EU Mechanics Basics

The EU is an international organisation comprised of 28 countries or member states with a population of over 500 million. It is an international institution conferred with powers by its member states. These are reflected in the European Union treaties.

The European Union has the power to make laws in the areas defined by the Treaty. The Commission proposes laws. Each member state has an input into the making of these laws through a member of the government (or Prime Minister’s) participation in the Council (or European Council). Most laws also require the consent of the European Parliament which is directly elected by citizens of the member states.

The Council

The European Council is comprised of the heads of states or heads of government of the 28-member states. This includes the UK Prime Minister and the Irish Taoiseach. The European Council is the highest level of the Council and agrees strategic and high-level decisions on the directions and priorities of the European Union. The European Council is chaired by a President who has a two and half-year term of office which can be renewed once. The President is now Donald Tusk, former Polish Prime Minister.

The Council of Ministers made up of one minister of each member state, relevant to the particular subject matter or sector. For example, the Council when dealing with agricultural matters will comprise of the agricultural ministers, et cetera.

In practice, most issues are agreed by consensus through prior discussions and participation by the representatives of each state. The Council meetings are largely a formality.

The European Parliament is made upon of 751 directly elected members (MEPs) who serve a fixed five-year term. The UK has 73 MEPs and Ireland has 12. Northern Ireland has 3 MEPs.  Most legislation requires the consent both of the Council and Parliament. MEPs sit in political blocks reflecting their position on the political spectrum.

The Commission

The European Commission is the executive of the European Union. It administers and applies European Union Law and is responsible for most European Union bodies. It is the permanent body based in Brussels, Belgium. As with the other institutions, it is bound by the terms of the European Union treaties and is limited in its powers to the matters conferred on it by the EU treaties.

The European Commission proposes EU laws for the consideration by the Parliament and the Council. It proposes and implements the EU budget. It applies and enforces European Union law including by legal action taken before the European Court of Justice where states are alleged to have failed in their obligations. It conducts, under the direction of member states, the international relations of the EU.

The European Commission consists of President and 27 other commissioners. Each deal with a particular policy or area. Each state nominates a Commissioner. The Commission is approved and may be dismissed in its totality by the European Parliament. The European Commission consists of persons from all across the European Union.

The Courts

The Court of Justice of the European Union interprets and applies EU Law. It ensures that the institution of the EU and member states comply with it. There are two principal courts. The Court of Justice of the European Union (which sometimes is also referred to as the European Court of Justice), constitutes the highest judicial authority of the EU. It ensures, in cooperation with the courts and tribunals of the Member States, the application, and uniform interpretation of European Union law. The Court of Justice is composed of one judge from each Member State.

The General Court hears cases in the first instance, which are not referred to the specialised courts or directly to the Court of Justice. It also deals with appeals against decisions (of first instance) by the specialised courts. The General Court is composed of at least one judge per Member State.

Specialised courts can be set up for specific areas. They can hear and determine cases at first instance, with the possibility of an appeal to the General Court.

National Parliaments have a role in scrutinising and holding governments to account in relation to its EU decisions. The  UK parliament and Irish Oireachtas have committees dealing with European Union affairs. They may examine the implementation of EU laws. In some cases, national parliaments can comment on proposed EU laws, before they are voted on by the Council.

The UK European Union Act 2011 requires the consent of Parliament before certain important decisions are agreed by UK ministers. There is no equivalent in Ireland.

The EU is a body with limited powers that may only act in accordance with the powers conferred on it by the European Union Treaties. These are now the Treaty on European Union (TEU) and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). Acts outside its powers are void and of no effect. They can be challenged as invalid before the EU courts.

EU Sources of Law

The EU treaties are the highest form of EU law. They define what the institutions of the EU may or may not do. They define both the procedural powers for making of legislation and the scope of the various areas in which legislation may be made by the EU institutions.

The EU makes laws by Regulations, Directives, and Decisions made in accordance with the EU treaty. Regulations are laws which apply automatically and have the force of law throughout the European Union.

Directives require the member state to implement and achieve particular objectives in national law. The terms by which they are implemented is determined by the member state. In the United Kingdom, most legislation is implemented by orders made under the European Communities Act 1972 (UK). In the Republic of Ireland, most European Union legislations implemented through statutory instruments made by ministers under the European Communities Act 1972 (Ireland).

The European Union can make decisions which are in the nature of a finding or determinations usually on an individual subject matter not having a long-term legislative consequence.  Commonly, the EU Commissioner or another body has powers to make decisions or implementing rules under legislation.

