How does the EU work?
The decision making instituions:
The EU-Parlament, The EU Council, the council,
The EU-Commission, The Court of Justice, The EU –Central Bank
In this session, we will present the main EU institutions: what they are, what is their purpose, how they work and why are they important for EU and for you as a European citizen.
Lesson time foreseen
80 minutes = 2 lessons
Democracy (Greek: δημοκρατία, dēmokratía literally "rule of the people"), in modern usage, is a system of government in which the citizens exercise power directly or elect representatives from among themselves to form a governing body, such as a parliament.
At the core of the EU are the Member States - the 28 states that belong to the Union - and their citizens. The unique feature of the EU is that, although these are all sovereign, independent states, they have pooled some of their 'sovereignty' in order to gain strength and the benefits of size. Pooling sovereignty means. in practice, that the Member States delegate some of their decision-making powers to the shared institutions they have created, so that decisions on specific matters of joint interest can be made democratically at European level. The EU thus sits between the fully federal system found in the United States and the loose, intergovernmental cooperation system seen in the United Nations.
The European Union is based on the rule of law. This means that every action taken by the EU is founded on treaties that have been approved voluntarily and democratically by all EU countries. The treaties are negotiated and agreed by all the EU Member States and then ratified by their parliaments or by referendum.
Decision-making at EU level involves various European institutions, in particular:
• the European Parliament, which represents the EU's citizens and is directly elected by them;
• the European Council, which consists of the Heads of State or Government of the EU Member States;
• the Council, which represents the governments of the EU Member States;
• the European Commission, which represents the interests of the EU as a whole.
By means of a European citizens' initiative, 1 million EU citizens from at least one quarter of the EU Member States may invite the Commission to bring forward a legislative proposal on a particular issue. The Commission will carefully examine all initiatives that fall within the framework of its powers and that have been supported by 1 million citizens. An audition of the initiatives is done in the Parliament. Such initiatives may therefore influence the work of the EU institutions, as well as the public debate.
The voice of the people - Directly elected legislative arm of the EU
Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are directly elected by EU citizens to represent their interests. Elections are held every 5 years and all EU citizens over 18 years old (16 in Austria) - some 380 million - are entitled to vote. The Parliament has 751 MEPs from all 28 Member States.
The seats in the European Parliament are allocated among the Member States on the basis of their share of the EU population.
What does Parliament do?
Parliament exercises democratic supervision over the other EU institutions, and in particular the Commission. It has the power to approve or reject the nomination of commissioners, and it has the right to censure the Commission as a whole.
The power of the purse. Parliament shares with the Council authority over the EU budget and can therefore influence EU spending. At the end of the procedure, it adopts or rejects the budget in its entirety.
These three roles are described in greater detail below.
The most common procedure for adopting (i.e. passing) EU legislation is 'codecision'. This procedure places the European Parliament and the Council on an equal footing and it applies to legislation in a wide range of fields.
Parliament exercises democratic supervision over the other European institutions. It does so in several ways.
The EU's annual budget is decided jointly by Parliament and the Council. Parliament debates it in two successive readings, and the budget does not come into force until it has been signed by the President of Parliament.
The President of the European Parliament presides over the debates and activities of the European Parliament. They also represent the Parliament within the EU and internationally. The president's signature is required for enacting most EU laws and the EU budget.
The European Council
This means the Heads of State or Government (i.e. Presidents and/or Prime Ministers) of oil the EU Member States, together with its President and the President of the European Commission. It is the highest-level policymaking body in the European Union, which is why its meetings ore often called 'summits'.
Also known as the Council of Ministers, this institution consists of government ministers from all
the EU Member States. The Council meets regularly to toke detailed decisions and to poss European laws.
This is not an EU institution at oil. It is an intergovernmental organisation which aims to
protect human rights, democracy and the rule of law. It was set up in 1949 and one of its
early achievements were to draw up the European Convention on Human Rights. To enable citizens to exercise their rights under that Convention it set up the European Court of Human Rights. The Council of Europe now has 47 Member States. including oil EU Member States, and its headquarters are in Strasbourg, France.
The European Council is the EU’s top political institution, located in Brussels (Belgium). It consists of the Heads of State or Government — the presidents and/or prime ministers — of all the EU member countries, plus the President of the European Commission. It normally meets four times a year, in Brussels. It has a permanent President whose job is to coordinate the European Council’s work and ensure its continuity. The permanent President is elected (by a qualified majority vote of its members) for a period of two and a half years and can be re-elected once. The former Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, has occupied this post since 1 December 2014.
