP also lays down general guidelines for the preparation of the budget.
3. The EP exercises democratic control over the commission and Council of Ministers, by subjecting representatives to questioning at question time, by confirming the appointment of the commission, and by the power to dismiss the whole commission by a vote of no confidence (with a two-thirds majority).
4. The EP exercises a powerful influence on the other institutions by virtue of its democratic legitimacy - and frequently makes suggestions for policy initiatives that it is unable to launch itself.

European Council

The European Council brings together the heads of government of the member states and the Commission at least twice a year, and typically four times a year (twice per Presidency). As such, each meeting of the European Council is often referred to as a 'Summit' or simply 'Council' - in conjunction with the name of the city in which the meeting is held.

Such meetings began to be held in 1974, and achieved a formal place in the structure of the EU in the Single European Act. Over this time, the role of the European Council has shifted - developing in the late 1980s into the current arrangement whereby the European Council provides broad strategic direction to EU affairs in a manner comparable to a company's board of directors.

The European Council is only vaguely defined in law and is largely free to decide what it wishes to do. Each European Council meeting is arranged by the incumbent presidency, and as such, the items that appear on the agenda - and hence are discussed and therefore more likely to be the subject of action in future - are ultimately decided by the presidency. As such, the significance of and controversy generated by each European Council is largely determined by the level of activism and radicalism of the member state occupying the chair, and its allies.

However, a number of items frequently appear on the European Council's agenda, including constitutional and institutional reform, EMU and the euro and EU enlargement. In addition, the European Council frequently focuses on major contemporary issues - eg reacting to failed referendums on Denmark and Ireland, BSE etc.

The European Council also has a specific role to play with regard to international affairs in general and with regard to common foreign and security policy in particular. The European Council has frequently issued 'soft' foreign policy announcements, and is required to set the framework within which CFSP is conducted by the Council of Ministers.

The development of the European Council as a significant institution has complicated the structure of the EU.

The 'agenda setting' pronouncements of the European Council interfere with the commission's de jure monopoly on policy initiation.
A tendency that developed in the 1980s to 'refer up' major issues to the European Council has undermined the power and authority of the Council of Ministers.
The European parliament has little or no input into the activities of the European Council.

The rise of the European Council has reinforced the intergovernmental character of the EU at the expense of the supranational, increasing the power of the member states. While it has little formal power, as the conclave of the highest political authorities in the member states - and one that pronounces purely on the basis of unanimity - the political force of the European Council's statements is virtually irresistible, and highlights the lack of democratic legitimacy enjoyed by the rest of the EU's decision-makers.

The European courts

There are two European courts, which have the task of interpreting and enforcing EU law: the European Court of Justice and the European Court of the First Instance. Both are based in Luxembourg.

These bodies should not be confused with the European Court of Human Rights, which is an arm of the Council of Europe, which enforces and interprets the European Convention on Human Rights. The European Court of Human Rights sits in Strasbourg.

Nor should they be confused with the Court of Auditors. This is an EU body, but its role is to examine the revenue and expenditure accounts of EU institutions, ensuring that EU funds are spent in accordance with budgetary rules.

The Court of the First Instance (CFI) is an offshoot of the Court of Justice (often known as the 'European Court'), which came about to reduce the growing workload imposed on the former.

Together the two courts act as the EU's constitutional court (ruling on inter-institutional disputes and disputes between the EU and member states), its supreme court (interpreting EU law) and its administrative court (protecting private individuals against maladministration).

The Court of Justice comprises 25 judges - one from each member state and nominated by their governments - appointed for a six-year term, with half the members' terms ending every three years. The judges appointed elect a president, who serves for three years. The judges are assisted by eight advocates-general.

The power of the court to influence the EU's development is limited by its lack of any power to initiate cases - it can only consider matters that are referred to it by third parties, including EU institutions, member states, corporate bodies and individuals.

The court undertakes two types of action: direct actions and preliminary rulings. The former seek rulings in disputes between institutions or individuals for breaches of EU law; the latter are requests for authoritative interpretation of points of EU law.

