The European Union is a supranational union, which means that the Member States cede some of their sovereign rights to the EU and its institutions. Hence, Member States show a substantial amount of trust in the EU. They acknowledge that in many policy areas, it is ultimately more beneficial for all countries involved if decisions are made and actions taken with the interests of the entire Union in mind – even where doing so occasionally may run counter to the particular interests of any individual country. At least, that’s the ideal.
In order to make this work, a complex and well-crafted organisational setup is of the essence. This is why the essential treaties of the EU are in a constant process of amendment. The treaties are the operating instructions for the EU, give it legal personality (meaning that the EU can act in its own right and not only as a collective of Member States), and define its responsibilities, working methods, and legitimacy vis-à-vis the citizens. Accordingly, they always need to reflect the Member States’ agreement on the role of the EU and the constituency’s democratic ownership of the Union.
As a result, the treaties have defined three tiers of EU responsibilities:
- Exclusive competence, where only the EU can make laws and act on them;
- Shared competence, where the EU can only make laws and act in concert with the Member States; and
- The competence to provide support and coordination to the Member States.
The shared and support competences follow two basic tenets:
- Subsidiarity, which entails that the EU may only act if European-level action is better than action by the Member States; and
- Proportionality, which means that the EU must do what is necessary to achieve an objective, but not more – i.e., it must not overstep its boundaries.
The European Union employs some 55.000 public servants, which is, in fact, only slightly more than the City of Paris (about 50.000), and much less than, for instance, the number of people working at Frankfurt Airport (more than 80.000). In order to cope with its tasks, the EU therefore relies heavily on private-sector contractors. This ensures flexibility when framework conditions or demands change, and at the same time stimulates the economy.
For which policy areas is the EU responsible?
The EU has exclusive competence for the following policy areas, in which EU law overrules Member State law:
- Customs Union: The EU makes sure that all imports are treated equally and that they comply with European health, safety, and legal standards;
- Competition: The EU stops cartels, monopolies, and other manipulations of fair competition between businesses;
- Monetary policy of the Eurozone: The EU takes responsibility for the Euro (€) currency that is currently used in 19 Member States; and
- Common fisheries policy: The EU ensures the sustainability of fishery in EU waters, especially that fish are not over-harvested.
The EU is also entitled to conclude international agreements by itself if they are necessary to enact the exclusive competences.
The EU shares competence with the Member States for the following policy areas:
- Internal market: The EU harmonises the Member States’ individual rules and regulations in order to achieve a fully integrated single European market;
- Social policy: The EU focuses on harmonising the Member States’ employment systems and supports worker mobility between countries;
- Economic, social, and territorial cohesion: Together with the Member States, the EU creates the preconditions for businesses and citizens to thrive anywhere in the Union, for instance through better transport and telecommunications infrastructures in rural or otherwise under-developed regions;
- Agriculture and fisheries: The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) makes sure that agriculture is economically and environmentally sustainable and produces safe foods;
- Environment: The EU supports a business ecosystem that is environmentally sustainable and helps Member States protect their natural resources;
- Consumer protection: The EU looks after the safety of products and makes sure that consumers can deal on equal footing with vendors in their own as well as in other EU Member States;
- Transport: Seeing that roads, rails, and air routes, or the emissions of transport, do not end at national borders and are essential for the single European market, the EU supports sustainable, compatible, and adequate transport networks across borders;
- Energy: The EU works toward a fully integrated European energy market that is, however, sustainable and environment-friendly;
- Freedom, security, and justice: The EU safeguards citizen’s fundamental rights, equality, and privacy, and coordinates the fight against serious crime as well as the protection against disasters;
- Public health: The EU promotes preventive programmes and coordinates cross-border health issues and health services;
- Research, technical development, and space: The EU complements Member States’ investments into scientific research and the development of innovative products;
- Development cooperation and humanitarian aid: The EU supplements and helps coordinate Member States’ activities in the area of international development cooperation.
The EU has supporting or special (extraordinary) competence in the following policy areas (among others), where it assists Member States:
- Foreign and security policy: The EU coordinates and implements Member States’ foreign policies wherever it makes more sense to speak with one European voice rather than national voices;
- Culture: The EU supports the creative industries, especially where it comes to cross-border cooperation, linguistic exchange, and the adaptation to the digital environment;
- Education, vocational training, and youth: The EU works to harmonise Member States’ educational systems as well as the mutual recognition of academic and vocational qualifications, and fosters the exchange of students and workers.
