How does the EU actually work? (Part 2 – Institutions)

Democracy, and the EU’s “democratic deficit”, is a Eurosceptic favourite. I’m sure you’ve seen it before with claims such as we are controlled by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels (it’s those pesky –crats again…)  It is not an unjustified point either – the EU is not a fully democratic entity. However, arguments around the EU’s democratic deficit are often coupled with a misunderstanding about the EU’s institutions.

This post seeks to explain the EU’s institutions and their composition. There is no overall “point” to this particular post. Instead, it aims to explain what the EU’s institutions are and how they work, so that in part 3 I can deal with the criticisms of the EU’s democratic deficit. If you already know about the EU’s institutions, or you just want to know what my thoughts are on the democratic deficit, skip to part 3.

What are the EU’s institutions?[i]

The EU has five key institutions: the European Council, the Council of the European Union (or Council of Ministers), the European Parliament, the European Commission, and the Court of Justice of the European Union (you might see this one called the European Court of Justice or to others “that European Court” – incidentally, and because I am a pedant, there is no such thing as a European Court)

Who are these institutions, and what do they do?

The European Council

 The European Council is made up of:

  1. the Heads of State/Government of all Member States (for the UK this is the Prime Minister, other Member States might send their President)
  2. the President of the European Commission
  3. (sometimes) the High Representative for Foreign Affairs.

The European Council also has its own President.

The European Council’s role is to set the directions and priorities of the EU. It does not have any powers to pass law.

The Council of the European Union (or Council of Ministers)

[Note: I have never understood why the EU has a European Council and a Council of the European Union – it’s only liable to cause confusion. Couldn’t they have called one of them something else?! To try to keep this clear, I will call the European Council by its name, and the Council of the European Union will be called “the Council”.]

The Council is made up of one representative of each Member State, who will be a minister of that State’s government. The Council meets in one of 10 configurations – these are different meetings which cover a different policy area. For example, there are configurations based on areas such as Environment, Transport, and Foreign Policy. Each Member State will send the minister that holds the relevant portfolio in their national government to that configuration of the Council. So, for example, the UK would send the Transport minister to the transport configuration, and not the Minister for Sport!

As I will explain below, the Council has a role in passing EU legislation and agreeing its budget.

The European Parliament

The European Parliament is made up of 751 directly elected Members of European Parliament (MEPs). We (that’s us, not the Government) vote for MEPs nationally every five years. A number of seats within the European Parliament are allocated to each Member State based on its population. The UK has 73 MEPs.

Alongside the Council, the European Parliament has a role in passing EU legislation and agreeing its budget.

The European Commission

If the Leave campaign were to make a pantomime of the EU (and, to be honest, I would quite like to see that), the European Commission would be cast (unfairly) as the villain…

 The European Commission is the executive part of the EU. It has four key roles:

  1. It presents legislative proposals for approval by the Council and (usually) the European Parliament.
  1. It exercises executive powers that have been conferred upon it by the Treaties or by the Council and (usually) the European Parliament.
  1. It represents the EU externally.
  1. It monitors whether Member States comply with EU law, and has powers to bring legal proceedings against any State that does not comply.

The Commission is made up of one Commissioner per Member State. Each Commissioner is allocated a “portfolio” i.e. a department that they oversee which is staffed by civil servants. The UK’s current Commissioner is Lord Hill who oversees the EU’s Financial Stability, Financial Services and Capital Markets Union Portfolio. Commissioners are appointed for five years.

How are Commissioners appointed?

The President of the European Commission must be approved by the European Parliament. In addition, the European Parliament approves the list of all individuals to be appointed Commissioners (so not just the President here). This sounds complicated, but it ensures that the appointment of Commissioners is subject to the approval of other institutions. I explain why this is important in part 3.

A fun fact (some of you will seriously question my definition of “fun” after this): before the European Parliament approves the list of individuals to be appointed to Commissioners, it holds “auditions” where each individual has to appear before the European Parliament to answer questions. This is so that the European Parliament can decide whether an individual is suitable to perform that role. Sadly, they are nothing like the X-Factor auditions, and there is no VT setting out their life story before they take the stage (I think they would be a lot more exciting if they were!)

The Court of Justice of the European Union

The EU has two courts: the Court of Justice, and the General Court. Each Court is composed of at least one judge per Member State. It has a number of roles:

  1. To rule on actions brought against Member States by the European Commission if a Member State has failed to comply with EU Law.
  1. To provide guidance on the interpretation of EU Law if this is requested by the court of a Member State.
  1. To rule on whether certain acts of the EU institutions are valid.

What is not part of the EU

Another point worth clearing up concerns the things that are not part of the EU. Specifically, the European Convention on Human Rights (and consequently the Human Rights Act 1998 which implements this in the UK). This is not part of the EU – so voting to leave will have no impact on this.

Armed with this information, in part 3 I will deal with suggestions that the EU has a democracy problem.

Footnotes (AKA things for the super keen)

[i] Everything in this section is confirmed by Articles 13-19 TEU.


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