European Council is convened and chaired by its President, who is elected by the European Council itself for a once-renewable two-and-a-half-year term. The President represents the EU to the outside world.
Since 1 December 2014, the European Council’s president is Donald Tusk from Poland.
As a summit meeting of the Heads of State or Government of all the EU Member States, the European Council represents the highest level of political cooperation between the Member States. At their meetings, the leaders decide by consensus on the overall direction and priorities of the Union. and provide the necessary impetus for its development.
The European Council takes most of its decisions by consensus. In a number of cases. however, qualified majority applies, such as the election of its President, and the appointment of the Commission and of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
What the Council does
The Council is an essential EU decision-maker. Its work is carried out in Council meetings that are attended by one minister from each of the EU's national governments. The purpose of these gatherings is to: discuss, agree, amend and, finally, adopt legislation; coordinate the Member States' policies; or define the EU's foreign policy.
The Presidency of the Council rotates between the Member States every 6 months. It is not the same as the President of the European Council. The responsibility of the government holding the Presidency is to organise and chair the different Council meetings. By way of exception, the Foreign Affairs Council is chaired by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, who carries out foreign policy on behalf of the Council.
1. to pass European laws - in most fields, it legislates jointly with the European Parliament;
2. to coordinate the Member States' policies, for example, in the economic field;
3. to develop the EU's common foreign and security policy, based on guidelines set by the European Council;
4. to conclude international agreements between the EU and one or more states or international
5. to adopt the EU's budget, jointly with the European Parliament.
What it is?
The Commission is the politically independent institution that represents and upholds the interests of the EU as a whole. In many areas, it is the driving force within the EU's institutional system: it proposes legislation, policies and programmes of action and is responsible for implementing the decisions of the European Parliament and the Council. It also represents the Union to the outside world with the exception of the common foreign and security policy.
A new Commission is appointed every 5 years, within 6 months of the elections to the European
Parliament. The procedure is as follows:
• The Member State governments propose a new Commission President, who must be elected by the European Parliament.
• The proposed Commission President, in discussion with the Member State governments, chooses the other members of the Commission.
• The new Parliament then interviews all proposed members and gives its opinion on the entire 'College'. If approved, the new Commission can officially start its work.
The European Commission has four main roles:
1. to propose legislation to the Parliament and the Council;
2. to manage and implement EU policies and the budget;
3. to enforce European law (jointly with the Court of Justice);
4. to represent the Union around the world.
The Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department of the European Commission (ECHO) was established in 1992. Humanitarian action now occupies a key position in the European Union's external activities - indeed, the EU is the world's main player in this field.
It is up to the Commission President to decide which Commissioner will be responsible for which policy area, and to reshuffle these responsibilities (if necessary) during the Commission's term of office. The President is also entitled to demand a Commissioner's resignation. The team of 28 Commissioners (also known as 'the College') meets once a week, usually on Wednesdays in Brussels. Each item on the agenda is presented by the Commissioner responsible for that policy area, and the College takes a collective decision on it.
The President of the European Commission is the head of the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union. The President of the Commission leads a cabinet of Commissioners, referred to as the college, collectively accountable to the European Parliament, which is directly elected by EU citizens. The President is empowered to allocate portfolios amongst, reshuffle or dismiss Commissioners as necessary. The college directs the Commission's civil service, sets the policy agenda and determines the legislative proposals it produces (the Commission is the only body that can propose[a] EU laws).
The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), established in 1952 and situated in Luxembourg, interprets EU law to make sure it is applied in the same way in all EU countries, and settles legal disputes between national governments and EU institutions.
• Court of Justice: deals with requests for preliminary rulings from national courts, certain actions for annulment and appeals; it consists of 1 judge from each EU country, plus 11 advocates general
• General Court: rules on actions for annulment brought by individuals, companies and, in some cases, EU governments. In practice, this means that this court deals mainly with competition law, State aid, trade, agriculture, trademarks; it consists of 47 judges. In 2019 this will be increased to 56 (2 judges from each EU country).
The CJEU gives rulings on cases brought before it. The most common types of case are:
• enforcing the law (infringement proceedings) – this type of case is taken against a national government for failing to comply with EU law. Can be started by the European Commission or another EU country. If the country is found to be at fault, it must put things right at once, or risk a second case being brought, which may result in a fine.
• annulling EU legal acts (actions for annulment) – if an EU act is believed to violate EU treaties or fundamental rights, the Court can be asked to annul it – by an EU government, the Council of the EU, the European Commission or (in some cases) the European Parliament.
