European Union: The Layman's Guide To The European Institutions

Last Updated: 7 December 2015
Article by Yasmine Aquilina

Ever since the horror that was the Second World War, Europe has reorganized itself into a democratic union of states, which has proved to be economically beneficial for all involved. However, the aim of the European institutions is not only economic advancement, but also political representation and civil rights. Here the aim is to differentiate between the various courts and institutions found in Europe, which can be quite a conundrum.

The European Council and the Council of Europe

The Council of Europe's main principles are democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Although it is entirely separate from the European Union, no member has ever joined the EU without first being a member of the Council of Europe (CoE). The CoE advocates for the protection of free speech, equality and the protection of minorities.

Its most important task is promulgating important conventions – chief amongst which is the Convention on Human Rights which was ratified by 47 countries. Other notable achievements of the Council of Europe include the Convention on Cybercrime, the Convention on the Prevention of Terrorism and the Convention against Corruption and Organized Crime.

On the other hand, the European Council is an institution which is part of the European Union (EU). It establishes the general political direction of the EU, while defining its priorities at any point in time. EU member state leaders meet and form the European Council and also decide on issues regarding the EU's common foreign and security policy. The idea behind the European Council was to establish a platform whereby heads of government can meet in an informal way so as to exchange ideas and to break any deadlocks that may arise. To encourage this, there is very limited access to the sessions. Nevertheless, whether or not these meetings have managed to retain their "informality" is still up for debate.

Legally binding decisions are not taken by the Council, however it does take certain decisions with respect to policy development. Although originally the idea was for the European Council to work at a general level, many a time it works on very specific internal policy issues. This is because national leaders have the authority to deal with very sensitive issues, and there is now an expectation that important policy matters are to be determined by the European Council.

The specific roles of the European Council are not very clear and they tend to vary throughout the years – however many say it concerns itself with "very high politics". Recently, the Council of Ministers has lost much of its traction to the European Council. The Council of Ministers is the other legislative body of the EU, and is made up of ministers from member states who represent their government. The ministers differ depending on the topics under discussion. Nowadays, major issues tend to go through the Council first, as opposed to the Council of Ministers.

The European Parliament in Strasbourg, the European Parliament in Brussels.

It must be said that the European Parliament has very limited power over Commission, the Council of Ministers and the European Council. Much like any democratic parliament, the European Parliament is the law making body of the EU. Apart from passing EU laws, it also decides on enlargements and agreements. It supervises many of the other institutions and approves the Commission's representatives. Together with the Council, it also establishes the EU's budget.

The work of the Parliament can be divided into two main phases: the Committee phase, which is proposing, discussing and preparing legislation, and the Plenary phase, whereby MEPs vote on the proposed legislation.

There are two buildings where the European Parliament convenes: one in Brussels and one in Strasbourg. The Strasbourg seat was built as a symbol of reconciliation between France and Germany. The plenary sessions are held in Strasbourg – meaning that all the important votes are taken there. On the other hand, the Brussels EP is where the working groups and the committee meetings are held.

The fact that there are 2 European parliaments has been a thorn in many parliamentarians' sides for years now. Dubbed the "travelling circus", members, translators, officials and documents travel monthly from Brussels to Strasbourg for 4 days and back again. This move is costing the European taxpayer €114 million yearly.

Unfortunately, the EP is legally bound by the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union to hold 12 plenary sessions a year at its Strasbourg seat. Since France has the power of the veto, any move by parliamentarians to close the Strasbourg seat will end in vain. The "travelling circus" brings over €100 million annually to the French coffers.

The European Commission

The European Commission proposes legislation and enforces European law, together with the Court of Justice of the European Union. It also manages and implements the EU budget, and negotiates on behalf of the European Union with other countries, such as with regards to trade agreements.

Each member state elects a commissioner, which is usually a minister or former minister – this is subject to the approval of the European Parliament. They must be impartial and independent and they should not push their country's political agenda.

Each Commissioner has specific areas of responsibility – "portfolios" – ranging from Environment, to Competition and Fishing. Member States usually lobby so that their Commissioner has a portfolio in an area which is of particular importance to that member state.

The President of the Commission, currently Jean Claude Juncker, allocates the Commissioners' portfolios and gives the general direction to the Commission. Juncker has been criticised for having a dated mentality with regards to the direction that Europe should be headed in. A professed federalist at heart, his views are widely regarded as obsolete. Controversially, he has also suggested that Europe needs its own army if it is to be taken seriously from an international perspective. On the whole, his outlook on the current European situation is considered to be very negative.

The Commission develops policy and has certain rule making powers. It also has the role of managing EU finances and ensuring that the policies are actually implemented by EU member states. There has been much debate centred around the question of whether an institution which is not elected should have such extensive powers.

