The EU at a glance
The European Union comprises:
- The Member States
- The EU Institutions
There are currently 27 EU Member states. To become a member, each State must complete a lengthy application process during which it must demonstrate compliance with EU rules for democratic processes, rights and the body of law and must be unanimously accepted by all other members.
At present other states are undertaking this process. Croatia is scheduled to become an EU Member on 1st July 2013 after the treaty is ratified by all the Member States and Croatia. Macedonia and Turkey are at more preliminary stages.
Principles and procedures for participation and competence for the EU to act are set out in the founding Treaty of Rome (1957) and successive amending treaties, notably Maastricht (1992), Amsterdam (1997) and Nice (2002). A draft Constitutional Treaty was signed by Member states at Rome in 2004 but is awaiting ratification in all member states by referendum or parliamentary vote and is currently undergoing a ‘’period of reflection’’.
EU Member states have the right to participate in the EU Institutions.
The European Commission
This is the administrative body for the EU, having responsibilities to draft, prepare and consult on prospective legislation; to carry out executive programmes; and to act as “guardian of the treaty” by upholding the binding legal acts.
The Commission has two component elements:
• A political College of 27 Commissioners, one from each Member State, who serve for 5 years and collectively adopt legislative proposals. Individually they lead portfolios of policies with the support of a Cabinet. They are based in Brussels, with a President appointed by member states, currently Jose Manuel Barroso, the former Prime Minister of Portugal.
• Directorates General (DGs) administer the body of work, each headed by a Director General. They are divided into Units. The DG for health & Consumer Protection (DG SANCO) has policy units in Brussels and programme units in Luxembourg. The current Director General is Robert Madelin.
The comprehensive Commission website contains information about all activities.
The two main instruments are Directives (framework laws that must be transposed into national legislation by each parliament) and Regulations (which are directly applicable to all countries.
However the Commission does not have a vote in the legislative process. Once a proposal is adopted the two other main institutions decide it: the European Councils of Ministers and the European Parliament.
Member state governments meet in the EU Councils, usually in Brussels or Luxembourg but occasionally in the country holding the six monthly rotation of the Presidency (link)
Heads of State and Government meet at least once during each Presidency to determine major policy matters and treaty issues. Each spring they hold an economic summit to review key economic priorities.
Ministers meet at least once per Presidency in their appropriate portfolio councils, at which they are advised by officials from the collective council itself in Brussels but on national positions by the Permanent Representations (embassies to the EU for each country). These officials prepare detailed dossiers in frequent working groups.
When legislative proposals are considered, the aim is to reach a Common Position or agreement among member states. If a decision is disputed, votes are weighted according to a political agreement in the treaty (qualified majority voting).
Council has to approve every legislative decision, but in an increasing number of decisions it also requires the agreement by co-decision of the European Parliament. Meetings are usually held in private although some are now open, and documents may be accessed via; http://ue.eu.int
The European Parliament
There are 736 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) distributed by treaty agreement between Member States who are elected nationally for five years, currently 2009 –14.
They elect a President and other officers each 2 ½ years, and work through trans-national political groups (there are currently nine) and cross party legislative committees (there are currently twenty). Each MEP can propose amendments to any legislation, but committee places and votes are allocated proportionately. Parliament committees and offices are in Brussels, but the main plenary chamber is in Strasbourg.
When legislative proposals are received from the EC, the relevant Committee (for example on Environment, Health & Food Safety) appoints a Rapporteur to pilot the views of MEPs through the process of up to three readings, detailed scrutiny and votes in Committee followed by overall decisions in plenary sessions each month.
The co-decision process (which applies to most public health and related decisions) allows Council and Parliament to consult widely, discuss amendments to proposals and gradually reach political agreement. It is lengthy, cumbersome and complex but rarely fails to produce a compromise that is then enacted by the Commission.
Full information on Parliamentary activities, including links to MEPs and documents: www.europarl.eu.int
Contested decisions or alleged contraventions of EU laws are decided in the European Courts, based in Luxembourg. Judges from each member state sit in the EU Court of Justice, or in certain circumstances requiring particular attention the Court of First Instance.
Information and documents are available from: http://curia.eu.int
NB: This is not to be confused with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which determines cases brought within the European Convention on Human Rights and is associated with the (non EU) 49 member Council of Europe.
The Cour of Auditors
Also based in Luxembourg, this body is responsible for holding the financial administration of the EU institutions to account and publishes an annual report.
The European Central Bank based in Frankfurt is responsible for financial matters in the member states that have adopted the Euro as a common currency with associated political and economic agreements.
The European Investment Bank is an autonomous body established by the Treaty of Rome and based in Luxembourg to sustain European development and further integration by capital investment.
The Committee of the Regions
This is a consultative body providing opinions on relevant proposals (including health) to the Commission on behalf of elected regional bodies in all member states.
It is based in Brussels. Further information from: www.cor.eu.int
The Economic and Social Committee
Similarly (and based in the same Brussels building as CoR), this body provides non-binding opinions for the Commission on behalf of social partners – employer, employee and consumer representatives appointed by member states.
For more information please visit the official website of the Ecosoc.
The office of the Ombudsman investigates complaints against EU bodies and may take actions. The office is currently held by P. Nikiforo Diamandouros, based in Strasbourg: www.euro-ombudsman.eu.int