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  • Writer's pictureChuka Nwanazia

Important European Union Institutions and How they Work

European Union in Brussels

Recently, we've heard a lot about the tussle between the EU and Britain (Brexit). Some countries seem to think that the EU has become less democratic and needs to change while Britain and some of her citizens believe that it's time to call it quits!

But what exactly is the European Union all about? And which are the most important institutions in the Union and how do they work?

The EU is a big body and explaining how all the different institutions within the body work would result in a very long article. This is the reason why I have taken a closer look at the most important institutions within the body and how they work.

The European Union is a political and economic unions that consists of 28 member states. The unique feature of the EU is that while these countries remain sovereign and independent, part of their "sovereignty" has been given to the EU so as to make sure that they are form a united front and develop a single market through the formulation of a standardised system of laws that applies to all 28 member states. These laws and policies aim to ensure the free movement of people, goods, services and capital within the single market.

European Union member states

The EU has achieved a lot since it was created in 1950. It has a single market for goods and services that spans 28 countries, with more than 500 million citizens who are free to settle wherever they want. It has introduced a common currency the euro, which is now one of the most important currencies in the world and helps the single market to be as efficient as possible. The EU is also the largest donor for development and humanitarian aid in the world and these are just a few of the successes so far. It is still doing much more, which has to do with the future - the EU is working on solutions for the current economic crisis and is at the forefront of combating climate change and its consequences.

EU Treaties

The European Union functions as a democratic state that prioritises the rule of law. This means that everything the EU does is based on treaties which are voluntarily and democratically agreed on by member states. Before joining the EU, these member states are presented with these treaties, negotiations take place and then both parties come to an agreement. These treaties also set the objectives of the European Union, as well as the rules for other institutions within the EU. It sets the tone for how decisions are taken, and the relationship between the EU and its member states. The treaties have also been changed three times in the past twenty years as the EU seeks to reform and change with time.

European Parliament Strasbourg

How Are Decisions Made in the EU?

The EU is a body that has to make a lot of important decisions that affect both member states and non member states. So, just how are these decisions made and who makes them?

Here are the bodies within the EU that are responsible for the decision making within the EU:

  • The European Parliament: these are representatives of the citizens of the EU and is directly voted in by them.

  • The European Council: consists of the Heads of States of member countries.

  • The Council: represents the governments of the EU Member States.

  • The European Commission: represents the entire interests of the EU.

The European Council sets the general political direction and the EU's priorities, but has no legislative task. In general, new legislation is always proposed by the European Commission, and then adopted by the Parliament and the Council. The Member States and the Commission then provide the implementation.

Every European legal act is based on a specific Treaty article, referred to as the "legal basis" of the legislation. That is what determines which legislative procedure should be followed. The Treaty sets the basis for the decision-making process, with proposals from the Commission, successive readings by the Council and the Parliament, and opinions from the advisory bodies. It also indicates in which cases unanimity is required, and in which cases the Council can adopt legislation by a qualified majority.

The majority of EU legislation is adopted through the so-called "co-decision procedure". In this procedure, the European Parliament shares legislative responsibilities with the Council.

That all citizens of the EU free are to travel, to settle and to work in all 27 countries of the EU is one of the main achievements of the European Union.

Through a "European citizens' initiative", EU citizens are allowed to propose new legislation to the members of the Commission on issues that they find crucial. The Commission will then carefully consider these requests from EU citizens and along with the Parliament hold hearings on how they can help the citizens. EU citizens, thus, have the power to affect the work of the EU institutions and the nature of their debate/discourse.

Economy Coordination

All EU countries are part of the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). This means that member states make economic decisions as a matter of common interest within the EU. In the context of EMU, there is no institution that is specifically responsible for general economic policy. These responsibilities are shared by the member states of the EU and the institutions within.

The EU Citizens' Vote

The European Parliament

European Parliament

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs, EPs) are directly elected by the citizens of the EU to represent them and protect their interests. Elections take place every five years and all EU citizens aged 18 years and older (16 years in Austria) are allowed to vote. Although MEPs are elected on a national basis, they sit according to political groups rather than their nationality. Each country has a set number of seats and is divided into sub-national constituencies where this does not affect the proportional nature of the voting system. The European Parliament has 751 members divided over 28 member states.

The official seat of the European Parliament is in Strasbourg (France), but the institution carries out its work in three places: Strasbourg, Brussels (Belgium) and Luxembourg. Plenary sessions of the Parliament take place 12 times a year in Strasbourg. Additional plenary sessions are always held in Brussels. The meetings of the parliamentary committees are also held in Brussels

How does the European Parliament work?

The parliament has three important tasks;

  • It shares the legislative power with the Council.

  • The fact that it is a directly elected body, contributes to the democratic legitimacy of the European legislation.

  • It exercises democratic control over the institutions in the EU, in particular, the Commission. It approves the appointment of the chairman and the members of the Commission, or can reject them and through the means of a no confidence vote can force the Commission to resign.

  • It shares budgetary power with the Council and can therefore influence EU spending. At the end of the budgetary procedure, the Parliament can approve the budget or reject it.

The European Council

A meeting of the European Council

The European Council consists of the political leaders of the EU, namely the President of the European Commission, the President of the European Council and one representative per member state. The Council meets at least four times a year to determine the political direction of the EU and the priorities as a whole.