The main EU Institutions
The European Union’s main institutions, which are involved in practically all policies and decision-making processes, are the
- Parliament, and
Even though the EU’s institutions are not directly comparable with national structures, it may be helpful to conceive of them like this:
- The Council collectively functions, at European level, similar to a national head of state or government, such as a prime minister, president, or chancellor. It reflects the opinion and strategy of the current governments.
- The Parliament represents the European citizens in pretty much the same way as national parliaments represent theirs, only that the European Parliament’s powers are limited to certain areas and co-decision mechanisms.
- The Commission is somewhat similar to ministries at national level. Like ministers, the Commissioners have specific portfolios and head up the European executive. The Commission works autonomously within its competences, and acts at the behest of the Council and Parliament to prepare new laws and regulations.
The Council is the representation of the governments of all EU Member States. It is, in turn, divided into two elements, which may easily be confused:
- The European Council, which is the assembly of the heads of state and government (i.e., prime ministers, presidents, chancellors) of the Member States; and
- The Council of the European Union, which is the assembly of government ministers of the Member States.
The European Council is composed of the heads of state and government, but also includes the President of the European Commission as well as the EU’s foreign minister, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security. Sometimes, the President of the European Parliament is invited to join as well. The European Council is chaired by a permanent President, who is elected for terms of 2.5 years; the position is currently held by Donald Tusk.
As a rule, the European Council meets 4 times a year to discuss recent developments and to set the strategic course of the European Union. However, its President calls for additional meetings whenever the situation demands it. Over the last years, there were many such extraordinary sessions, for instance related to the financial crisis in Greece or on the occasion of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom.
The European Council makes its decisions based on two procedures:
- Double majority; and
The double majority (or qualified majority) procedure is in place for most policy areas. It means that a decision is officially adopted if a majority of the Member States vote “yes”, and at the same time the “yes” votes represent a minimum of 65% of the European population. In practice, this means that a coalition of smaller EU Member States cannot easily outvote the large Member States such as Germany, France, or Poland. However, it also means that individual Member States – the large ones included – can be outvoted in the European Council, yet are still under the obligation to comply with the majority’s decision.
Unanimity, i.e., consent of all Member States, is required for policy areas of particular sensitivity or concern in the light of the national sovereignty of the Member States. These areas are taxation, social security and social protection, the accession of new countries to the EU, foreign policy, common defence policy, and operational police cooperation between EU countries.
However, the European Council is not directly involved in the European law-making process.
The Council of the European Union, in contrast, is the meeting of the Member States’ ministers or state secretaries concerned with the various specific policy areas, such as employment, foreign affairs, security, etc. This means that depending on the given topic, different Member States representatives come together each time – the various Council configurations.
Two configurations stand out: The General Affairs Council, which has an overall coordinating role and deals with institutional and administrative matters, and the Foreign Affairs Council. The latter has several configurations in itself, depending on whether foreign policy in general, security and defence, development cooperation, or foreign trade are discussed. This entails that the Foreign Affairs Council is composed of the Member States’ foreign, defence, development, or trade ministers, depending on the agenda.
While the meetings related to foreign affairs are always chaired by the permanent High Representative, all other thematic meetings are chaired by the so-called “rotating EU presidency”. This means that every half year, another Member State takes over the role to coordinate policy making in the Council of the European Union.
The Council adopts European laws and the EU’s budget on behalf of the Member States, and concludes agreements with other countries or international organisations. In concert with the European Parliament, it is the main decision-making body of the EU. Most decisions of the Council require a qualified majority (see above); however, a group of at least four Member States that represent no less than 35% of the EU’s population, may veto majority decisions. Like in the European Council, some topics require unanimity.
There are multiple specialised committees and working groups of experts that prepare the Council’s sessions.
Closely affiliated with the Council of the European Union is the Eurogroup, an informal meeting of the finance ministers of the countries where the Euro is the official currency. The Eurogroup coordinates the fiscal policy and economic policy of the Eurozone. It is chaired by a permanent President, currently by Jeroen Dijsselbloem. In order to retain transparency for non-Euro EU Member States, Eurogroup decisions are voted upon in the monthly meeting of the Financial and Economic Affairs Council, but with voting rights for the Euro countries only.
