Having returned from Brussels yesterday, I can safely say the EU is a complex topic. I spent two hours visiting an exhibition within the EU buildings, and still didn’t get through all of the information before closing time. So my knowledge is not comprehensive, but in this post I will aim to outline how the EU in its current form works.
Geographical locations of power: Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg
There’s a popular shorthand used in the media when relaying anything about EU law: that it is “from Brussels” (which the tabloids often place in the context of “a diktat from Brussels”).
In fact, the work of the EU is located in three cities, and it is Strasbourg that is the official seat of the European Parliament. So what happens in each location?
Luxembourg is home to the General Secretariat, i.e. the administration offices. This is where the bulk of the translation of paperwork takes place so that each MEP has full access to information in their own language. The EU Court of Justice is also in Luxembourg.
Brussels is where the committee meetings are held. Plenary sessions (i.e. meetings of the whole Parliament) take place both in Brussels and in Strasbourg.
Strasbourg is where the majority of the parliamentary votes are held, during monthly plenary sessions. (The European Court of Human Rights is also in Strasbourg, but it is not an EU institution.)
The European Commission is based in both Strasbourg and Luxembourg.
Political locations of power: the seven institutions
There are seven recognized institutions that make up the European Union. They are the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union (the two together can broadly be considered the legislature), the European Commission (the executive), the European Council, the European Court of Justice (the judiciary), the European Central Bank, and the European Court of Auditors.
The European Parliament is comprised of MEPs from each member state, who are democratically elected every five years. They debate and pass EU laws and the budget in conjunction with the Council of the European Union, and scrutinize the work of the European Commission.
MEPs do not represent their national party, but instead join the EU group that most closely reflects the aims of their party. There are currently seven groups to choose from:
- Group of the European People’s Party (Christian Democrats), 221 members
- Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, 191 members (including Labour MEPs from the UK)
- European Conservatives and Reformists, 70 members (including Conservative MEPs and an Ulster Unionist Party MEP from the UK)
- Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, 67 members (including a Lib Dem MEP from the UK)
- Confederal Group of the European United Left / Nordic Green Left, 52 members (including a Sinn Fein MEP from the UK)
- Group of the Greens / European Free Alliance, 50 members (including Plaid Cymru, SNP and Green MEPs from the UK)
- Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy Group, 48 members (including UKIP MEPs from the UK)
There are also 52 non-attached members who do not affiliate themselves with any particular group.
The powers of the European Parliament were extended in 2009 through the Treaty of Lisbon, and it now acts in many areas that were previously the sole preserve of the Council of the European Union.
Council of the European Union
The Council of the European Union is composed of national ministers from each member state. It works together with the European Parliament to pass EU law and approve the budget. In parliamentary plenary sessions, the Council of the EU is usually represented by a minister from the country holding the Presidency, which changes every six months. The minister gives the European Parliament an account of the discussions taking place between the member states and puts forward their common position on legislative proposals.
The Council of the European Union also signs agreements between the EU and other countries, and coordinates cooperation between courts and police forces of member states.
The European Commission drafts proposals for EU laws and manages the day-to-day business of implementing EU policies. There are 28 Commissioners, one from each EU member state. The UK Commissioner is currently Catherine Ashton, and David Cameron has nominated Lord Hill as the next holder of the position.
Each member is assigned a particular area of policy by the President of the Commission. The President is elected for five years, with the presidency starting six months after the latest round of EU elections. José Manuel Barroso has served two terms in the past ten years, and will be replaced in November 2014 with Jean-Claude Juncker.
As well as proposing legislation, the Commission enforces EU law together with the European Court of Justice, ensuring that the national government of each member state adopts the agreed proposals.
The Commission is a powerful institution, but the European Parliament can, with a two-thirds majority, pass a motion of censure against it.
The European Council is an entirely separate institution from the Council of the European Union, despite the similarity in name. The European Council meets biannually and consists of the Heads of State or Government of the Member States, its President, and the President of the Commission.
The current President of the European Council is Herman Van Rompuy. He has some power to represent the EU externally as a kind of figurehead, and releases press statements on significant events, often in conjunction with President Barroso.
European Court of Justice
The European Court of Justice is the judicial arm of the European Union. Its composition and role are outlined here. The ECJ can impose fines upon member states if their governments have ignored direct requests to bring their national law in line with EU law.
European Central Bank
The European Central Bank is, as the name suggests, the central bank for the Euro and aims to ensure economic stability amongst the eighteen countries who use the currency.
European Court of Auditors
The European Court of Auditors is made up of 28 members, one from each EU country, and meets around twice a month. The members elect a President who serves a renewable three-year term. The Portuguese member, Mr Vítor Manuel da Silva Caldeira, is currently serving his third term as President of the ECA. The ECA audits the EU’s finances, and their website has more detailed information on how this works.
That is what the EU looks like in its current form. I will revisit the topic in a future post (or possibly posts!), looking at the UK’s relationship with the EU, with some examples of legislation and of how to read between the lines of EU-related media coverage.