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EPA/Olivier Hoslet

Inside the EU: a beginner’s guide to Brussels

There is confusion about how the European Union operates – particularly among those who see it as undemocratic. The EU is made up of a balanced set of governance institutions that works in similar ways to a national government. But it also has to link up with the people making the decisions in national governments across its member states.

So what are the institutions of the European Union and what do they do? Here is a brief look at how it all works.

Representing the member states

The interests of EU member states are served by two separate institutions: the Council of the European Union (which represents the government of each country and is also sometimes known as the Council of Ministers) and the European Parliament (which represents the people of each country).

Together, these two bodies pass EU laws. These are binding on all 28 member states.

The Council of the European Union is made up of government ministers – or their high-level deputies – from each member state. So, while it is not a directly elected body, it is composed of individuals with an elected mandate from their home countries.

The council works like a government cabinet but convenes meetings on a thematic basis – such as foreign affairs, the environment or economic and financial affairs. Membership of the EU Council is not fixed – member states send the relevant ministers for each policy configuration.

This arrangement makes for a flexible, comprehensive and expert consideration of European legislation. Most decisions are taken by qualified majority vote (55% of member states, representing at least 65% of the EU population have to agree) but some matters that are particularly important to member states – including foreign affairs and security or taxation – may only be passed by unanimous decision.

The parliament

The European Parliament has evolved from small beginnings into a directly elected parliament for the EU. It now shares important law-making functions with the EU Council.

The parliament is made up of 751 members elected every five years in votes across the 28 member states. They organise themselves into party groups according to their broad outlook. There are currently nine such groups (including one for unaffiliated MEPs) covering the full European political spectrum – from greens to eurosceptics, from conservatives to socialists.

MEPs listen to a debate in the parliament. European Parliament, CC BY-NC-ND

These party groups help to structure the work of the parliament, which plays an important role in debating European matters and setting the European agenda. The European Parliament raises the profile of controversial issues and minority points of view and puts pressure on the European Commission to adopt issues onto the formal decision-making agenda that might otherwise be neglected.

The European Commission

There are two other institutions serving the needs of the EU as a whole – the European Commission and the Court of Justice. These supranational organisations are designed to channel the common interests of the member states and to counterbalance the intergovernmental institutions (the EU Council and the Parliament).

The European Commission carries out important executive functions for the EU. It is based in Brussels and is run by a president – currently Jean-Claude Juncker. The president is nominated by the national leaders and elected by a majority of members of the European Parliament.

The selection of the Commission president is highly competitive as this powerful individual influences the strategic policy agenda of the EU for a five-year term. The president allocates posts to a team of 28 commissioners – one from each member state. He or she also determines the organisation of the Commission’s directorates general – bodies that operate like ministries.

The DGs reflect both standard policy areas such as the budget, competition and regional and urban policy, and current policy challenges such as climate action and migration and home affairs.

The Commission proposes and enforces EU legislation, and implements policies and the EU budget. It controls formal agenda-setting powers within the EU. It sets an annual work programme and proposes legislation for the Council of the EU and the European Parliament to debate and adopt. Its powers of agenda setting are stronger than its powers of enforcement.

The Commission also represents the European Union to the outside world – a role that is growing more important as the EU enlarges, conducts more external trade and does more work on foreign and security matters.

Commission vice-president, Federica Mogherini, acts as high representative of the Union for Foreign and Security Policy. In this important strategic, representative and coordinating role she chairs the foreign affairs configuration of the Council of the EU to integrate the work of the commission and the member-state foreign ministers in this increasingly complex field.

In 2011, the European External Action Service was created, effectively as a diplomatic service for the EU to support the high representative in carrying out her role in the field of foreign and security policy.

The Court of Justice of the European Union ensures that EU law is interpreted and applied the same way in every member state. It upholds member states’ rights in relation to the EU by settling legal disputes arising between them.

National leaders

One other institution has been crucial in the EU’s development – the European Council (not to be confused with the Council of the EU, described above). This is the name given to formal meetings of the highest executive leaders of the member states. In some countries, such as the UK, this the prime minister; in others, such as France, the president.

Rooted within the member states – but with a strong interest in making the EU an effective system for all – the European Council integrates intergovernmental and supranational interests and injects dynamism into the European decision-making process.

As the EU expanded and its powers increased, so did the potential for conflict. Its institutions frequently blocked one another, leading to gridlock. The European Council began as an informal series of “fireside chats” to resolve these policy logjams and has since evolved into an institution in its own right. The European Council now meets at least four times a year to set a strategic agenda.

The European Council meets over dinner. EPA

These meetings may be supplemented by ad hoc thematic councils convened to address important issues arising – such as the migrant crisis or the eurozone crisis.

The European Council is led by a president, currently Donald Tusk from Poland, who is elected on a two-and-a-half year mandate to coordinate its work. He works closely with the high representative to ensure that the EU presents a consistent face in its dealings with other countries.

The European Council has neither the right to initiate legislation (this belongs to the Commission) nor to pass major legislation (this rests with the EU Council and the Parliament), but the political weight of the member states’ top executive leaders means that the guidelines set by the European Council are always taken seriously and fed into the decision-making process.

Together, these institutions ensure that the EU cannot simply impose the decisions of “faceless bureaucrats” on helpless member states. EU decisions are the product of intensive collaboration between Brussels and national governments.

Reflecting the realities of its diverse membership, the system works not so much on the lines of government versus opposition familiar to UK politics, but on principles of consensus building. The major policy decisions of the EU involve the active contributions of national heads of state and governments, cabinet ministers and home civil servants as well as the Brussels bureaucrats – and, if a legal case is brought, the judges of the Court of Justice. The system is by no means perfect, but it has all the hallmarks of a working democracy.

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