The Institutions of the European Union

If you live in Europe, whether in a European Union Member State or not, you will definitely be affected by the EU." Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life," as Humphrey Bogart said in the film Casablanca. He wasn' t referring to the EU, since it didn' t exist in the 1940s when the film was made. But more recent European history has been largely shaped by the development of the EU, and in the future the EU' s influence can only increase. If you know a bit about what' s going on you are likely to benefit more from the changes than those who remain in the dark.

The basic aims of the EU are social, economic and political. They include maintaining the principles of freedom, democracy and human rights and increasing and sustaining living standards. The EU also works to ensure the security of Europe. It does not mean to create a mass Europe-wide monoculture, but rather advocates national differences and works towards preserving the cultural uniqueness of its Member States. These goals, in all their complexity, are being worked towards by a number of different institutions.

Its unique institutional structure makes the EU different from other international organizations. Member States have agreed to relinquish a degree of their independent power to those institutions which represent national and shared interests. The institutions of the EU all work together, each having a part to play in the decision-making process.

The Council of the European Union is the main decision-making institution. It is made up of ministers from the 15 Member States with responsibility for the policy area being discussed at a given meeting: foreign affairs, agriculture, industry, transport, the environment, and so on. Together with the European Parliament, the Council puts laws into effect and also has joint control over the Union' s budget. The Council also accepts international agreements negotiated by the European Commission. Lastly, it is responsible for co-ordinating the general economic policies of the Member States.

The Presidency of the Council changes every six months. Research for Council discussions is done by Coreper, a committee of Member States' permanent representatives to the Union, which is assisted in turn by groups of civil servants from the appropriate national ministries.

The European Council evolved from the practice, begun in 1974, of organizing regular meetings of government leaders of the Member States. It meets at least twice a year, and the President of the European Parliament addresses each meeting.

In 1992 the Maastricht Treaty ruled that the European Council could act as the launch pad for the Union' s major political initiatives and be a forum for settling controversial issues not resolved within the Council of the European Union. The European Council soon hit the headlines, thanks to its important members and dramatic debates. The European Council also deals with current security issues.

The European Parliament watches over all EU institutions and also plays a part in the law-making process. The first elections for it were held in June 1979 and are held every five years. It currently has 626 seats and represents 373 million people. Germany has 99 seats, France, Italy and the United Kingdom 87 seats each, Spain 64, the Netherlands 31, Belgium, Greece and Portugal 25 each, Sweden 22, Austria 21, Denmark and Finland 16 each, Ireland 15 and Luxembourg 6. The Parliament normally meets with all its members in Strasbourg. Meetings of its 20 committees, which prepare for the larger meetings, take place in Brussels. The Parliament' s Secretariat is in Luxembourg. It shares law-making functions with the Council of the European Union but maintains a high degree of power in this area.

Together with the Council, the Parliament makes decisions in areas such as freedom of movement for workers, freedom to set up businesses, the single market, education, research, the environment, health, culture and consumer protection. Since the Amsterdam Treaty of 1997 the European Parliament' s role has been extended. It now makes decisions and laws with the Council in new areas such as public health, transport, freedom of movement of people, and social and employment policy.

The Single European Act of 1986 made many international agreements and future enlargements of the Union subject to the Parliament' s approval. In the Maastricht treaty of 1992 it was decided that the Parliament must also agree to a uniform electoral procedure and freedom of movement and residence of people, among other things. The Amsterdam Treaty said that the Parliament must agree for action to be taken against a Member State for serious, persistent violation of basic rights.

The Parliament also shares budgetary powers with the Council. It can adopt a budget or reject it, as it has on several occasions in the past. When that happens, the whole procedure begins again from scratch. The budget is prepared by the European Commission. It then passes backwards and forwards between the Council and the Parliament. While the Council' s opinion prevails on 'compulsory' , largely agricultural, expenditure, the Parliament has greater say on other 'non-compulsory' expenditures.

One of the Parliament' s essential functions is, of course, to provide political impetus. It frequently calls for new policies to be launched and for existing ones to be developed or altered, and has done a lot to shape the current face of the EU.

Lastly, the Parliament is the body which exercises democratic control. It approves the appointment of the Commission President and can dismiss him or her if two-thirds of its members agree to it. In July 1999 a new President of the European Parliament was elected. The Frenchwoman Nicole Fontaine replaced José Maria Gil-Delgado, becoming the second woman to hold the position - the first being Simone Weil in 1979.

The European Commission is another key institution. It was created on 1 July 1967. The number of commissioners was increased to 20 on 5 January 1995 (two each for France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom, and one each for the remaining countries). Commissioners are appointed by Member States for a term of five years. All commissioners must be approved of by the Parliament.

The Commission enjoys a great deal of independence in performing its duties. It represents the Community interest and takes no instructions from individual Member States. It ensures that rules and regulations adopted by the Council are properly implemented. It also puts into action decisions taken by the Council.

The Commission is backed by a civil service, mainly located in Brussels and Luxembourg. This is made up of 25 departments, each responsible for the implementation of common policies and general administration in a specific area. Like the European Parliament, the Commission is also getting a new President. Romano Prodi was recently named to take over from Jacques Santer. He plans to make some radical changes to the Commission. Prodi' s aim is to make the Commission more efficient by redesigning its departments and ensuring its members only work in an area in which they have experience. He also plans to include five women members - one being the Vice-President - and promote equal opportunities for men and women.

The Court of Justice of the European Communities, which sits in Luxembourg, is made up of 15 judges and nine advocates-general appointed for a renewable six-year term by agreement between the Member States. The Court' s role is to ensure that Community law is interpreted and implemented correctly. It is also the only institution with the power to give an opinion on the correct interpretation of the EU' s constitution. It also checks that Union laws respect human rights.

The Court of First Instance, which was set up in 1989 and has 15 judges, deals with disputes between individuals and businesses and Union institutions, and with disputes within the Union institutions themselves.

The Court of Auditors ensures financial affairs are properly managed.

The Economic and Social Committee consists of 222 members representing trade and industry and trade unions. It must be consulted before decisions are taken on a large number of subjects relating to economic and social activity.

The Committee of the Regions, set up by the Maastricht Treaty, consists of 222 representatives of regional and local authorities. The Amsterdam Treaty widened the areas in which this and the Economic and Social Committee are to be consulted.