Direct actions include:

Proceedings for failure to fulfil an obligation under the treaties,
Proceedings for the annulment of EU law
Proceedings for failure to act
Proceedings to establish liability and award damages in civil suits brought against the EU

Requests for preliminary rulings are made to the court exclusively by national courts - and the court is permitted only to respond to the precise question it has been asked. The council and the commission may also seek the court's opinion on the compatibility of international agreements with EU law.

The Court of Justice also hears appeals against judgements made by the CFI - but these can only be on points of law, generally lack of CFI jurisdiction, breach of procedural rules and infringement of EU law.

The court's procedures are extremely slow and laborious, with preliminary rulings typically taking 18 months, and direct actions two years. In urgent cases, the court is able to issue interim rulings through accelerated procedures.

The CFI also comprises 25 judges - one from each member state - but does not include advocates-general. The CFI does not deal with particularly sensitive cases or those involving national governments. Rather its work focuses on direct actions brought by private applicants.

Disputes between the EU and its staff
Actions brought against the EU or its institutions by bodies corporate or private individuals

Other EU institutions

The EU includes a number of other bodies that play a role in the legislative process. These are the European Economic and Social Committee (the EESC) and the committee of the regions (the CoR).

The EESC has 344 members, allocated to member states by population and appointed by national governments for terms of five years. Members are drawn from three groups in each member state.

1. Group 1 - Employers (approximately half from industry, the rest from the public and commercial sectors)
2. Group 2 - Workers (generally representatives of national trade unions)
3. Group 3 - 'Various interests' (including agriculture, small and medium enterprises, professional bodies, local authorities, consumer groups etc)

The EESC aims to provide a voice for sectional interests in the EU decision-making process, supplementing the 'popular will' expressed by the EP.

The EESC engages in three types of work:

1. Mandatory consultations - In some areas, the EESC must have given an opinion for legislative proposals to proceed. These are agriculture, free movement of labour, internal market issues, economic and social cohesion, social policy and the European Social Fund, regional policy and the European Regional Development Fund, the environment, research, training and education, employment, transport, taxation, and public health and consumer protection - as stated in the Maastricht treaty and the Euratom treaty.
2. Optional consultations - The council and commission may refer any matter to the EESC for consultation as they see fit.
3. Own initiative work - The EESC is empowered to launch investigations of its own and to publish the findings.

The Committee Of The Regions plays a similar role to that of the EESC, providing a voice for local and regional bodies in the EU decision-making process and to act as a guardian of the principle of subsidiarity.

The CoR has 344 members from the 27 EU countries, and its work is organised in six different commissions

Like the EESC, the CoR engages in three types of work:

1. Mandatory consultations - The CoR must be consulted by the council or the commission on matters with cross-border implications, economic and social cohesion, transport, telecoms and energy networks, public health, education, training and youth policy and culture.
2. Optional consultations - The council, commission or EP may seek the CoR's opinion on any matter as they see fit.
3. Own initiative work - The CoR must be informed whenever the ESC is consulted on a matter, and has the right to issue an opinion if it believes that regional interests are affected. The CoR may also launch investigations at its own initiative.

There are also many other EU bodies that have important executive responsibilities, but none are involved in the actual decision-making processes.

EU law

There are three sources of law within the EU legal system:

'Primary legislation' - the treaties and agreements of similar status
'Secondary legislation' - laws made under the powers established by the treaties
Case law - the accumulated body of legal decisions built up by the European courts

Together, this body of jurisprudence constitutes the acquis communautaire, with which all member states - and aspirant member states - are required to comply with and to render their domestic laws consistent with, under pain of sanctions.

The treaties

European union has been promoted since 1951 by means of a series of treaties - agreements with the force of law reached between member states.

The Treaty of Paris of 1951 established the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), which comprised Belgium, West Germany, France, Luxembourg, Italy and the Netherlands.

The Treaties of Rome of 1957 established the European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM) and the European Economic Community (EEC), comprising the same six countries.

These three bodies were united by the Merger Treaty of 1967, under the name 'the European Economic Community'.