In recent years, the authority of the Commission has significantly diminished and has lost its popularity, while the influence of the European Parliament and the European Council has increased. Its powers have been restrained by the Lisbon Treaty, wherein some powers it used to have, have now been passed on to another body: the European External Action Service.

The Court of Justice

Article 19 of the Treaty on the European Union states that: "The Court of Justice of the European Union... shall ensure that in the interpretation and application of the Treaties the law is observed". Although EU law tackles various different fields, the most prominent of these has always been that of economic activity.

Three separate courts constitute the Court of Justice (CJEU): the Court of Justice, the General Court (which was formerly known as the Court of First Instance), and the European Union Civil Service Tribunal. The CJEU deals with cases which are of more importance, whilst the General Court deals with run of the mill cases. Located in Luxembourg, they are not to be confused with the European Court of Human Rights, which is the court of the Council of Europe, situated in Strasbourg.

One judge from each member state sits on the Court of Justice, along with nine Advocates General. The CJEU deals with matters of interpretation of EU law, also known as preliminary rulings. National courts request a preliminary ruling when they are in doubt as to the way an EU law must be interpreted. These rulings therefore encourage the uniform interpretation and application of EU law. The CJEU also hears infringement proceedings whereby member states or the European Commission take national governments to Court if they fail to abide by EU laws.

Many landmark decisions have emanated from infringement proceedings and strengthened EU law, such as Van Gend En Loos. In Francovich and Bonifaci v. Italy, the Court held that individuals are entitled to financial compensation if a member state fails to implement an EU law within the required deadline, and such an individual suffers as a result. In Commission v. Council the CJEU reinforced the EU's powers by ruling that in some circumstances criminal law sanctions could be used for offences against EU law. The principle of "mutual recognition" emanated from Cassis de Dijon. This principle states that a product lawfully produced in one member state must be accepted in another member state.

The CJEU also has the power to invalidate EU legal acts if it deems that they go against a treaty or fundamental EU rights. Although some consider the CJEU's powers to be too wide, it has been of pivotal importance in shining a light on provisions of EU law which might otherwise remain unclear.

The European Court of Human Rights

Contrary to popular belief, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is in no way associated with the European Union. The ECHR tries cases which are in violation of the European Convention of Human Rights. It cannot, however, take up a case voluntarily. The party which is submitting the complaint does not necessarily have to be a citizen of a signatory state. Thus far, 47 states have ratified the Convention. When the Court receives an application, it allocates a formation of judges of which there are 4, ranging from a single judge who can rule on the admissibility of an application to a grand chamber which is composed of 17 judges and rules on cases which involve an important or novel question of law. In a means to guarantee impartiality, a single judge is not allowed to examine applications hailing from the state he/she was elected from.

However, since there are 47 contracting states to this Convention, the number of people which fall into its remit amount to 800 million. This means that there is a huge number of applications flooding the Court every year, and this number is growing steadily. This has been a point of contention for many, as some say that the impossible workload makes the ECHR unable to fulfil its human rights obligations. Schermers has described the workload as 'an iceberg: only a little tip is known to the outside world, the great mass remains hidden underwater'.

90% of cases going to the ECHR are "manifestly ill-founded" cases which never see the light of day. The Court is continuously trying to solve 3 recurring problems: filtering out the manifestly ill-founded applications, dealing with the high number of repetitive cases and also the unbalanced nature of the cases – in which 60% are lodged against the same 5 state parties. Although there have been attempts at streamlining the system, such as the aforementioned variations in panels of judges dealing with different types of applications, the ECHR is largely a victim of its own success.

A Pacific Era

Since 1945, Europe has enjoyed an unprecedented time of 70 years of peacetime. It can be said that these various institutions have played a major role guaranteeing this pacific era. After centuries of the European countries waging war against one another, Europe has finally learnt how to settle its disagreements in a peaceful and cordial manner, without putting European lives at stake. However, this time of relative peace must not be taken for granted. The institutions collectively could be seen as a machine which needs to be well oiled and looked after, as if it becomes faulty it could stop working entirely. These institutions have ensured that the EU remains as transparent as possible, while the Courts have guaranteed that the European member states are held accountable for their actions.

www.csb-advocates.com

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Authors
 
Some comments from our readers…
“The articles are extremely timely and highly applicable”
“I often find critical information not available elsewhere”
“As in-house counsel, Mondaq’s service is of great value”

Related Topics
 
Related Articles
 
Up-coming Events Search
Tools
Print
Font Size:
Translation
Channels
Mondaq on Twitter
 
Mondaq Free Registration
Gain access to Mondaq global archive of over 375,000 articles covering 200 countries with a personalised News Alert and automatic login on this device.
Mondaq News Alert (some suggested topics and region)
Select Topics
Registration (please scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of www.mondaq.com

To Use Mondaq.com you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.

Disclaimer

The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.

General

Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions