The Council of the European Union, also known as “Council of Ministers” or simply “Council”, is the main legislator of the European Union (EU). While in most cases it exercises together with the European Parliament legislative and budgetary powers, it has wider scope over the European Union’s policy areas, since it carries out exclusive law and policy-making, as well as coordinating functions.
It is composed of the 27 Member States’ national ministers or representatives at ministerial level authorized to commit their respective national government, for the relevant topic of discussion. Although the Council is a single entity, meetings are organised for each policy area separately. Foreign ministers for example meet to examine foreign policy issues. Similarly, agriculture ministers meet to deal with agriculture policy, while finance ministers handle economic and financial affairs. To cover the whole range of European policies, EU Ministers meet in 10 Council configurations depending on the subjects under discussion.
All the work of the Council is prepared and coordinated by a number of specific committees and working groups consisting of delegates from the Member States. This work is further elaborated and structured by “COREPER”, the Committee of Permanent Representatives, consisting of the Member States’ representatives (ambassadors) to the European Union.
The Member States' ambassadors (COREPER members) also participate in the Political and Security Committee (PSC), which deals with issues under the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and related international issues.
Apart from the Foreign Affairs Council, all other Council meetings, as well as the meetings of its preparatory bodies, are chaired by the Member State holding the rotating Presidency, and their frequency varies depending on the issues dealt with. The Presidency proposes guidelines and draws up the compromises needed for the Council decisions. The Council decisions are directly relevant to the European citizens’ lives and have a considerable international impact. The Council
- adopts legislative acts, in many cases in co-decision with the European Parliament;
- helps coordinate Member States national policies;
- develops the common foreign and security policy, on the basis of the strategic guidelines set by the European Council;
- concludes international agreements on behalf of the European Union;
- adopts the European Union’s budget together with the European Parliament.
While in most cases decisions are taken by qualifying majority voting, in some other cases unanimity is required. The number of votes each Member State can cast is set by the Treaties who also define the cases in which a simple majority, a qualified majority or unanimity are required.
Founded in 1952 as the “Common Assembly” of the European Coal and Steel Community and renamed to the “European Parliament Assembly” in 1958, upon establishment of the European Economic Community by the Treaty of Rome, it became the “European Parliament” in 1962 and the first direct elections took place in 1979. Ever since, elections are organized every five years and the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are directly elected by all citizens who are entitled to vote throughout the European Union (EU). The last elections took place in 2009 and the current 754 MEPs will serve till 2014.
The evolution of the European Parliament’s power and scope is closely linked to a succession of treaties culminating in the Lisbon Treaty. It is the only directly elected institution of the EU and it has been steadily gaining power over recent decades. Now, it acts as a co-legislator for nearly all EU legislative acts and has major supervisory powers over the activities of the EU:
- Legislative powers: it shares legislative power equally with the Council of the European Union. This means that it is empowered to adopt European laws. It can accept, amend or reject the content of the European legislation. It has also a power of political initiative since it can ask the European Commission to present legislative proposals. It plays a genuine role in creating new laws, by examining the Commission’s annual work programme and says which laws it would like to see introduced.
- Budgetary powers: the European Parliament together with the Council of the European Union constitute the Union’s budgetary authority, which decides each year on its expenditure and revenue. The procedure of examining, debating and then adopting the budget, takes place between May and December.
- Supervisory powers: over the European Commission in particular, the European Parliament exercises democratic control. This means that both the synthesis and the work of the European Commission must be approved by the European Parliament. Indeed the President and then the College of Commissioners as a whole shall be endorsed by the European Parliament before take office. It has also the power to censure or even dismiss the European Commission.
Beyond these official powers, the European Parliament maintains close links with the Member States’ national parliaments through regular meetings. This has been particularly the case ever since the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon, often referred to as the “Treaty of Parliaments”.
Once elected, the MEPs are organised in political groups to better defend their positions throughout Europe. Currently there are seven political groups representing all political tendencies. However, some MEPs are not affiliated to any political group and are thus known as “non-attached” Members.