The EEC changed its name first to the European Community and latterly to the European Union, brought in new members and took on new powers and responsibilities under a series of additional treaties amending the previous agreements.

The most important of these are:

The Single European Act (in force 1987)
The Treaty on European Union or the Maastricht treaty (in force 1993)
The Treaty of Amsterdam (in force 1999)
The Treaty of Nice (in force 2003)
The Treaty of Lisbon (in force 2009)

The treaties established an independent system of law that takes precedence over national law, empowering EU institutions to make secondary legislation that member states are subject to.

Secondary legislation

The EU's 'secondary legislation' is that form of legislation that affects day to day life within the EU and with which most people are familiar.

It is the kind of law made under the powers created and invested in the EU by the treaties - the EU's 'primary legislation'.

EU secondary legislation falls into four categories:

1. Regulations - Regulations issued by the EU are directly applicable and binding in all member states without the need for any legislation in the member states
2. Directives - Directives state objectives to be achieved and impose a requirement on member states to take domestic legislative action themselves to implement those objectives.
3. Decisions - Decisions are binding directly in the same way as regulations, but they only apply to those to whom they are addressed - which may be member states, companies or individuals
4. Recommendations and opinions - Recommendations and opinions are not binding

Case law

Case law has a similar place in EU law to that held by common law in English law.

Case law comprises the accumulated judgments of the European Courts - the European Court of Justice and the European Court of the First Instance.

EU case law informs decision-making in the absence of an overriding statutory requirement dictating what must be done.

EU legislative process

The EU's legislative process is more complex than that which operates at Westminster - this reflects the institutional arrangement, the international character of the EU and the extent of diversity that must be accommodated in the EU's actions, and the shifting basis of the EU's 'constitution' (the treaties).

For a proposal to become law, the wording must be agreed by the commission, the council and (in most cases) the European parliament - and statutory consultees must have given their views on it.

Processes are necessarily slow, given the frequency of council meetings and EP plenary sessions, the small staff base of the institutions, the extensive range of consultations required and that are preferable, the powers of various participants in the process to halt or delay proceedings, and the shifting of participants' positions in response to domestic pressures and internal EU politicking.

Furthermore, there are a number of legislative and quasi-legislative procedures in use, reflecting the three different 'pillars' of the EU, as declared by the Maastricht Treaty.

Pillar 1 covers most of the EU's activities in relation to matters of common policy
Pillar 2 relates to common foreign and security policy, and is primarily intergovernmental
Pillar 3 relates to justice and home affairs policy, and is also primarily intergovernmental

In addition, a number of particular matters are subject to special procedures that vary from those usually employed for decision-making under each pillar. For example, the co-operation procedure - which has almost entirely been replaced by the co-decision procedure since the Amsterdam treaty came into effect - is still used in respect of two European monetary union (EMU) provisions.

The following focuses primarily on first pillar decision making, as this is the most complex and the most widely-used. Decision-making under these arrangements depend on the effective co-operation of the commission, the council and the EP throughout the process.

Action programmes

Upon appointment, the commission issues a five-year action programme, stating broadly the actions and legislation it intends to pursue. A more specific version of this is issued each year. In addition, action programmes for particular policy areas are issued that do not necessarily coincide with the commission's term of office.

This action programme is nothing like a party manifesto, however - given the lack of a coherent centre of political power in the EU, the commission does not receive clear and consistent policy direction. In place of an 'EU prime minister', there is the ongoing but sporadic influence exerted variously by the Council of Ministers, the EP and the European Council formally, and member states, sectional bodies and other countries informally. These factors, along with the widely defined job descriptions given to EU civil servants, give the commission and the bureaucracy a great deal of freedom to innovate.

Like the British government, much of the commission's programme will not actually require legislation. The commission therefore proposes policy initiatives as well as legislative initiatives - the latter usually following the former when existing powers or the political will of the member states or institutions that are supposed to be implementing them prove insufficient.

In respect of legislation, the commission has the sole right to draft legislative proposals. Although the council and the EP are empowered to request the commission for legislation, they are not permitted to initiate or draft proposals themselves.