A European Union regulation may give the Commission (or another body of the European Union) power to make detailed implementing administrative or operational rules in particular areas (e.g. the customs rules).

The European Union has the power to enter international treaties in certain areas where the member states through the Council and in most cases the European Parliament agree.

In some areas, the European Union has shared competence with member states. In other areas, it may have exclusive competence or power in the area concerned. It may effectively assume exclusive competence where it has legislated in the area concerned.

The principle of subsidiarity seeks to ensure that decisions are taken at the lowest level of government closest to the citizen. It presumes that EU level action is only necessary where this is the appropriate level and that action by the member states is not sufficient to achieve the objective. The principle of proportionality limits the use of EU power so that the power used should be used no more necessary to achieve the aims and objective concerned.

EU Law Taking Effect

Most European Union law has direct effect. It can be directly enforced in the domestic courts in disputes between citizens and between citizens and the state and public bodies. Some EU law such as certain Treaty provisions and directives are not usually directly effective unless the state has failed in its obligations to implement them. They must be given effect by national legislation.

EU Directives may be implements by way of an Act of Parliament or the Oireachtas but is most commonly by way of an Order in Council (in the UK) or statutory instrument (Republic of Ireland) made under the European Community Act 1972 (UK) and the European Communities Act. Each is directly made by the government in order to give effect to the EU law obligation which binds the state.

The European Union Courts interpret and enforce European Union laws. They provide guidance to national courts on the meaning of European Union law and how to apply it to particular circumstances in disputes before them. Domestic courts, national courts may refer and if there is any uncertainty, must refer points of European Union law to the European Courts for a decision.

European Union law is domestic law and is directly enforceable in the courts before national courts.  National / domestic Courts must apply European Union law. In the areas where European Union law is made and it has functions, it is superior to national law. States and national courts must apply and give effect to it in disputes, even where it is inconsistent with and thereby override national legislation or common law.

If a member state or the Commission is of the view that another EU state or an EU institution is not complying with EU law (including its correct interpretation) it may apply to the European Court for a declaration. The institution or state must follow the law as interpreted and confirmed by the European Court. It can be subject to a fine for failure to do so.

Law Making in the EU

Most EU legislation is made through the ordinary legislative procedure. The European Commission proposes a law. The EU states through their (civil service) permanent representatives and the Parliament negotiate the proposal and agree or reject it. Under the ordinary legislative procedure, the EU Parliament acts by a simple majority.

The Council acts by qualified majority. This is based on weighted voting determined by population size, it requires a majority of governments representing a majority of EU states. In many areas, the EU must act with the unanimous support of each Council as required effectively giving each government a veto.

The European Union may make law only in the areas provided for by the EU Treaties. The treaties may not be amended without the consent of each state. The Irish Courts have held that significant amendments of the Treaties require the consent of the people in a referendum.

European Union Law applies in various areas within the competence of the devolved UK governments. New policy on the devolved areas is coordinated by a joint ministerial committee. Ministers of the devolved administrations may be part of the UK delegation and the Council.

UK Opt-outs

The UK opted out of European and Monetary Union. It retains the Pound sterling as its currency and has no obligation to join the euro. It does not participate in the European Banking Union and retains responsibility for the supervision of its banks. It is exempt from various aspects of enforcement of European Economic and Monetary Union.

The UK has negotiated a number of opt-outs over the years on EU competence and arrangements. In these cases, the UK is not subject to the arrangements concerned. In domestic and justice and home affairs, Ireland for pragmatic reasons has negotiated similar opt-outs.

Ireland and the UK have opted out of the Schengen border-free area system. Both Ireland and the UK do not participate in certain other measures in the justice and home affairs areas. This includes, in particular, the common visa system. Ireland and the UK may opt into certain justice and home affair measures and have frequently done so.

The Budget

The EU budget is established in a multi-annual financial framework setting out income and spending limits for at least five years or more. The Council and European Parliament must agree proposed expenditure in annual budgets.

Agricultural expenditure comprises 40 percent of all expenditure. It once comprised a much higher percentage Regional growth and employment orientated spending on infrastructure development and aid to poorer regions is 35 percent of the budget. The remainder of the budget is spent on research and development, international development assistance, security, and administration.

The EU has its own resources revenue from three sources.

  • 75 percent of import duties and goods entering the EU (14 percent of the overall budget)
  • part of VAT (generally 1 percent comprising (14 percent of the budget).
  • a gross national income-based contribution by member states (72 percent of the budget).
Share this article