Module 3: European Union

Lesson Title

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

 

Introduction

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

 

Lesson Content

EU is a democratic union – what is a democracy?
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.
 
The European Union in brief
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 EU has achieved much since it was created in 1950. It has built a single market for goods and services that spans 28 Member States with over 500 million citizens free to move and settle where they wish. It created the single currency - the euro - which is now a major world currency and which makes the single market more efficient. It is also the largest supplier of development and humanitarian aid programmes in the world. These are j ust a few of the achievements so far. Looking ahead, the EU is working to get Europe out of the economic crisis. It is at the forefront of the fight against climate change and its consequences; it helps neighbouring countries and continues ongoing negotiations on enlargements; and it is building a common foreign policy which will do much to extend European values around the world. The success of these ambitions depends on the ability to take effective and timely decisions and to implement them well.
 
The EU treaties
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.
 
 The treaties lay down the objectives of the European Union. the rules for EU institutions, how decisions are made and the relationship between the EU and its Member States. They have been amended each time new Member States have joined. From time to time, they have also been amended to reform the European Union's institutions and to give it new areas of Responsibility.
 
Who takes the decisions?
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.
 
The European Council defines the general political direction and priorities of the EU but it does not exercise legislative functions. Generally, it is the European Commission that proposes new laws and it is the European Parliament and Council that adopt them. The Member States and the Commission then implement them.
 
Citizens' participation
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 EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT

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 official seat of the European Parliament is in Strasbourg (France), although the institution has three places of work: Strasbourg, Brussels (Belgium) and Luxembourg. The main meetings of the whole Parliament, known as 'plenary sessions', take place in Strasbourg 12 times per year. Additional plenary sessions are held in Brussels. Committee meetings are also held in Brussels.
 
Budgetary power. Along with the Council, they approve and control the EU budget. Supervisory powers. To oversee other EU institutions and agencies. For example, MEPs hold hearings with nominees to the EU Commission and elect its President.
 
The European Parliament works closely with the European Commission, which draws up draft laws, and the 28 Member States via the Council of the European Union. From migration to food safety and data protection, the work of the European Parliament has a direct impact on the daily lives of citizens everywhere in the EU.
 
Composition of the European Parliament
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 has three main roles:
Passing European laws - jointly with the Council in many policy areas. The fact that the EP is directly elected by the citizens helps guarantee the democratic legitimacy of European law.
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.
 
1. Passing European laws
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.
In some fields (for example agriculture, economic policy, visas and immigration), the Council alone legislates, but it has to consult Parliament. In addition, Parliament's assent is required for certain important decisions, such as allowing new countries to join the EU.
Parliament also provides impetus for new legislation by examining the Commission's annual work programme, considering what new laws would be appropriate and asking the Commission to put forward proposals.
 
2. Democratic supervision
Parliament exercises democratic supervision over the other European institutions. It does so in several ways.
When a new Commission takes office, its members are nominated by the EU member state governments but they cannot be appointed without Parliament's approval. Parliament interviews each of them individually, including the prospective Commission President, and then votes on whether to approve the Commission as a whole.
Throughout its term of office, the Commission remains politically accountable to Parliament, which can pass a 'motion of censure' calling for the Commission's mass resignation.
More generally, Parliament exercises control by regularly examining reports sent to it by the Commission (the annual general report, reports on the implementation of the budget, etc.). Moreover, MEPs regularly ask the Commission questions which the commissioners are legally required to answer.
Parliament also monitors the work of the Council: MEPs regularly ask the Council questions, and the President of the Council attends the EP's plenary sessions and takes part in important debates.
Parliament can exercise further democratic control by examining petitions from citizens and setting up committees of inquiry.
Finally, Parliament provides input to every EU summit (the European Council meetings). At the opening of each summit, the President of Parliament is invited to express Parliament's views and concerns about topical issues and the items on the European Council's agenda.
 
3. The power of the purse
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.
Parliament's Committee on Budgetary Control (COCOBU) monitors how the budget is spent, and each year Parliament decides whether to approve the Commission's handling of the budget for the previous financial year. This approval process is technically known as 'granting a discharge'
President of the EP
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.
Presidents serve two-and-a-half-year terms, normally divided between the two major political parties. There have been twenty-eight presidents since the Parliament was created in 1952, thirteen of whom have served since the first Parliamentary election in 1979. Two presidents have been women and most have come from the older member states. The current president is Antonio Tajani of Italy, elected on 17 January 2017.
 
THE 3 COUNCILS
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'.
 
The Council
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.
 
The Council of Europe
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

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.
 