The President of the European Parliament is elected for a renewable term of 2,5 years (half the term of the European Parliament). He represents the European Parliament within and outside the EU. He is assisted by 14 Vice-Presidents and oversees all the work of the European Parliament as well as the debates in plenary. The current President is Martin Schulz, member of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats in the European Parliament.
Most of the European Parliament’s work is done by its 20 permanent standing committees that prepare reports to be debated and voted on the plenary sittings. 12 plenary sessions are held each year in Strasbourg, France and 6 more (“mini – sessions”) in Brussels, Belgium.
Being a representative of all European citizens, the European Parliament’s multilingualism has become one of its most important aspects. Parliamentary documents are published in all the 23 official languages of the EU and every MEP has the right to speak in any official language of his choice.
The European Parliament is also a committed defender of human rights and democracy in Europe and abroad. The Charter of Fundamental Rights in the EU sets out the civil, political, economic and social rights of all individuals, while the Sakharov Prize is awarded every year to honour individuals or organisations for their efforts on behalf of fundamental freedoms.
The European Commission is one of the key institutions created in the early 1950s by the founding treaty establishing the European Community. Ever since the institution has evolved to match the Commission’s changing role and to reflect progress made in European governance.
The College of Commissioners represents the apex of the whole Commission’s structure involving about 40 different services. It carries the political responsibility for the actions undertaken by the Commission, while the operational implementation is delegated to Directors-General and Head of Services, who lead the administrative structure of the European Commission. Once the President of the European Commission is elected, the European Council appoints 26 more members in agreement with the nominated President. The 27 Commissioners, one per member state, who are responsible for a separate policy area, form the College of Commissioners. They are appointed by the European Council, upon Member States’ proposal, for a 5-year mandate and they are completely independent of national interest in the performance of their duties. The full College of 27 Commissioners is subject to a vote of approval by the European Parliament. The actual President is José Manuel Durão Barroso elected in 2010 for a second term. The “Barroso Commission 2010 – 2014” counts 8 Vice-Presidents, among them, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton. She chairs the Foreign Affairs Council and conducts the Common Foreign and Security Policy. Drawing on her role as Vice-President of the European Commission, she ensures the consistency and coordination of the European Union's external action.
The Commission works under the political guidance of its President who also decides on its internal organisation to ensure consistency, efficiency and collegiality. The principle of collegiality means that the Commission is responsible as a whole for decisions and actions taken and not one individual Commissioner.
The mission of the European Commission is to promote the general interest of the European Union. It does so by participating in the decision – making process, in particular by:
- presenting proposals for European law, and
- overseeing the correct implementation of the Treaties and European law.
The Commission also carries out an important range of financial and managerial tasks.
At the beginning of its mandate, the Commission sets its strategic objectives for the coming 5 years. These strategic objectives feed into more detailed year-on-year political priorities in the Annual Policy Strategy who are translated into operational objectives through the Commission Legislative and Work Programme. The implementation of the Work Programme is closely monitored by central services of the Commission in order to ensure that priority items are delivered in a timely and coherent way.
The Commission’s rules of procedure generally require the Commissioners to meet once a week, generally at Wednesdays, in Brussels, at the Berlaymont building that houses its headquarters. Alongside its weekly meetings the Commission may hold emergency or special meetings if necessary. Decisions are taken collectively on the basis of proposals put forward by one or more or its members. It has four ways of deciding:
- During its regular weekly meetings any member of the Commission can call for a vote. The Commission decides by simple majority and the President has a casting vote;
- by written procedure: the proposal is circulated in writing to all members of the Commission;
- by empowerment: the Commission can empower one or more of its members to decide in its name;
- by delegation: the Commission can delegate some decisions to directors-general and head of services, who then act in its name.
The Commission is committed to working in an open manner. It endeavours to communicate actively about what it does and the decisions it takes. Before initiating legislation and policies the Commission must consult widely the civil society organisations and all stakeholders throughout the policy chain according to the “minimum standards for consultation of interested parties” approved.
Moreover her work is subject to the European Parliament political control and to the European Court of Auditors’ audit exercise. The Court examines the collection and spending of the European Union funds to assess whether financial operations have been legally executed and through this, to ensure efficient and effective management of the European tax payer contribution. The Court makes the result of its work known through the publication of relevant and timely reports.