What does the European Council do?

The European Council is an important gathering of Heads of State and Government of all EU countries, representing the highest level of political cooperation between EU member states. During their meetings, the leaders decide the general direction and priorities of the Union. It must be noted that the Council does not come up with legislation but is mainly tasked with leading the Union and deciding what direction the EU goes.

European Council meetings are held at least twice in a period of six months. Additionally, the Council can convene to discuss urgent issues on which decisions must be taken at the highest level, be it matters pertaining to the economy or foreign policy.

The Council of Europe is not an EU institution. It is an intergovernmental organization that aims to protect human rights, democracy and the rule of law. One of the first successes of the Council of Europe, which was established in 1949, was the establishment of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights. To give citizens the opportunity to exercise their rights under that Convention, the Council established the European Court of Human Rights. The Council of Europe currently has 47 Member States, including all EU countries, and its headquarter is located in Strasbourg (France).

The countries of the EU have a "Europe 2020" strategy developed to aid them in coming out of the economic crisis through smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. The ministers in the European Council make numerous decisions to ensure that this strategy becomes a reality.

The European Commission

Jean-Claude Junker. President of the European Commission

The European Commission is the legislative arm of the European Union and runs the day-to-day affairs of the EU. The Commission represents the Union in the outside world and operates as a cabinet government with commissioners and one of these commissioners serves as the President, appointed by the European Council. The daily operations of the Commission is being carried out by the commissioners who head areas of policy, experts, translators, and administrative staff.

What does the Commission do?

The European Commission has four main tasks:

  • Submit legislative proposals to the Parliament and the Council.

  • Implement European policies and the EU budget.

  • Enforce European law (together with the European Court of Justice).

  • Represent the Union to the rest of the world.

The Court of Justice of the European Union

Court of Justice of the European Union, Luxembourg

The judiciary arm of the EU is called the Court of Justice of the European Union. This Court ensures that EU legislation is enforced in all member states and that there is uniformity in the way it is interpreted and applied. In other words, it ensures that member states understand that there are equal rights for all EU citizens. The Court checks to this end the legality of the actions of EU institutions and ensure that member states comply with EU law, meet their obligations and also work closely with the national courts of member states. The Court also has jurisdiction to rule in legal disputes between member states, EU institutions, companies, individuals and cases referred to it by courts of member states.

In order to be able to handle the thousands of cases that are brought before the Court, the Court is divided into two bodies:

  • The Court of Justice, which hears applications from national courts; and

  • The General Court, which covers all the applications for annulment from individuals and businesses, and appeals from member states.

How does the Court of Justice work?

The Court of Justice consists of 28 judges, one per member state, so that the legal systems of all member states in the EU are well represented. These judges are appointed for terms of 6 years. The Court presides over cases in chambers of three or five judges (sometimes in a single room, so only one judge). About 80% of cases are presided over by a chamber of three judges. In some cases that are legally complicated or important, the Court may be presided over by 13 judges.

The Court of Justice consists of 1 judge per member state as well as 11 advocates generals. The General Court is made up of 47 judges and is to be increased to 56 in 2019.

The European Central Bank

European Central Bank, Frankfurt

The European Central Bank (ECB) is responsible for maintaining monetary stability in the euro area by ensuring low and stable consumer price inflation. Stable prices and low price inflation are essential for sustainable economic growth, since that encourages companies to invest and this creates new jobs and also increases the standard of living among European countries. The ECB is an independent institution and makes decisions without instructions from governments or other EU institutions. The ECB was established in 1998, at the same time when the euro was introduced. The main goal of the ECB is to maintain price stability within the eurozone.

Economic Governance: Who does what?

The Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) is an important element of the European Union, and all member states are members of this institution. Fiscal policy (taxes and expenses) remains in the hands of the governments of the member states as well as their labour markets and social policies. For the EMU to function effectively, the coordination of public finances and structural policy is very necessary. These responsibilities are divided amongst member states and some EU institutions - as stated below:

  • The European Council sets the main rules guiding the policies.

  • The Council coordinates economic policy and takes decisions that bind EU member states.

  • The EU member states set their national budgets within the agreed ceilings budget deficit and public debt, and determine their own structural policies on employment, pensions, social protection and markets.

  • The euro area countries coordinate policies that are of common interest to the euro zone, at the level of heads of state and their governments and at the level of finance ministers in the "Eurogroup".

  • The European Central Bank determines the monetary policy for the euro zone, with price stability as its primary objective.

  • The European Commission monitors what the EU member states do while formulating policy and recommendations.

  • The European Parliament shares the legislative task with the Council and exercises democratic control on member states.

There is so much more to the European Union. There are institutions like the European Investment Bank (EIB), The European Supervisory body for the protection of data, The European Ombudsman, European Committee of the Regions, The European Economic and Social Committee, The European Court of Auditors etc. The European Union (EU) is unique. It is not a federation of states like the United States of America, because its member states are all independent and sovereign nations. It is also not a purely intergovernmental organization such as the United Nations, because its members put all their sovereignty together by letting representatives within the Union's institutions make some important decisions for them. As a result, together, these nations have much more power and influence than they would individually have.

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