How the EU works
The European Union (EU) is a block of 28 independent nation states that work together to form a single European market for trade and labour, and to co-operate on areas where there is a common interest such as climate change and cross border crime. EU Treaties set out the rules of how decisions between those 28 countries should be made. A number of institutions exist to provide the administration and democratic accountability of the EU.
The European Commission
The European Commission is the main administrative body of the EU. It proposes and drafts new laws, and implements and enforces EU laws that have been passed. As the EU comprises 28 separate governments rather than having a single directly elected government, the European Commission plays an important role in ensuring a coherent and unified EU policy agenda is delivered.
The Commission itself is currently comprised of 28 EU Commissioners. Each member state has the opportunity to nominate a Commissioner who is then endorsed collectively by MEPs after a series of public hearings. 27 of the Commissioners are responsible for a specific portfolio such as Energy or Trade. 5 Commissioners are then appointed as Vice-Presidents, there is 1 First Vice-President and the whole Commission is overseen by the President. This position is determined in negotiations between the governments of member countries, with approval required from MEPs. Jean Claude-Juncker is currently serving as the President of the European Commission. The President’s role is to serve as a public figurehead for the Commission and to liaise with national governments to develop, deliver and enforce EU law. The President decides which portfolio each Commissioner is given, although MEPs have the power to block appointments they do not agree with. All Commissioners serve a 5 year mandate.
The European Parliament
The European Parliament is the democratically elected chamber of the European Union, comprised of 751 elected Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) representing every region of each EU country. Parliament has the power to amend or block proposals from the Commission for new EU legislation or changes to existing legislation. Through votes in Parliament or Parliamentary Committees, MEPs can also ask the Commission to bring forward proposals for new legislation. Thus, the European Commission and European Parliament have a close working relationship.
The huge number of political parties represented in the European Parliament from across the continent means political parties form ‘groups’ that share similar political beliefs. Groups will often vote as one to try to progress policies they believe in. The largest group is currently the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) with 219 members, followed by the centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), of which Labour is a member with 191 members. The third largest group is the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR), which the Conservative Party belongs to with 71 members.
As with MPs, MEPs are there to represent the interests of their constituents on EU matters. MEPs are elected every five years. In Britain, the elections take place using a system of proportional representation with each region being represented by a team of MEPs from different parties according to the number of votes cast. In our region, Yorkshire and the Humber, there are six MEPs: 2 Labour (Linda and Richard Corbett), 2 Conservative (now that Amjad Bashir has defected from UKIP), and 2 UKIP.
The Council of Ministers
Any proposal for a law to be changed, or for a new law to be passed, has also to be approved by national governments within the EU as well as by MEPs in a legislative procedure often referred to as “co-decision”. The agreement of national governments is usually achieved via the Council of Ministers – a meeting of the relevant ministers of each national government. If a new law on trade, for example, is proposed, then the ministers for trade from each government will meet as a Council of Ministers to vote on the proposal. The votes of each minister are weighted based on the population of the country they represent, with a majority of votes required to pass or block legislation. However, on issues that are felt to relate to important areas of national interest, the unanimous agreement of each country is required, with any one country able to veto the proposal, however small their population. Such areas include foreign policy and proposals for taxes. Once ministers have reached their agreement, they must negotiate their position with MEPs until an overall agreement in both houses (Council and Parliament) is reached. Only then can a new EU law come into being.
The European Council
The European Council generally meets four times per year. The Council comprises the lead elected representative of each EU country - be they the prime minister or president - plus the President of the European Council and the President of the European Commission. The Council meets to set the general direction of the EU and discuss major international issues. In the media such meetings are usually referred to as EU summits.
The European Council now has a permanent chair or President ,Donald Tusk, a position agreed by the leaders of each country’s government. His job is to negotiate agreement between EU leaders. Until the Lisbon Treaty took effect, EU leaders took it in turns to chair the European Council and prepare the meetings, but with 28 different countries now in the EU, the time needed to consult each country made the job too onerous for serving prime ministers and presidents, so a single person now does this task.