The Court of Justice was initially established in 1952 by the founding treaty of the European Coal and Steel Community. Alongside of the European construction, the member states concluded treaties establishing first the European Communities and then the European Union (EU).
The Court of Justice of the European Union is actually the judicial institution of the European Union and of the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). It thus constitutes the judicial authority of the European Union and in cooperation with the national courts and tribunals of the member states it ensures the uniform application and interpretation of the European Union law and its primacy over national law. It has its seat in Luxembourg and consists of three courts:
- The Court of Justice,
- The General Court, created in 1988 and
- The Civil Service Tribunal, created in 2004
Their primary task is to examine that law is observed in the interpretation and application of the Treaties. As part of that mission, the Court of Justice of the European Union ensures that the member states comply with obligations under the Treaties and interprets EU law at the request of the national courts and tribunals.
Since their establishment, approximately 15 000 judgments have been delivered by all three courts.
The Court of Justice is composed of one judge per member state, currently 27 and 8 Advocates General, all appointed for a renewable 6 years term, by member states’ governments after consultation of a panel on the prospective candidates’ suitability. The hearings of cases are usually conducted in panel of three, five or thirteen judges. The Judges of the Court of Justice elect one of themselves as President for a renewable term of 3 years. The President directs the work of the Court and presides at hearings and deliberations. Since 2003 the Court has been led by President Vassilios Skouris. The Advocates General assists the Court and for the cases assigned to them they are responsible for presenting an impartial and independent “opinion”.
As each member state has its own language and specific legal system, the Court of Justice of the EU is a multilingual institution. Its language arrangements have no equivalent in any other court in the world, since each of the official languages of the European Union can be the language of a case. The Court is required to observe the principle of multilingualism in full, because of the need to communicate with the parties in the language of the proceedings and to ensure that its case-law is disseminated throughout the member states.
The European Central Bank was established in 1998 by the Treaty of Amsterdam, in the framework of the Economic and Monetary Union of the European Union. It is the central bank for Europe’s single currency, the “Euro” and its primary objective is to maintain price stability (low inflation rates) within the “Euro area” or “Eurozone”, consisting of the European Union’s Member States that have adopted the “Euro” as their common currency. The Eurozone entered into force in 1999 when, for the first time ever, responsibility for monetary policy was transferred, according to the Treaty, from the 11, at that time, national central banks to the European Central Bank. Member States willing to join the Eurozone and prior to adopt the “Euro” had to fulfil the “convergence criteria” of the economic and legal conditions. Currently the Eurozone counts today 17 Member States of the European Union.
The creation of the Eurozone and of a new supranational institution, the European Central Bank, was an important milestone in the long process of European integration.
The European Central Bank is indeed established as the core of the European System of Central Banks (ESCB) formed by the national central banks (NCB) of all EU Member States whether they have adopted the Euro and are members of the Eurozone or not. It’s headquartered in Frankfurt, Germany and has legal personality under public international law.
It is actually responsible for conducting monetary policy for the Euro area, the world’s largest economy after the United States. Among other tasks laid down by the Treaty, the European Central Bank has the responsibility for the smooth operation of payments system, the financial stability and supervision, as well as the exclusive right to authorise the issuance of banknotes within the Euro area.
The day–to–day management and decisions’ implementation is assured by the Executive Board consisting of the President, the Vice-President and 4 more members, all appointed for non-renewable term of 8 years by the European Council. The current President of the European Central Bank is Mario Draghi.
The main decision–making body of the European Central Bank is the Governing Council that consists of the 6 members of the aforementioned Executive Board plus the governors of the national central banks of the 17 Euro area countries. It usually meets twice a month in Frankfurt. At its first meeting each month assesses the economic situation and the stance of the monetary policy. Decisions on the key interest rates are normally taken during that meeting and the overall monetary policy decisions are explained in detail at a press conference held shortly after this meeting. The President, assisted by the Vice-President, chairs the press conference. At its second meeting the Governing Council discuss other issues related to the responsibilities of the European Central Bank.