Note that the European Council and the Council of the European Union must not be confused with the Council of Europe, which is based in Strasbourg. The latter is an international organisation that has no direct relation with the EU and gathers many more member countries, including Russia. The Council of Europe is better known for its European Court of Human Rights.
The European Parliament is the direct representation of the EU’s citizens at EU level. Its members are chosen in EU-wide general elections every five years. Each EU Member State has a number of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) that is proportionate to the size of its population; however, small countries have at least 6, large countries a maximum of 96 MEPs. This is meant to balance power relations in the Parliament.
The current European Parliament was elected in 2014 and has 751 members. It elects a President for a 2,5-year term; the current office holder is Martin Schulz.
Even though election campaigns for the European Parliament mostly play out on Member State level, MEPs form trans-national political groups. A group must represent at least one quarter of the Member States and have at minimum 25 members. There are currently 8 such groups:
- European People’s Party (EPP) with 215 members;
- Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) with 189 members;
- European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) with 74 members;
- Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) with 70 members;
- European United Left – Nordic Left (GUE/NGL) with 52 members;
- Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA with 50 members);
- Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) with 46 members; and
- Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) with 39 members.
Another 16 MEPs are not attached to a political group.
The European Parliament passes EU laws and adopts the EU budget together with the Council of the European Union, has a say in international agreements and enlargement of the EU, and holds the European Commission as well as all other EU institutions accountable on behalf of the citizens.
The Parliament elects the President of the European Commission and approves his or her selection of Commissioners. To this end, the Parliament conducts hearings, first with the candidate for President of the Commission, and later with all Commissioner candidates. However, MEPs can only approve or disapprove the entire college of Commissioners at once. Hence, if only a single Commissioner candidate does not meet the EP’s standards, the entire Commission cannot assume office. During the Commission’s term in office, the Parliament can make a motion of censure, and thereby force the Commission to resign at any time.
Legislative work and the related negotiations with other EU Institutions are conducted by thematic Committees, such as for international trade, regional development, budget control, and so on. Most of this goes on in Brussels, whereas plenary meetings are held on a monthly basis in Strasbourg, which is the second seat of the European Parliament.
The Parliament takes decisions by absolute majority, i.e., more than half of the votes must be in favour of the proposal.
The European Commission is the executive branch of the European Union. It is composed of the President of the European Commission and a college of 27 Commissioners. Every Member State delegates one Commissioner. The college of Commissioners takes all decisions collectively, no matter what subject area is concerned.
While the President is elected by the European Parliament, it is the President’s task to negotiate with the Member States about the individuals who will be dispatched as Commissioners. Ultimately, the Member States decide about the person they delegate, while the President has the final word assigning thematic portfolios to them and structuring the Commission.
The Juncker Commission, which is in office since November 2014, has a First Vice-President in charge of fundamental policy matters, as well as five Vice-Presidents who coordinate cross-cutting issues, namely economic growth policy, budget, energy, the digital single market, and financial stability and the Euro. The remaining 19 Commissioners have specialised thematic portfolios. A special position is held by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, who is a Vice-President of the Commission and at the same time member of the Council.
The European Commission has four main responsibilities:
- It manages and implements the EU’s policies, including the required budgets;
- It enforces EU law and holds Member States accountable for non-compliance;
- It drafts and proposes new laws; and
- It represents the EU internationally, especially in the areas of trade and humanitarian aid.
However, when people mention “the Commission”, most of the time they refer to the administrative body which reports to the Commissioners and is in charge of day-to-day practical implementation of all EU policies. By far most interactions of citizens, businesses, organisations, national and foreign authorities, and contractors with the European Union are actually with the various departments of the European Commission. The Commission is divided into
- Currently 33 Directorate-Generals (or departments), which are in charge of the EU’s policy areas; and
- Currently 12 Services, which take care of administrative, legal and audit issues, or perform special overarching tasks.
There is no parallelism between Commissioner and Directorate-Generals (DGs) or Services; several departments may report to a single Commissioner, and some departments in fact also report to more than one Commissioner at a time.
To name only a few Directorate-Generals by way of example:
- Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations (NEAR);
- International Cooperation and Development (DEVCO);
- Communications (COMM); not to be confused with
- Communications Networks, Content and Technology (CNECT);
- Mobility and Transport (MOVE);
- Migration and Home Affairs (HOME);
- Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs (GROW).
