The European Union at a Glance¬†
What is European Union and why does it exist? These are two questions which are often asked.
I have included below a brief history of the European Union and a brief insight into the EU institutions.
If you would like to read further please click below;
The historical roots of the European Union can be traced back to the aftermath of World War Two.¬† Europe had been ravaged by two world wars in the early part of the twentieth century; countries lay in ruins, food supplies were uncertain and economies had been damaged. The countries of Europe needed a new way of overcoming the divisions on their continent.
In 1952 the first steps towards European integration were taken when the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was established by Germany, France, Italy and the Benelux countries; Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxembourg. This was facilitated by the signing of a treaty in Paris, known as the Treaty of Paris.
The six founding countries created a common market for steel and coal; a resource that was required by all countries if economies were to be rebuilt after the Second World War. The common market brought the six countries together as equals, co-operating through shared institutions.
Such was the success of the ECSC; the founding six members signed the Treaty of Rome in 1957. This extended their co-operation by creating a common market in a wide range of goods and services. The community became known as the European Economic Community.¬†¬†
The European Economic Community (EEC) saw the removal of custom duties between the members and common policies were established between them – most notably in trade and agriculture (this was the beginning of the Common Agricultural Policy).
In 1973, the first enlargement of the EEC took place. This saw Ireland, the United Kingdom and Denmark join the community. Around the same time, in the 1960’s, the community took on new responsibilities in the areas of environment, social and regional policies.¬† Further enlargements quickly followed in the 1980’s. Greece joined in 1981 and Spain and Portugal joined in 1986.
In 1993, the EEC was renamed to the ‘European Community’. This occurred when the Treaty on the European Union, also known as the Maastricht Treaty, came into force. This treaty added new areas of intergovernmental co-operation to the existing Community system. This ultimately led to the European Union (EU)¬†
1995 saw Austria, Finland and Sweden joining the European Community, which brought the total number of members to 15.
In 1997 the Amsterdam Treaty came into effect, placing greater emphasis on the rights of the European citizen. This was followed by the Nice Treaty in 2001. The Nice Treaty reformed the internal structure of the EU, preparing it for the 2004 enlargement.
In the mid 1990’s the EU received membership applications from ten countries; former Soviet Bloc countries, (Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), one of the republics of the former Yugoslavia (Slovenia) and two Mediterranean countries (Cyprus and Malta). Negotiations with the applicant countries were successfully completed in 2002. 2004 then saw the ten new members joining the EU under an Irish Presidency. The most recent additions to the EU since 2004 have been Romania and Bulgaria, both of whom joined on January 1st 2007.
The most recent development in the EU story is the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. The Lisbon Treaty, which endured a difficult ratification, equips the EU to address present and future challenges, i.e. climate change, energy security and food security challenges.
Fifty years after its creation, with over 500 million citizens and twenty three official languages, the European Union remains essentially what it always has been; a family of democratic European countries, committed to working together for peace and prosperity
The European Parliament explained
The European Parliament is probably the single EU institution which has changed and developed the most since the foundation of the Union. Once, a modest supervisory body, today it is the only multinational parliamentary assembly in the world. Elected by universal suffrage every five years by the citizens of Europe and with serious legislative, budgetary and decision-making powers the European Parliament is truly unique.
The official seat of the European Parliament is in Strasbourg, on the border between France and Germany; a location symbolic of the re-unification of Europe after two world wars.¬† As decided by member states, Parliament meets twelve times a year in Strasbourg to vote in plenary session. The Parliament holds its committees in Brussels during the rest of the year, where some additional plenary sessions are also held.
History of the European Parliament¬†
Up until 1979 the European Parliament members were appointed by their national governments. The first elections to the Parliament in 1979 saw this change with the first legislature being elected by universal suffrage. Elections have since been held every five years.¬† MEPs are elected by proportional representation and every citizen has the right to vote at 18. There is equality between men and women and the principle is written into the European election law. Moreover, every EU citizen of a member state who lives in another country of the EU may vote or stand for election in their country of residence. The current number of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) is 752. However, due to the rules of the Lisbon Treaty, this number will be reduced to 736 at the next election in 2014¬†
The adoption of the Single European Act (SEA) in 1986 revised the founding Treaties of the EU; the Treaties of Rome. This gave more momentum to European integration and allowed for the completion of the internal market. The European Parliament’s powers were enhanced greatly under the SEA. Parliament was given substantial legislative powers, which saw it co-operating closely with the European Council. Under the Maastricht Treaty in 1991 the European Parliament’s powers were again increased as it became fully incorporated into a co-decision-making procedure with the European Council. This procedure entails stronger contact between the Parliament and the Council in order to reach agreement on legislative proposals. Today, Parliament enjoys co-legislative powers with the European Council in a number of important EU laws making areas; including health, education, transport and the completion of the internal market.¬†
The European Parliament plays an important role in monitoring activities within the European Commission and the European Council. Subsequent Treaties have widened the role of the Parliament in EU affairs and widened the scope its decision-making powers. The Parliament also oversees the expenditure of the EU; it has the power to reject the budget and demand a new draft if it believes that not enough consideration has been paid to the Union’s priorities.
