EU institutions, Put Simply

The vast bureaucracy of the European Union often comes under fire as being “undemocratic” and a total “waste of money”. But what are the institutions that make up the EU, and what exactly are they for? Let’s take a look at five of the major institutions…

The Council of the European Union A.K.A. The Council of Ministers

President: Malta

This, along with the European Parliament, is the key decision-making body of the EU. It is made up of government ministers from the 28 member states. It has no fixed membership, as it changes depending on what issues are being discussed. So, when the council meets to discuss foreign relations, the Council takes the form of the GAC (General Affairs and external relations Council), and it will be consisted mainly of member states’ foreign ministers. There are nine configurations including the GAC and another one you may have heard of, ECOFIN (Economic and Financial Affairs). The Council is chaired by a rotational presidency, which is held by a member state for six months.

The European Commission

President: Jean-Claude Juncker

This is the executive arm of the EU. It is made up of 28 Commissioners, one for each member state, all of whom have sworn an oath to protect the interests of the Union. It is the body that holds the power to initiate proposals, which then have to be passed by the Council of the EU (see above) and the Parliament (see below). It is also responsible for making sure that policies passed by the EU are implemented correctly by Member States. If policies are not being implemented, the Commission can issue written warnings, publicly announce in an attempt to shame, and as a last resort, take member states to court. The president is nominated by the European Council (see below), and then confirmed by the Parliament. The Council of the EU then nominates the 27 other Commissioners and the Parliament votes on them as one body, rather than as individuals.

*Side note: The EC has around 23,000 staff and only takes up around 2% of the EU’s total budget.

The European Parliament

President: Antonio Tajani

The Parliament is the other decision-making body of the EU. It is the only directly elected, international legislature (law-making body) in the world. It is made up of 751 members, spread across all 28 member states, and is elected by universal suffrage (almost all adults) for five-year terms. It is chaired by a president, who is a member of the chamber, elected by their peers for a 2-and-a-half-year term.

The European Council

President: Donald Tusk

Not to be mistaken for the Council of the EU or the Council of Europe (it’s confusing, we know!), the European Council acts as a sort of steering committee for the EU. It’s best described as a ‘collective presidency’, in that as a body, it is like the head of state for the EU. It meets at least twice every six months and provides a broad, strategic direction for the EU. Its membership consists of the heads of state or government for all 28 member states, along with the President of the European Council and the President of the European Commission (the last two are non-voting members).  The European Council holds significant power to make appointments, including its own president, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the President of the European Central Bank. It also proposes to the Parliament, its candidate for the President of the European Commission.

*Side note: The European Council is widely considered to be the supreme political authority of the EU, and when it makes a recommendation, whilst the institutions below are not bound to follow, they almost always do.

The European Court of Justice

President: Koen Lenaerts

This is the highest legal authority of the EU and is made up of 28 judges (you guessed it, one for each member state). The judges are nominated by their member state, and their appointment is ratified by all others. Judges sit for a six-year, renewable term. The President is elected from and by the sitting judges, for a renewable term of three years. The court usually sits in panels of three, five or fifteen. Its main role is interpreting EU law and ensuring the equal application within member states. However, it is ultimately up to national courts to decide on whether national law is in line with EU law.

*Side note: The ECJ has been constantly growing. In 2008, the ECJ received over 1,300 cases and in 2014, the staff budget hit a record high of €350M.

Are these institutions undemocratic?

This is possibly one of the major arguments for leaving the EU – a democratic deficit (a lack of democracy). However, when you take a closer look at these institutions, you will see that, whilst most are not directly elected – they are, arguably, just as democratic as any national government.

The Presidency of the EU Commission, for example, is nominated by the members’ heads of state (who are there by the democratic will of the people), and then confirmed by the Parliament (which is directly elected by the population of the EU). This constitutes a double-democratic check on the Commission. If you take a look at the Court of Justice, all the judges are nominated by their respective elected governments’.

However, criticism is often levelled at the EU for such bureaucratic procedures such as the once-a-month move of the Parliament from Brussels to Strasbourg, which costs roughly £93m a year.

Is the EU a bureaucratic mess, or an effective international union? Let us know what you think in the comments.


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