Policy development

Once the political decision has been taken to pursue a specific policy or legislative objective, work on drafting a proposal begins within the relevant DG.

Most initial proposals are drafted by a middle-ranking 'A' grade civil servant, and is gradually passed upwards (being revised throughout) through the DG's hierarchy, to the commissioner's cabinet, to the weekly chefs de cabinet meeting, and finally to the commission itself. The commission has the power to accept, amend, reject, refer back or defer a decision on any proposal.

As is the case with policy development in the UK, this procedure is frequently diverged from, especially in respect of cross-departmental policies, and there are other arrangements for fast-tracking policy proposals.

The commission also has a wide network of advisory and expert committees at its disposal to inform policy-making.

Nonetheless, the commission has a bad reputation for working in a compartmentalised way, with its hierarchical structure preventing the development of horizontal links. The activism of the DGs, moreover, is heavily influenced by the energy of the leading commissioner, and collectively of the commission president.

Referring proposals to other EU bodies

Once a policy proposal has been worked up by the commission, a decision is taken among the commissioners to initiate proceedings by a simple majority vote.

At this point, the proposal is transmitted to the secretariat of the council, to the EP and (where appropriate) to the EESC and the CoR. The proposal is published in the 'C' series of the Official Journal at this stage.

The commission reserves the right to amend or withdraw this proposal at any point until the council delivers its opinion (the 'common position').

The proposal is usually first considered by the EP, which declares an 'opinion'. This is referred to the commission, which may then amend the proposal again ahead of a final decision by the council and 'second reading' by the EP.

This exhausts the commission's formal role in all cases other than when the EP proposes amendments to a proposal that the council accepts. In this event, the proposal goes back to the commission, which will either agree or disagree with the amendments. If the commission disagrees, its position can only be overruled by the council agreeing unanimously to the changed text.

Nonetheless, the commission is involved politically in getting its legislation through throughout the processes - being represented at council meetings and answering questions in the EP, as well as by more informal means.

In this way, it can be seen the while the commission has no formal decision-making powers of its own, its power to initiate and to draft and redraft proposals give it enormous de facto power in the process.

Consideration of referred proposals

The council is the EU's principal legislative body, a role it shares with the EP in some cases. It has greater powers to block and to facilitate commission proposals than the EP.

Once a proposal from the commission is received by the council's general secretariat, it goes through two stages before reaching the Council of Ministers itself.

The first stage is initial examination by one or more working party, which may be permanent or constituted specially for the purpose at hand. The general secretariat aims to keep meetings of the working party to a maximum of three on any one proposal. About 70 per cent of council business is agreed at this level.

The second stage is referral to COREPER (or the SCA). The aim of this stage is to reach agreement between the member states on as many matters as possible, so that only the most controversial and important remain to be decided at the third stage, the actual ministerial meeting. If agreement has been reached on a proposal at the working party stage, it is likely to pass through COREPER fairly quickly. If agreement has not been reached, referral to COREPER escalates the situation: COREPER can then either try to resolve the matter itself, refer the matter back to the working party with suggestions or pass it on upwards. A further 15 to 20 per cent is agreed at this level.

Formal adoption of a proposal is only possible at the third stage, the ministerial meeting. Agendas presented to the council meetings comprise a list of 'A points' - those agreed at working party or CORPER stage and which are usually approved without debate - and 'B points' - which remain controversial but which are accompanied by a formula for agreement for ministers to consider.

For non-controversial matters (typically A points) to be approved, it is not necessary for a proposal to await the next council meeting on that subject. Such matters can be approved at the next meeting, whatever policy area that council meets to discuss.

Factors affecting progress through the council

A number of factors affect the speed with which any proposal will achieve a common position.

The urgency of the proposal
The controversy the proposal generates and the support or opposition of member states
The extent to which the commission has anticipated objections to the proposal and can offer reassurances
The complexity of the provisions
The commission's willingness to amend
The efficiency of the incumbent council presidency
The ability and willingness of participants to compromise

Decision-making in council meetings

The majority of proposals are nodded through in the ways outlined above, or agreement can be reached at the council level without the need for matters to go to a vote.