The European Parliament participates in EU foreign policy; its assent is required for any international treaty that the EU may sign up to as well as for any enlargement of the Union. Human rights issues are debated in Parliament and it is a guardian of freedom and democracy.
In short, the European Parliament has grown and developed substantially since the inception of the EU. It is a unique institution given that it represents the views of over 500 million European citizens.
The Organization of the European Parliament
The European Parliament meets and debates in public. The decisions, positions and proceedings of the Parliament are published in the Journal of the European Parliament, which is publicly available. Life and work in the European Parliament are reflected by the calendar of the Parliament. The calendar provides a structure to allow the Parliament’s activities to occur in an organized manner.
MEPs spend one week each month at a plenary session in the Parliament’s official seat in Strasbourg, when Parliament meets to vote. In addition, two-day plenary sessions are held in Brussels about six times a year. Furthermore, two weeks in every month are set aside for meetings of Parliament’s Committees in Brussels. The remaining week in the month are devoted to meetings of the political groups – during which reports from Parliament’s committees are discussed in light of their political views. The political groups decide their voting intention here before the vote in Strasbourg.
Parliament works in all the official languages of the European Union. This is done with the assistance of translators and interpreters.¬† From January 2007 Irish Romanian and Bulgarian became the newest official languages of the EU bringing the total number to 23 – the others being: Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Slovak, Slovene, Spanish and Swedish. The European Parliament’s General Secretariat, or civil service, responsible for translation and interpretation is located in Luxembourg; for practical reasons, however, a number of officials and the staff of political groups work in Brussels.
The Political Groups¬†
In the European Parliament, MEPs do not sit in their national delegations, but rather within their political group. The political group system in the European Parliament is a very specific and special one. Instead of sticking with national interests, MEPs from political parties across the EU come together in supranational groupings, representing common interests. Parliament currently has seven political groupings – each of differing in perspective. Each political group has a chairman, a bureau and a secretariat. Those Members that do not belong to any political groups are known as ‘non – attached members’.
The political groups of the European Parliament are not political parties in the traditional sense; they are the legislative branch of a pan European political party.
In Europe, Fine Gael is a member of the European People’s Party (EPP) with 265 members. It is a centre-right pro-European political party. The European People’s Party is the largest group in the European Parliament, which means that Mair√©ad and her Fine Gael colleagues; Gay Mitchell (the head of the Fine Gael delegation), Sean Kelly and Jim Higgins, are very well positioned to express their views and the concerns of their constituents.¬†
The European political parties play an important role in the integration of Europe given that they contribute to forming a European awareness and to expressing the political will of the European citizens.
The Parliamentary Committees¬†¬†¬†
Parliament’s standing committees do the preparatory work for the plenary sessions that take place in Strasbourg. MEPs sit on two parliamentary committees being a Full Member on one and a Substitute Member on the other.¬† Each committee appoints a chairman and a vice chairman. Each committee also has a secretariat.
Parliamentary committees draw up reports and own- initiative reports and adopts reports on the legislative proposals that originate in the European Commission. This is done by appointing an MEP in the committee as draftsman or drafts woman. They also draw up opinions on reports being discussed in other standing committees.
When matters of political importance arise Parliament has the power to set up temporary committees and committees of inquiry. These committees work for a set period of time and to a strict mandate.
Additionally, MEPs may also sit on joint parliamentary committees, which maintain relations with national parliaments of EU applicant countries, and also overseas delegations, which maintain relations with parliaments in non-EU countries.
The Secretariat of the European Parliament consists of the civil service element of the Parliament. Almost 4,000 officials are recruited by competition. In addition to these officials, the political groups have their own staff and Members of the European Parliament have their own assistants.
The European parliament has to work under the constraints of multilingualism – which accounts for about one third of its staff and a large part of its budget. Further to this the separation between Strasbourg, Brussels and Luxembourg means that costs are divided once again. Running the European Parliament costs each individual European citizen less than three euro per year.¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†
The Presidency, Bureau and Conference of Presidents
The President chairs the plenary sittings of Parliament, the Conference of the Presidents of Political Groups (seven in number) and the Bureau of Parliament (including 14 Vice-Presidents); is responsible for the application of the Rules of Procedure of Parliament, and, oversees all the activities of Parliament and its bodies. The President also represents Parliament in its international relations. The Parliament’s President is elected from amongst his or her colleagues, usually, for a period of two and a half years at the beginning and middle of each five-year parliamentary term.