Advisory Bodies and Organisations
It was established in 1992 by the Treaty of Maastricht, which constituted it, officially, together with the European Economic and Social Committee, as one of the advisory bodies of the European Union (EU), initially for 5 thematic areas. Soon after, the Treaty of Amsterdam and, later on, the Lisbon Treaty provided the Committee of the Regions with additional “power”, increasing, at the same time, the mandatory areas of consultation to 14 (including cohesion, health, education, transport, environment, energy etc).
Currently, the Committee of the Regions (CoR) expresses the “multi-level governance”, promoted by the EU; that is the active involvement of local and regional authorities in European affairs. Besides, the rationale for establishing the CoR was based on two main arguments:
- the attempt to make Europe accessible to its citizens (considering the principle of subsidiarity)
- the fact that 2/3 (more or less 75%) of European legislation is being applied on local (national) and regional level
It constitutes a “political assembly”, composed by elected people from local and regional authorities of all 27 Member States (mayors, head of local/regional authorities). More specifically, it comprises of 344 permanent members and the same number of deputy members. Despite the fact that these members are being appointed for a period of 5 years by the Council of the European Union, their appointment is rather informal, considering the fact that the Council does not “appoint” non-elected people. For countries, however, that do not have elected regional authorities to represent them at the CoR, their local authorities (municipalities and communities) are the ones that play an important role for their representation, and their presence, in general, at the CoR and the rest EU institutions.
The Bureau of the CoR consists of 60 members, whereas the President and the Vice-President usually come from countries that have a long tradition on local authorities and very influential regions. The current President is Ramon Luis Valcárcel Siso.
The main task of CoR is the preparation of reports/ opinions on the 14 aforementioned areas (and not limited to that), aiming to influence both the decision making procedure, as well as the legislative work of the EU. The drafting and preparation of these opinions follows a “standard” procedure, based on the 6 thematic committees, which the CoR is constructed of. All opinions are assessed by the Plenary of the CoR and those approved they are published on the Official Journal of the EU.
An important, as well as illustrative, expression of the role and influence of the CoR upon the current European affairs is the co-organisation, together with the Directorate General of Regional Policy, of the “Open days” event (usually every October in Brussels), which is a dialogue and exchange of experiences’ platform, among all regional and local authorities of the EU. In 2011, 57000 people and 110 working groups participated in this event, which held the title “geography matters”, in an attempt to emphasize even more the importance of local dimension.
A “European and Social Committee” was initially set up in 1957 by the Treaty of Rome, as a forum to promote economic and social interest groups’ voice on issues regarding the common market. In its actual form, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) is considered as the institutional body representing EU’s civil society organisations. It is one of the two consultative bodies of the EU that gives a formal platform for socioeconomic and civil society representatives to express their views on European legislation and European policy issues.
It has 344 members drawn from economic and social interest groups across EU. Members are nominated by national governments and appointed by the Council of the EU for a renewable 5 year term of office. The President, currently Staffan Nilsson, is elected for a 2,5 year term. The latest renewal was in October 2010 covering the 2010 – 2015 mandate.
To carry on his work, the EESC’s members are separated in three main groups of equal number: the employers, the employees and the various interests’ groups representing farmers, consumers groups, environmental associations, professional associations, NGOs, etc. However, specific policy matters are examined by its 6 sections. Plenary sessions are organised nine times a year and opinions are adopted on the basis of section opinions by a simple majority.
Consultation of the EESC by the European Commission or the Council of the EU is mandatory in certain cases, while in others it’s optional. The Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty extended the range of EESC’s mandate. The Amsterdam Treaty further broadens the areas for referral and also allows it to be consulted by the European Parliament. The EESC may however also adopt opinions on its own initiative.
On average the EESC delivers 170 advisory documents and opinions a year, of which about 15% are issued on its own initiative. All opinions are forwarded to the European Union’s decision making bodies and then published in the EU’s Official Journal. It thus has a key role to play in the EU’s decision making process.
During the last few years the EESC has taken up the challenge of civil society promoting a more participatory European integration within the EU and across the world. In this framework the EESC collaborates worldwide with other socioeconomic councils and similar organisations at the “International Meetings” held every 2 years.