However, if agreement cannot be reached, the treaties provide for disagreements to be resolved by votes of the ministers present.

There are three procedures for votes, which apply to different policy areas.

Unanimity (ie the approval of every member state) is required in respect of matters relating to taxation, industry, culture, regional and social funds, research and development and 'constitutional matters'. In addition, most decision-making under pillars two and three require unanimity in the council. Abstentions do not count as votes against for the purposes of such votes.

A simple majority is required for the approval of procedural proposals and for anti-dumping and anti-subsidy tariffs.

The most frequently used and most complex voting procedure, however, is qualified majority voting. The scope of QMV has been expanded dramatically since the Single European Act, prior to which unanimity was the norm.

Nonetheless, informal processes and relationships are critical to a proposal's progress through the council, at all stages - including private lunches, breaks in proceedings, off the record bilateral talks. Insofar as ministers frequently change, the relationships between members of COREPER are of critical importance to the negotiation processes.

The council also plays a crucial role further into the legislative process, in its interactions with the European parliament.

Work in committees

Along with the Council of Ministers, the EP constitutes the EU's legislature. Historically, the EP was purely a consultative body, but treaty changes have given it more and more power to amend and block legislation.

When a proposal is referred to the EP, it develops and declares an 'opinion' - which has differing degrees of force depending on the procedure in use.

The first stage of this process is referral of the proposal to the relevant committee. Where a proposal crosses over committee mandate areas, up to three may be asked for their views, but only one will be named as the responsible committee which draws up the report that is submitted to the plenary session.

A principal spokesperson for the inquiry is chosen (on the basis of inter-party negotiations) by the committee, who is known as the rapporteur. The rapporteur takes the lead in the preparation of a first draft of the report, which is considered the committee as a whole - and is either passed back for amendment or approved for referral to the plenary session.

The extent of discussion required to agree upon a report depends upon the complexity of the proposal under consideration, the controversy it generates and the positions of the members of the committee.

The agreed report is then presented to the plenary session of the EP and given a 'first reading' by the rapporteur, who explains the report and any amendments proposed, and gives the committee's position on any other amendments proposed by MEPs from outside the committee. The rapporteur is often asked to guide the EP in the event that the commission indicates its willingness to accept some but not all of the amendments proposed.

The EP then votes to adopt or reject the opinion recommended by the committee, and its decision is passed back to the other institutions. What happens at this point depends on which procedure is being followed.

The council usually provides its common position after the first reading.

Consultation and assent processes

The EP's opinions carry a level of importance that is determined by the procedure under which a proposal is being pursued. The relevant procedure for any particular proposal is set out in the treaties.

The four procedures in use are:

1. Consultation
2. Co-decision
3. Co-operation
4. Assent

The first two are the most important, and the most frequently used.

Consultation

Under the consultation procedure, the EP is only asked for its opinion once - after which the council takes a decision, in which it is not obliged to take account of the EP's amendments. The consultation procedure applies to the following policy areas:

Agriculture (price review)
Taxation
Competition policy
Non-single market legislative harmonisation
Industrial policy
Comitology
Most matters relating to the creation of an area of freedom, security and justice
Those aspects of social and environmental policy requiring unanimity in the council
Justice and home affairs, as provided for under pillar three

As can be seen, the EP's power is limited in matters dealt with under the consultation procedure. It can maximise its influence in the following ways:

1. The EP can block proposals by refusing to give an opinion - which prevents the council and commission from proceeding. The EP can also delay proposals it does not support by referring them back to committees.
2. Insofar as the commission is able to amend the proposal until the moment of final agreement by the council, the EP will often aim to exert pressure on the commission to secure its agreement to amendments that the EP supports.

Co-decision

The Co-decision procedure is that which gives the EP the most amount of power and which is used in an increasing number of cases.

Under the co-decision procedure explained below, if the EP, council and commission are in full agreement at the end of the first reading stage, the proposal can be adopted as law.

However, if any amendments have been proposed, either by the council or the EP, the proposal is passed back to the commission for agreement, amendment or withdrawal.