The Bureau is the regulatory body responsible for European Parliament’s budget and for administrative, organisational and staff matters. In addition to the President and fourteen Vice-Presidents, it includes, five Quaestors, who are responsible for administrative matters relating directly to MEPs. Quaestors are elected by MEP colleagues and respond to their requirements. Mairead’s Fine Gael colleague Mr. Jim Higgins is currently a Quaestor.
The Conference of Presidents is the governing body of the European Parliament; responsible for the organization of Parliament and its administration. Responsible for Parliament’s organization, it establishes the size and terms of reference of parliamentary committees and delegations, decides on the distribution of seats in the Chamber and draws up the timetable and agenda for plenary sessions.
The Council of the European Union – The Voice of the Member States
Created in the founding treaties of the 1950’s, the European Council, with the intention of establishing an informal forum for discussion between the Heads of State or Government it has rapidly developed into the body which defines the goals and ambitions for the European Union.
The Council of the European Union or simply, the Council, as it is often commonly referred to, acquired a formal status under the 1992 Treaty of Maastricht. The Treaty defined its function as providing the general political guidelines for the EU’s development.¬† On 1 December 2009,¬†with the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon, it became one of the seven official institutions of the European Union. It is now the main decision making body of the Union, alongside the European Parliament. Its President is former Belgian premier, Mr. Herman Van Rompuy.
The Council represents the Member States of the European Union; meetings are attended by government ministers. Which minster attends Council meetings depends upon the subject on the agenda. For example; if the Council is to discuss agricultural issues then it is the agricultural minister from each member state who attends. The meeting is therefore known as an ‘Agricultural Council’.
There are nine council configurations altogether; Economics and Financial Affairs (ECOFIN); Justice and Home Affairs (JHA); Employment, Social Policy, health and Consumer Affairs; Competitions; Transport; Telecommunications and Energy; Agriculture and Fisheries: Environment; Education, Youth and Culture; and General Affairs and External Relations (international affairs).
Each minster is empowered at these to sign legislation on behalf of their Member State; this means that their signature represents their government as a whole. Council Ministers are answerable to their governments, their national parliaments and the voters they represent. This ensures the democratic legitimacy of the Council’s decisions.
Four times a year the presidents and/or the prime ministers of the EU member states, together with the President of the European Commission, meet as the European Council. These ’summit’ meetings set the overall objectives of the European Union and aim to resolve issues that could not be settled at a lower level (i.e. by the ministers at normal Council meetings).
What does Council do?
1. To pass European laws, jointly with the European Parliament in many policy areas;
2. To coordinate the broad economic and social policies of the member states; The EU countries have decided that they want an overall economic policy based on close coordination between their national economic policies. This coordination is carried out by the economics and finance ministers, who collectively form the Economic and Financial Affairs (Ecofin) Council.
3. To conclude international agreements between the EU and other countries or international organisations;
4. To approve the EU’s budget, jointly with the European Parliament;
5. To develop the EU’s common foreign and security policy (CFSP), based on guidelines set by the European Council; The member states of the EU are working to develop a CFSP but foreign policy, security and defence matters are matters over which the individual national governments retain independent control. They have not pooled their national sovereignty in these areas, so Parliament and the European Commission play only a limited role in these matters.
¬†6. To coordinate cooperation between the national courts and police forces in criminal matters
Tackling cross-border crime requires cross-border cooperation between the national courts, police forces, customs officers and immigration services of all EU countries. EU citizens should have equal access to civil justice everywhere in the European Union, which requires national courts to work together.
Most of the above responsibilities relate to the ‘Community’ domain – i.e. areas of action where the member states have decided to pool their sovereignty and delegate decision-making powers to the EU institutions. This domain is the ‘first pillar’ of the European Union. However, the last two responsibilities relate largely to areas in which the member states have not delegated their powers but are simply working together. This is called ‘inter-governmental cooperation’ and it covers the second and third ‘pillars’ of the European Union.
How is the Council’s work organised?¬†
In Brussels, each member state has a permanent team (‘representation’) that represents it and defends its national interest at EU level. The head of each representation is, in effect, that country’s ambassador to the EU.
The ambassadors are known as ‘permanent representatives’ and meet weekly within the Permanent Representatives Committee (Coreper). The role of this committee is to prepare the work of the Council.
The current Head of the Permanent Representation of Ireland to the European Union is Mr Rory Montgomery.
The Council Presidency
The presidency of the Council rotates every six months. In other words, each EU country in turn takes charge of the Council agenda and chairs all the meetings for a six month period, promoting legislative and political decisions and brokering compromises between the member states.
