Wednesday, April 9, 2008

European Union Governance

The EU is based on a series of treaties which have built up the current structure by successive additions and amendments.[33] The treaties define the broad policy goals of the organisation and establish institutions with the necessary legal powers to implement those goals, including the ability to enact legislation[34] which can directly affect all member states and their inhabitants (the principle of 'direct effect').[35] National courts enforce the EU treaties and the laws enacted under them, as one of the conditions of membership. In the case of a conflict where a law stemming from EU legislation conflicts with another national law, the EU law is considered to take precedence (principle of 'Supremacy').[36] Decisions regarding EU legislation may be referred to the European Court of Justice by national courts. The EU is regulated by a number of institutions, primarily the Council of the European Union, the European Commission, and European Parliament.

The EU is often described as being divided into three areas of responsibility, called 'pillars'. The original European Community policies form the first pillar, while the second consists of Common Foreign and Security Policy. The third pillar originally consisted of Justice and Home Affairs, however owing to changes introduced by the Amsterdam and Nice treaties, it currently only consists of Police and Judicial Co-operation in Criminal Matters. Broadly speaking, the second and third pillars can be described as the intergovernmental pillars because the supranational institutions of the Commission, Parliament and the Court of Justice play less of a role or none at all, while the lead is taken by the intergovernmental Council of Ministers and the European Council. Most activities of the EU come under the first, Community pillar. This is mostly economically oriented and the supranational institutions have more influence.[37]


Main article: European Commission

The European Commission acts as the EU's executive arm and is responsible for initiating legislation and the day-to-day running of the EU. It is intended to act solely in the interest of the EU as a whole, as opposed to the Council which consists of leaders of member states who reflect national interests. The commission is also seen as the motor of European integration. It is currently composed of 27 commissioners for different areas of policy, one from each member state.

The President of the Commission and all the other commissioners are nominated by the Council. Appointment of the Commission President, and also the Commission in its entirety, have to be confirmed by Parliament.[38]


The Council of the European Union forms one half of the EU's legislature. It is an organised platform where national ministers responsible for the area of policy being addressed, meet. Although the Council meets in different compositions, it is considered to be one single body.[39] In addition to its legislative functions, the Council also exercises executive functions in relations to the Common Foreign and Security Policy.

The rotating Presidency of the EU Council is taken by each member state in turn for a period of six months, during which the relevant member chairs most meetings of the Council.[39] The member state holding the presidency typically uses it to drive and focus on a limited number of policy areas; such as various types of reform, enlargement or external relations with a specific part of the world.

Highest-ranking political leadership in the EU is provided by the European Council (not to be mistaken for the Council of Europe), which is the EU Council when composed of heads of government of the member states (e.g. the prime minister or President) plus the President of the Commission. The European Council meets on at least four summits a year, and is lead by the head of government of the rotating presidency.[39]


Main article: European Parliament
The hemicycle of the Parliament's Louise Weiss building in Strasbourg
The hemicycle of the Parliament's Louise Weiss building in Strasbourg

The other half of the EU's legislature is the European Parliament. The 785 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are directly elected by EU citizens every five years. Although MEPs are elected on a national basis, they sit according to political groups rather than their nationality. Each country has a set number of seats. The Parliament and the Council form and pass legislation jointly, using codecision, in certain areas of policy. This procedure will extend to many new areas under the proposed Treaty of Lisbon, and hence increase the power and relevance of the Parliament. The Parliament also has the power to reject or censure the Commission and the EU budget. The President of the European Parliament carries out the role of speaker in parliament and represents it externally. The president and vice presidents are elected by MEPs every two and a half years.[40]

Legal System

Further information: Law of the European Union and Treaties of the European Union

Although the Treaties are the ultimate source of EU Law, there are a number of legislative instruments available to the EU institutions. The three main instruments are Regulations, Directives and Decisions. There is no formal hierarchy regarding the three types.

Regulations are legislative acts which become law in all member states the moment they come into force, without the requirement for any implementing measures to have been taken by member states.[41] Once in force their contents automatically override conflicting domestic provisions, as a result of having direct effect in the national law of the member states.[34]

Directives require member states to achieve a certain result while leaving them discretion as to how to achieve the result within a certain time period. Directives are generally used where it is thought preferable to leave the precise details of legislative implementation to national governments.[42] Once the stated time period has passed, under certain conditions provisions within a Directive may have direct effect in national law against Member States.

The ECJ in Luxembourg can judge member states over EU law
The ECJ in Luxembourg can judge member states over EU law

Decisions offer an alternative to the two above modes of legislation. The Council and the Commission may publish in the official journal a decision, notified to a particular addressee, such as an individual trader or a company. Decisions will be found most commonly in Competition Law, or on rulings on State Aid, and can be challenged by the addressee under certain circumstances before the EU courts.

The EU's legal system contains a multiplicity of legislative procedures used to enact the above legislation. The treaties provide the basis for all legislation and lay down the different ways of adopting legislation for different policy areas.[43] A common feature of the EU's legislative procedures is that almost all legislation must be proposed by the Commission, rather than member states or European parliamentarians. The two most common procedures are co-decision, under which the European Parliament can veto proposed legislation, and consultation, under which Parliament is only permitted to give an opinion which can be ignored by European leaders. In most cases legislation must be agreed by the council.[44] See: European Union legislative procedure.


Further information: European Court of Justice

The judicial branch of the EU consists of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and the Court of First Instance (to be renamed the "General Court" upon the entering into force of the Treaty of Lisbon). Together they interpret and apply the treaties and the law of the EU.[45] The Court of First Instance mainly deals with cases taken by individuals and companies directly before the EU's courts, and the ECJ primarily deals with cases taken by member states, the institutions and cases referred to the EU's courts by the courts of member states.[46] Decisions from the Court of First Instance can be appealed to the Court of Justice but only on a point of law.[47]

National courts within the Member States also play a key role in the EU as enforcers of EU law, and a "spirit of cooperation" between EU and national courts is laid down in the Treaties. National courts can apply EU law in domestic cases, and if they require clarification on the interpretation or validity of any EU legislation related to the case it may make a reference for a preliminary ruling to the ECJ. The right to declare EU legislation invalid however is reserved to the EU courts.




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