Political priorities of the Juncker Commission
Jean-Claude Juncker, the current President of the European Commission, at the beginning of his term in office set out ten political priorities:
- Jobs, growth, and investment: public support to boost private investments into the real economy, i.e., into areas that produce something tangible or deliver services that meet a demand in daily life or business, rather than merely financial investments;
- Digital Single Market: enabling the seamless exchange of digital goods across European borders to match the single market for physical goods;
- Energy Union and climate: using the EU’s geographical variety and energy transport infrastructure to reduce everybody’s dependency on fossil fuels and fuel import, and thereby reducing negative environmental and climate impacts;
- Internal Market: strengthening the manufacturing sector and cross-border trade, and working against tax evasion strategies as well as tax fraud;
- A deeper and fairer Monetary Union: learning lessons from the 2009 European debt crisis and fiscal issues of some Member States to establish better control and mitigation mechanisms;
- A balanced EU-US Free Trade Agreement: reaping the economic benefits from free trade with the United States of America, better known as TTIP, without sacrificing European consumer protection standards;
- Justice and Fundamental Rights: fighting against corruption, cross-border crime, and terrorism, and establishing better data privacy standards;
- Migration: managing the refugee situation and irregular migration in a humanitarian and security-conscious fashion, and establishing a common European policy on legal migration;
- A stronger global actor: strengthening cooperation between Member States in defence as well as military procurement; and
- Democratic change: improving democratic and political governance in the EU as opposed to perceived technocratic decision-making.
Other important EU institutions
Next to Council, Parliament, and Commission, the European Union has a number of further official institutions, which contribute to its objectives.
Like the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the European External Action Service (EEAS) assumes an intermediate and overlapping position in the EU’s grand scheme of things. As the EU’s own diplomatic service and foreign policy coordination office, it is neither part of the Council, nor the Commission, but collaborates with both institutions very closely. The EEAS also runs the EU’s Delegations, which are essentially the Union’s embassies around the world.
The European Central Bank (ECB) manages the Euro and the related monetary policies, while the European Investment Bank (EIB) supplies businesses with low-interest loans in order to pursue projects that are in the EU’s interest.
The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) is an advisory body that unites workers’ and employers’ organisations in order to make sure that the interests of both sides are reflected in EU laws and policies in a balanced and fair fashion. The Committee of the Regions (CoR) fulfils the same function for local and regional governments across the EU.
Last, but not least, the EU has several institutions tasked with oversight, mediation, and the settlement of disputes. They are the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), the European Court of Auditors (ECA), the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS), and the European Ombudsman. The latter is a body where any person or business can lodge a complaint about incorrect or unfair actions of the European Institutions, and helps resolve justified grievances.
On top of those institutions, the EU also has a number of specialised agencies. The European Police Office (EUROPOL) or the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders (Frontex) are widely known examples. Others include the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), the European Banking Authority (EBA), and the Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). Agencies are located in places all over the European Union.
How are laws made in the EU?
The European Union has three kinds of legislation:
- Regulations: Laws that take effect in all EU Member States directly and without any local adoption or ratification. They supersede national laws and typically relate to matters where the EU has exclusive competence.
- Directives: Laws that specify a result or objective that is mandatory for all Member States and essentially define a minimum threshold. It is up to the Member States to transpose directives into national law, and work out how they are best implemented, as long as they do not fall below the thresholds set by the EU. Directives are typically related to matters where the EU has shared competence.
- Decisions: Executive decisions by the responsible EU authorities that relate to the implementation of existing European law. They take direct effect.
The EU can also issue recommendations and opinions, but without any binding effect.
The ordinary legislative procedure
Most EU laws are made through the ordinary legislative procedure. Upon request of the Parliament or the Council, or on its own initiative, the European Commission drafts a proposal. This proposal is usually informed by a complex consultation process, where the Commission draws on the expertise of the relevant stakeholders, i.e., individuals, organisations, governments, or businesses which will be affected by the eventual law. In many cases, the European Economic and Social Committee or the Committee of the Regions provide input as well.