The General Secretariat¬†¬†
The Presidency of the Council is assisted by the General Secretariat, which prepare and ensures the smooth functioning of the Council’s work.
The Secretary- General is assisted by a Deputy Secretary – General in charge of managing the General Secretariat.
Learn more about the Council’s work here
The European Commission – Promoting the Union’s Common Interest¬†¬†
The European Commission is independent of national government; established in the 1950’s its job is to represent and uphold the interests of the EU as a whole.
The European Commission or simply ‘the Commission’ drafts proposals for new European laws which it then presents to the European Parliament (EP) and the Council. It is also the EU’s executive arm; this means that it is responsible for implementing the decisions of Parliament and the Council. In other words, the Commission manages the day to day running of the EU; implementing its policies, running its programmes and spending its funds.
The term ‘Commission’ is used in two senses. Firstly, it refers to the Commissioners – the men and women appointed to run the institution and to take decisions. These men and women are more commonly known as ‘Commissioners’; they have all held political office in their countries of origin, but as Members of the Commission they are committed to acting in the interests of the Union as a whole and not taking instructions from national governments. Secondly, it refers to the institution itself and its staff.
A new Commission is appointed every five years, within six months of elections to the European Parliament. All new Commissioners must be approved by the European Parliament. For example, the candidate for the Agriculture Commissioner must answer questions from the agriculture committee of the European Parliament. In reality this element of the selection process is a job interview, which is usually three hours in duration. If Parliament is not satisfied it has the power to reject a candidate.
The Commission remains politically accountable to Parliament, which has the powers to dismiss the whole Commission by a adopting a motion of censure. Furthermore, individual members of the Commission must resign if asked to do so by Commission President and the other commissioners approve.
The Commission is represented at all Parliament meetings, where it clarifies and justifies its policies. It also replies to written and oral questions put forward by the MEPs.
The day to day running of the Commission is carried out by the administrative officials, experts, translators, interpreters and secretarial staff. There are approximately 25,000 European civil servants, which may sound like a lot, but this is actually fewer than the number of additional staff employed by the HSE in Ireland which employs 35,000 additional staff on top of its core employee base of 65,000.
What does the Commission do?
The Commission has four main roles;
1. To propose legislation to Parliament and the Council;
2. To manage and implement EU policies and the budget;
3. To enforce EU law (jointly with the Court of Justice);
4. To represent the European Union on the international stage, for example by negotiations agreements between the EU and other countries;
1. Promoting New Legislation
The Commission has the ‘right of initiative’, in other words, the Commission is responsible for drawing up proposals for new EU legislation, which it then presents to Parliament and the Council. These proposals must aim to defend the interests of the EU and its citizens, rather those of individual countries or industries.
The Commission will only propose legislation if a problem cannot be solved more efficiently by national, regional or local action. This principle of dealing with things at the lowest possible level is called the ’subsidiarity principle’
2. To manage and implement EU policies and the budget
The Commission is responsible for managing and implementing the EU budget. The majority of the actual spending is done by national and local authorities, but the Commission acts as a watchdog, supervising this expenditure.
Additionally the Commission also has to implement decisions taken by Parliament and Council in regard to the Common Agricultural Policy, fisheries, energy, regional development, the environment, or youth and educational training and exchange schemes such as the Erasmus programme.
3. To enforce EU law (jointly with the Court of Justice (ECJ))
The Commission acts as ‘guardian of the Treaties’. This means that the Commission, together with the Court of Justice, is responsible for making sure EU law is properly applied in all the member states.
¬†If the Commission finds that a member state is not applying an EU law, and thereby not meeting its legal obligations, it will take steps to put the situations right. These steps could include referring the matter to the ECJ, which has the power to impose penalties. If a Member state continues to breech a judgement, the Court can impose financial sanctions on that country.
4. Representing the EU on the international stage¬†
The European Commission is an important spokesperson for the European Union on the international stage. It is the voice of the EU in international forums such as the World Trade Organization, in negotiations on international climate change agreements, the Kyoto Protocol, and the EU’s international aid and trade partnerships with developing nations in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific.
How is the Commission’s work organised?¬†
The Commission generally meets once a week in Brussels where each item on the agenda is presented by the Commissioner responsible for that policy area and decision are taken on the specific item.
The Commission’s staff is organised in departments, known as ‘directorates-general’ (DGs) and ’services’ (legal services). Each DG is responsible for a particular policy areas and is headed a director -general who is answerable to one of the Commissioners. It is the DGs that actually devise and draft legislative proposals, but these proposals only become official when ‘adopted’ by the Commission at the weekly meetings.
For more information on the European Commission, please¬†click here