• Private individuals can also ask the Court to annul an EU act that directly concerns them.
• ensuring the EU takes action (actions for failure to act) – the Parliament, Council and Commission must make certain decisions under certain circumstances. If they don't, EU governments, other EU institutions or (under certain conditions) individuals or companies can complain to the Court.
• sanctioning EU institutions (actions for damages) – any person or company who has had their interests harmed as a result of the action or inaction of the EU or its staff can take action against them through the Court.
If you – as a private individual or as a company – have suffered damage as a result of action or inaction by an EU institution or its staff, you can take action against them in the Court, in one of 2 ways:
• indirectly through national courts (which may decide to refer the case to the Court of Justice)
• directly before the General Court – if a decision by an EU institution has affected you directly and individually.
If you feel that the authorities in any country have infringed EU law, you must follow the official complaints procedure (it is often advised to use lawyers with experience).
The European Central Bank (ECB) manages the euro and frames and implements EU economic & monetary policy. Its main aim is to keep prices stable, thereby supporting economic growth and job creation.
The ECB was set up in 1998, when the euro was introduced, to manage monetary policy in the euro area. The primary objective of the ECB is to maintain price stability. This is defined as a consumer price inflation rate of less than, but close to, 2 % per annum. The ECB also acts to support employment and sustainable economic growth in the Union.
• Sets the interest rates at which it lends to commercial banks in the eurozone (also known as the euro area), thus controlling money supply and inflation
• Manages the eurozone's foreign currency reserves and the buying or selling of currencies to balance exchange rates
• Ensures that financial markets & institutions are well supervised by national authorities, and that payment systems work well
• Ensures the safety and soundness of the European banking system
• Authorises production of euro banknotes by eurozone countries
• Monitors price trends and assesses risks to price stability.
The ECB President represents the Bank at high-level EU and international meetings. The ECB has the 3 following decision-making bodies:
• Executive Board – handles the day-to-day running of the ECB. Consists of the ECB President and Vice-President and 4 other members appointed for 8-year terms by the leaders of the eurozone countries.
• General Council – has more of an advisory & coordination role. Consists of the ECB President and Vice-President and the governors of the central banks from all EU countries.
The President heads the executive board, governing council and general council of the ECB. He also represents the bank abroad, for example at the G20. The President is appointed by majority in the European Council, de facto by those who have adopted the euro, for an eight-year non-renewable term. Mario Draghi is the current president of ECB, appointed on 1 November 2011.
The ECB works with the national central banks of all EU countries. Together they form the European System of Central Banks.
• Governing Council – assesses economic and monetary developments, defines eurozone monetary policy and fixes the interest rates at which commercial banks can borrow from the ECB.
• Executive Board – implements monetary policy, manages day-to-day operations, prepares Governing Council meetings and exercises powers delegated to it by the Governing Council.
• General Council – contributes to advisory and coordination work and helps to prepare for new countries joining the euro.
• The Court of Auditors - the European Court of Auditors, located in Luxembourg, was established in 1975. It has one member from each EU country, appointed for a term of 6 years by agreement between the Member States following consultation of the European Parliament. It makes sure that all the European Union’s income has been received and all its expenditure incurred in a lawful and regular manner and that the EU budget has been managed soundly.
• The European Economic and Social Committee - When taking decisions in a number of policy areas, the Council and the European Commission consult the European Economic and Social Committee. Its members represent the various economic and social interest groups that collectively make up ‘organised civil society’, and are appointed by the Council for a 5-year term.
• The Committee of the Regions - The Committee of the Regions consists of representatives of regional and local government. They are proposed by the Member States and appointed by the Council for a 5-year term. The Council and the Commission must consult the Committee on matters of relevance to the regions, and it may also issue opinions on its own initiative.
• The European Investment Bank - The European Investment Bank, based in Luxembourg, provides loans and guarantees to assist the EU’s less developed regions and to help make businesses more competitive.
• The European Ombudsman - The Ombudsman is elected by the European Parliament for a renewable period of 5 years. Its role is to investigate complaints relating to poor administration in the EU institutions. Citizens, companies and residents in the EU can file complaints. Ireland’s former Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, has been the European Ombudsman since 2013.
How the EU works (video) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VvIPSY_Sbfg
The European Parliament in a nutshell (video) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bt84q2CBTPw
How ECB works (video) https://europa.eu/european-union/about-eu/institutions-bodies/european-central-bank_en
Europe in 12 lessons (pdf)