The draft law is then discussed by the Parliament – or rather by the responsible Committee, which usually proposes amendments that reflect the Parliament’s political intentions. After endorsement in a plenary session, the amended draft law is forwarded to the Council, which can either adopt the law as is, or suggest changes of its own. In the latter case, the draft law goes back to the Parliament, and the same process starts anew. If there is still no agreement between the Parliament and the Council, a conciliation committee is formed with the aim to negotiate a mutually acceptable compromise for the law in question. Subsequently, both legislative bodies, Parliament and Council, must adopt or reject the compromise proposal according to their respective voting rules. If rejected at this stage, the law is off the table for good.
Of course, the parliaments of EU Member States are kept in the loop of the European law-making process as well so they can voice their opinions, raise concerns, and double-check that the subsidiarity principle is applied.
In a very limited number of areas, there are exceptions to the standard law-making procedure. When exemptions from internal market or competition laws are concerned, the consultation procedure takes effect. This means that the Council is obliged to ask for the Parliament’s opinion, but is not bound by it.
In the consent procedure, the Parliament cannot make amendments to a law, but only approve or reject it wholesale. This is the case, for instance, when negotiations about international treaties were concluded by the Commission. The Parliament’s decision is final either way and cannot be overridden.
Practical decision-making in the EU
Even though the Commissioners are delegated by the Member States’ governments, and the Commission’s staff is composed of citizens of the Member States, the institution is obliged to have solely the common European interest in mind. In many cases, this leads to disagreements with the Member States. As a consequence, the Commission negotiates or consults with its relevant counterparts in the national governments and administrations.
In keeping with its remit, the Commission is frequently rather technical and strict; however, the current President, Jean-Claude Juncker, advocates for a more political Commission.
In the Council, several hundred committees and working groups hash out the fine print on any issue before the ministers (in the Council of the European Union) or heads of state or government (in the European Council) discuss and decide on it. All Member States are represented by subject-matter experts at the working level who may negotiate for extended periods of time. In the Council, the founding members of the EU – Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxemburg, and the Netherlands – tend to take the initiative on many topics; it is often their negotiation skill that makes or breaks a decision.
The Council is about finding an equilibrium between the Member States’ interests. Every time a Member State government changes, the Council changes as well and its power balance shifts.
The European Parliament is a sounding board for a broader political spectrum in the EU. That is because, other than the Council, it is not only made up of representatives of the ruling parties in the various Member States, but also of national oppositions. True to its role, it is the most public of the EU’s institutions and tends to be preoccupied in particular with social and cultural perspectives on the European Union. The Parliament’s committees are the places where consensus is created; it often depends on the chairperson’s skills and tenacity how productive they are.
Since the political groups in the Parliament consist of similarly-minded political parties from various Member States, national perspectives play a smaller part than in the Council.
In all, the constellation of Council, Commission, and Parliament, all with their different tasks and characteristics, has proven to be a powerful mechanism to reach consensus even on highly contentious topics, and imposes well-functioning checks and balances on the European Union. That this is hard and takes time goes with the territory. Still, despite the long history of treaties seeking to improve the EU’s governance, the current status should not be seen as final. Member States and citizens’ preferences and demands change (as witnessed by the UK’s 2016 referendum to leave the Union); at the same time, geopolitical or global economic developments may require that the EU positons itself anew.
At times the frustration or impatience of some governments with the EU’s opinion-forming and decision-making processes leads to their bypassing the Union with direct arrangements between the governments of Member States outside the framework of the EU. In many cases, though, such inter-governmental actions eventually make it into the EU proper, such as most prominently the Schengen Agreement.
The EU also faces a lot of criticism as a matter of course. Perhaps the most important barrier to discussing and resolving such criticism is that it is very difficult to communicate the European Union appropriately to its citizens. The many different languages stand in the way of a shared and unified understanding even as proficiency in the bridge language English keeps increasing. Moreover, all Member States have their own public spheres which are largely independent from each other, while there is hardly any European public. In fact, there are also no mainstream media that address the EU as a whole, only a handful of specialised publications.
Accordingly, many policy and opinion makers tend to focus on their national audiences and to pass off responsibility for any unpopular measures to “Brussels” – even as their own governments in the Council and their own Members of the European Parliament agree to the relevant EU law or regulation. This often leads to a gap in public perception between national and EU-level policy making, and thus to a lack of ownership which, in turn, may slow down or obstruct the Union’s progress.
The information and views set out in this text are those of the OPEN Media Hub authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union. Neither the European Union institutions and bodies nor any person acting on their behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information contained therein.