The European Council establishes the EU’s goals and sets the course for achieving them. It provides the impetus for the EU’s main policy initiatives and takes decisions on thorny issues that the Council of Ministers are not able to agree upon. The European Council also tackles current international problems via the ‘common foreign and security policy’ — which is a mechanism for coordinating the foreign policies of the EU’s Member States.
 
President of the European Council
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.
 
What the European Council does
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 does not adopt legislation. At the end of each meeting it issues 'conclusions', which reflect the main messages resulting from the discussions and take stock of the decisions taken, also as regards their follow-up. The conclusions identify major issues to be dealt with by the Council, i.e. the meetings of ministers. They may also invite the European Commission to come forward with proposals addressing a particular challenge or opportunity facing the Union.
 
European Council meetings as a rule take place at least twice every 6 months. Additional (extraordinary or informal) meetings may be called to address urgent issues in need of decisions at the highest level, for example in economic affairs or foreign policy.
How the European Council takes its decisions
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.
 
When the European Council decides by vote, only the Heads of State or Government may cast a vote.
 
THE COUNCIL

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. 
 
Which ministers attend which Council meeting depends on the subjects on the agenda - this is known as the 'configuration' of the Council. If. for example, the Council is to discuss environmental issues, the meeting will be attended by the environment minister from each EU Member State and is known as the Environment Council. The same is t rue for the Economic and Financial Affairs Council and the Competitiveness Council, and so on.
 
Presidency to the council
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.
 
The Council has five key responsibilities:
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
organisations;
5. to adopt the EU's budget, jointly with the European Parliament.
 
THE EUROPEAN COMMISSION

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.
 
Appointing the Commission
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 Commission has several Vice-Presidents, one of whom is also the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and thus has a foot in both the Council and the Commission camps.
 
What the Commission does
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.
 
Reaching out to those in need
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.
 
Some 125 million people are helped each year through EU humanitarian aid funding. This aid is delivered via 200 partners such as aid charities and UN agencies. Assistance is based on the humanitarian principles of non-discrimination and impartiality.
 
How the Commission works
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 European Commission
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 President of the Commission also represents the EU abroad, together with the President of the European Council and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
 
The post was established in 1958. Each new President is nominated by the European Council and formally elected by the European Parliament, for a five-year term. The current President is Jean-Claude Juncker, who took office on 1 November 2014. He is a member of the European People's Party (EPP) and is the former Prime Minister of Luxembourg.
 
THE COURT OF JUSTICE

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.
 
It can also, in certain circumstances, be used by individuals, companies or organisations to take action against an EU institution, if they feel it has somehow infringed their rights.
 
The Court has the power to settle legal disputes between Member States, EU institutions, businesses and individuals. To cope with the many thousands of cases it receives, it is divided into two main bodies: The Court of Justice, which deals with requests for preliminary rulings from national courts, certain actions for annulment and appeals, and The General Court, which rules on all actions for annulment brought by private individuals and companies and some such actions brought by Member States.
 
The two courts
• 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).
 
What does the CJEU do?
The CJEU gives rulings on cases brought before it. The most common types of case are:
• interpreting the law (preliminary rulings) – national courts of EU countries are required to ensure EU law is properly applied, but courts in different countries might interpret it differently. If a national court is in doubt about the interpretation or validity of an EU law, it can ask the Court for clarification. The same mechanism can be used to determine whether a national law or practice is compatible with EU law.
• 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.
 
The CJEU and you
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)

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.
 
What does the ECB do?
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.
 
Tasks in detail:
• 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.
 
Composition
The ECB President represents the Bank at high-level EU and international meetings. The ECB has the 3 following decision-making bodies:
• Governing Council – the main decision-making body. Consists of the Executive Board (see below) plus the governors of the national central banks from eurozone countries.
• 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
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.
 
How does the ECB work?
The ECB works with the national central banks of all EU countries. Together they form the European System of Central Banks.
 
It leads cooperation between central banks in the eurozone. This is referred to as the Eurosystem.
 
The work of the governing bodies:
• 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.
 
Other bodies
• 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.
 
 

Sources:

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

https://publications.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/9a6a89dc-4ed7-4bb9-a9f7-53d7f1fb1dae
Europe in 12 lessons (pdf)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democracy
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_Parliament
http://www.europarl.europa.eu/malta/en/home.html
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/President_of_the_European_Parliament
https://europa.eu/european-union/about-eu/institutions-bodies/european-council_en
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_Council
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/President_of_the_European_Union
https://europa.eu/european-union/about-eu/institutions-bodies/court-justice_en
https://europa.eu/european-union/about-eu/institutions-bodies/european-central-bank_en

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