Having agreed with or disagreed with any amendments proposed, the commission passes the proposal back to the EP - which refers the proposal to the committee that first considered it. The procedures followed leading up to the first reading are repeated, leading up to a second reading.

If an absolute majority (more than 50 per cent) of MEPs demand the withdrawal of a proposal at this stage, it is struck down. For amendments to be included in the opinion, they must also be adopted by an absolute majority.

This opinion is sent to the council, which will either approve the amendments and pass the proposal back to the commission, or will disagree, activating the conciliation committee procedure.

If the council agrees with the EP's amendments and the commission does as well, the proposal is adopted as law. If the commission disagrees, the proposal is sent back to the council - which can overrule the commission by unanimously supporting the amended proposal.

If the council disagrees with the EP's amendments, a conciliation committee is formed to resolve the dispute. This comprises an equal number of representatives of the council and MEPs, who are charged with coming up with a mutually acceptable form of words. The commission also has a presence at the conciliation committee.

If this cannot be reached, the proposal fails.

If agreement can be reached, it must be accepted by a qualified majority vote of the council and by an absolute majority of the EP to be adopted as law.

Co-decision's scope was increased dramatically by the Amsterdam Treaty, which replaced in great part the co-operation procedure which preceded it and which transformed many consultation matters into co-decision matters.

Co-operation

The co-operation procedure only remains in use for a small number of provisions, primarily relating to EMU. It is more complicated than the co-decision procedure it was largely replaced by.

The co-operation procedure is the same as the co-decision procedure, apart from in the following respects:

1. There is no provision for proposals to be adopted after first reading even when there is no disagreement
2. There is no conciliation committee process - after the EP's second reading, the council can overrule its proposed amendments on a unanimous vote.

Assent

Under the assent procedure, proposals are presented to the EP for a single reading with no provision for amendments - at which an absolute majority is required to veto a proposal.

The areas subject to assent are those in which the council acts by unanimity, the accession of new member states and the adoption of international agreements.

Pillar Two

Pillar two relates to common foreign and security policy (CFSP). The Maastricht Treaty provides for the EU to develop CFSP, covering all areas of foreign and security policy with the following objectives:

1. To safeguard the common values, interests, independence and integrity of the EU, in conformity with the UN Charter
2. To protect the security of the EU
3. To preserve peace and international security, in accordance with international agreements
4. To promote international co-operation
5. To consolidate democracy and the rule of law, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms

The Maastricht Treaty (as amended by the Amsterdam Treaty) declares that these will be achieved by:

1. Defining general principles and guidelines for CFSP
2. Deciding on common strategies
3. Adopting joint actions
4. Adopting common positions
5. Strengthening systematic co-operation between member states in the conduct of policy

Policy objectives and instruments (common strategies, joint actions and common positions) are decided primarily by the European Council and the General Affairs Council (GAC).

CFSP is conducted then on a primarily intergovernmental basis - due primarily to the politically sensitive nature of foreign and security policy.

The European Council is responsible for setting general principles and guidelines for the conduct of CFSP and decides common strategies.

Within this framework, the GAC is the principal decision-making body for CFSP, which implements the common strategies of the European Council through joint actions and common positions.

All pillar two decisions are made solely on the basis of unanimity.

The roles of the commission and the EP are very limited in regard to CFSP. The EP has a right to be consulted on the main aspects and basic choices of CFSP, but the council is not obliged to take account of its views - unless it relates to matters requiring EP agreement (eg adoption of international agreements, under the assent procedure).

Similarly, the commission only has more than an advisory role in respect of matters where a CFSP position requires the use of EU policy instruments - eg imposing economic sanctions. The commission can exercise more influence when a small member state occupies the presidency, as its foreign ministry will be less able to resist the informal pressure it exerts.

Pillar Three

Pillar three relates to justice and home affairs (JHA), another highly sensitive political area. As such, decision-making under pillar three continues to be primarily intergovernmental.

This is probably the least developed area of EU common policy, because of the cultural and legal barriers to harmonisation and the implications it has for national sovereignty.

