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Introduction to the European Union

The European Union is a supranational organisation and the product of the joint efforts of 28 countries, or Member States, across Europe and its surrounding area. There are over 500 million people living within these Member States. The European Union works by each Member State conferring (the same) powers, or competences to this organisation such that certain objectives can be achieved. It is governed today by two Treaties: The Treaty on European Union and The Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. Together, these Treaties may be referred to as The Treaty of Lisbon – where the Treaties were concluded. Over time, the Treaties have evolved, altering the nature of the European Union.

The European Union is neither a federation like the United States, where a central (federal) power has some areas of competence, and subordinate organisations (states) have other areas of competence, nor is it merely a co-operation initiative between governments. It is an evolving hybrid. It is almost paradoxical in nature, as Member States confer competences, yet the organisation has developed to such a point that it has the power to decide whether a competence has been conferred to itself.

The content of European Union law can be described as the Community acquis – comprised of its objectives, treaties, the principles behind the treaties, acts, agreements and declarations – a rather broad concept.

A brief history of the European Union

The European Union started out in 1951. It was then known as the European Coal and Steel Community: an organisation comprised of only 6 Member States following the Second World War with the objective of pooling the resources required to wage war in an attempt to prevent future wars. In 1957, the nature of the organisation changed. It became known as the European Economic Community, with the objective of creating a joint trading power. In 1973, the United Kingdom joined. In 1986, the organisation developed it own internal market – a system whereby goods, persons, services and capital could be traded freely between Member States. In 1991, the organisation was renamed to the European Union, at which point it started to become a political, as well as an economic, organisation.

As a more political organisation, many thought that the European Union ought to become a constitutional power. This concept was rejected in 2005. The latest development of the organisation: the Treaty of Lisbon, is the antidote to this rejection.

The Treaties

The Treaty on European Union (TEU) sets out the mission statement of the European Union (EU). It is organised into articles, and sets out how its institutions (below) are to operate and its membership rules, among other things. Article 1 states that:

“Member States confer competences to attain objectives they have in common. This Treaty marks a new stage in the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”

This Article illustrates that the EU seeks to develop with time, hence the evolution from an economic to a political organisation. Article 2 sets out the values of the EU to accompany this declaration.

The Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) sets out a lot of the content of the previous Treaties (which were replaced by the current ones). One of the most important aspects of this Treaty is its setting out of the competencies, or powers of the EU, as conferred by Member States. The EU may only act within its conferred competencies.

Finally, appended to the Treaties is the Charter of Fundamental Rights – not technically a Treaty, but, according to Article 6 TEU, it has the same legal value as the Treaties. It will be considered within the later section on fundamental rights.

You can download a PDF file containing both Treaties and the Charter of Fundamental Rights from here.

Structure of the European Union

The EU is physically made up of 5 organisations: the European Parliament, the European Council, the Council, the Commission and the Court of Justice of the European Union. There are many other more minor organisations, but these are of little relevance here.

The European Parliament

The European Parliament is defined in Article 14 TEU. It is the democratic body of the EU, where between 6 and 96 citizens from each Member State (Members of European Parliament) represent the views of the people of the European Union. The European Parliament plays a key role in the creation of legislative acts (legislation) of the European Union, providing suggestions for amendments (consultation), consent or vetoing proposals of the Commission. The European Parliament may also challenge acts of other institutions and appoints both the Ombudsman and the Commission’s president. It may veto the EU’s budget and make the Commission’s Commissioners resign with a 2/3 majority.

The European Parliament has been widely criticised. It has been described by the European Constitutional Court as non-representative with weak political engagement – often Members of European Parliament fail to attend votes.

The European Council

The European Council (Article 15 TEU) is made up of the Heads of State of each Member State, along with its president (who drives meetings and mediates disputes), the vice-president of the Commission and the EU’s ‘foreign secretary’. The European Council sets the agenda and direction of the EU as a whole; suggests Treaty amendments; appoints the Commission’s president and resolves issues within the Council.

The Council

The Council (Article 16 TEU) represents the governments of Member States, sitting in different configurations depending on the issues being discussed. Each configuration allows Member States’ appropriate ministers to attend. It has the final say on legislative adoption and gives legislative ideas to the Commission.

The Commission

The Commission, defined by Article 17 TEU, is by far the largest organisation, employing over 32,000 people. It is firstly made up of a College of Commissioners – 28 Commissioners, each with their own policy areas. These Commissioners are appointed by the Commission’s president. Each Commissioner has his own Cabinet of 7-8 people. The Cabinets communicate with the Directorates-Generals. There are 33 Directorates Generals – departments with no loyalty.

The Commission has a number of functions: it proposes legislation; sets the EU’s legislative agenda, ensures Treaty compliance and often has the power to create secondary (quasi-) legislation, as long as this legislation is non-essential. It also ensures that revenue collection takes places, that competition law is complied with and administers aid.

Court of Justice of the European Union

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) is made up of 3 courts: the Court of Justice (CoJ), the General Court (GC) and the Civil Service Tribunal. Collectively, the Court oversees that the Treaties are complied with and interprets EU law. Within the CoJ, there are 28 judges (1 per Member State). Each sits for a renewable 6 year term and the panel is accompanied by 9 Advocates General. Depending on the importance of a case, not all judges will sit – often a case will be heard by chambers of between 3 and 15 judges. There are never any dissenting judgments in CJEU cases, only a singular judgment delivered by a lead judge. One Advocate General delivers an opinion prior to the judgment in any case, which the Court is not obliged to follow. There is no rigid system of precedent within the CJEU.

Next: European Union law making

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