Indeed, the Amsterdam Treaty reduced the scope of pillar three to 'police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters' - while it transferred immigration, asylum and refugee policy to pillar one, under the Schengen agreement, the UK, Ireland and Denmark secured the right to opt out from these provisions.

Under pillar three, either the commission or member states can bring forward policy proposals, which are presented to the council for consideration.

The council then takes responsibility for drawing up conventions, which can only be adopted on the basis of unanimity.

EU economic policies

The principal objective of the EU - when first constituted as the EEC - was to make war in Europe impossible not only by developing a common system of law, but also by making the member states' economies completely interdependent.

This has been pursued by the creation of a single market and subsequently the establishment of a single European currency and monetary policy, by the coordinated conduct of economic policy by member states, and by joint action in international trade negotiations.

The single market

The EEC was initially an economic project, aimed at reducing the 'cost of non-Europe' - that is, of stimulating trade between and economic activity in member states by creating a larger free trade area. This simple idea aimed to see the costs of European business reduced by removing internal tariffs and standardising regulation - a process which has since been expanded to include the establishment of a common currency and monetary policy across most of the EU, and which aspires ultimately to achieve a common fiscal (taxation and spending) policy.

Internal tariff and quota barriers within the EU were abolished in 1968 - 18 months ahead of schedule - but it was not then until 1992 that the single market was deemed to have been completed.

In the absence of strong supranational and intergovernmental decision-making structures, it proved difficult to make progress on the more intangible barriers to free movement of goods, services, capital and labour, such as professional standards, regulations, persistent protectionist attitudes and of course divergent fiscal regimes. The oil crises of 1973 and 1980 reinforced protectionist attitudes where they survived.

The result was that during the 1970s and early 1980s, growth in the EU member states began to lag seriously behind that of international competitors. While efforts were being made to establish a single market, they were meeting with limited success.

As such, in 1985 a white paper was produced - adopted in the Single European Act (SEA) 1987 - identifying some 300 measures that would have to be addressed to complete the single market and setting December 31st 1992 as the deadline for completion. The new powers given to the EU's institutions by the SEA made this goal achievable.

The single market (or SEM) rests on four pillars.

1. Free movement of goods, persons, services and capital between member states
2. The approximation of relevant laws, regulations and administrative provisions between member states
3. EU-wide competition policy, administered by the commission
4. A system of common external tariffs (CET - also known as the common customs tariff)

While the SEM was ostensibly complete by the end of 1992, it remains a project in 'continuous creation': much SEM legislation remains to be implemented in member states; several important areas - particularly energy - remain unexposed to liberalisation; and several member states continue to exploit loopholes and discover new ways of protecting domestic industries.

Furthermore, many areas beyond the purely economic impinge upon the functioning of the SEM, such as internal borders, cross-border police and judicial co-operation, and differing systems of civil law. Most controversially, the question of tax harmonisation looms large as the empty chair at the SEM table.

European monetary union

Economic and monetary union (EMU) was a goal for the EU proclaimed as far back as the 1960s, but one which was not pursued with much vigour or success until the late 1980s, when the Single European Act added a chapter to the treaties formally setting the EU on the road to EMU.

Not only is EMU a logical economic counterpart to the SEM, but it is also a major political milestone on the way to EU integration: currencies (and to a lesser extent, the conduct of economic policy) have long been central symbols of national sovereignty.

The process of EMU began with a number of unsuccessful attempts to coordinate exchange rates. The first exchange rate system was known as 'the snake' and was set up in 1972, but it collapsed by 1974. The first exchange rate mechanism (ERM) was set up in 1979, as part of the establishment of the European monetary system (EMS), which also set up a common fund for market interventions and created the European currency unit (Ecu) as a reserve asset and means of settlement.

However, the success of the EMS was hindered by the weakness of policy instruments available to implement it, disagreements as to the priority of the economic or the financial, a lack of convergence between member states' economies and varying degrees of enthusiasm for the project.

EMU has progressed through three stages since 1990, to the present day, where 17 member states have a common m