A Beginner’s Guide to the European Union

Analysis by Gabriella ATKINS

The Founding Treaties

The EU began with the establishement of the European Coal and Steel Community under the Treaty of Paris (1951), with the European Economic Community and the European Energy Community (Euratom) estblished later in the decade. These three communities were brought together as the European Union by the Maastricht Treaty (1992).

The founding six Members of the ECSC in blue – Public domain

The ECSC was originally conceived of as a treaty of economic cooperation between France and Germany, but its mastermind, Robert Schuman, invited other Western European states to join. France, Germany, Italy and the Benelux nations (Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg) formed the ECSC. The ECSC was to act as a regulator, detached from national power and a transfer of sovereignty was required from Member States to the ECSC institutions.


The EEC was established when the same six states signed the Treaty of Rome. Again, the EEC and Eurotam were to be indepednent institutional structures, to which a degree of sovereign power was ceded. Whilst the ECSC and Euratom only involved cooperation regarding the coal and steel industry and atomic energy respectively, the EEC aimed to integrate the economies of the six Member States through creating a customs union and later a common market.

The EU was established through the Treaty on European Union (TEU) or the Maastricht Treaty which acted as an umbrella for the three existing European communities. It provided for the furthering of economic cooperation through Economic and Monetary Union, with the introduction of the euro currency and the European Central Bank. However, the TEU also wanted to broaden the scope of international cooperation beyond the purely economic.


The Amending Treaties

In addition to the four founding Treaties, Member States have also agreed to a number of amending treaties (such as the Merger Treaty, the Single European Act and the Treaty of Amsterdam) which have facilitated the development of the European Union both economically and politically. The accession treaties are the treaties through which new Member States join the Union.


The Main Treaties

The main Treaties which now govern the European Union are the Treaty of the European Union (TEU) and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), both of which came into force in 2009.


Secondary Sources of EU Law

The primary sources of EU law are the Treaties. Article 288 TFEU provides that in order to enact and enforce EU policies, secondary legislation can be used. This comes in the form of regulations, directives, decisions, recommendations and opinions, each of which has a varying effect.

Regulations are of general application to all Member States and take immediate effect without the need for further implementation, meaning they are ‘directly applicable’ and automatically become law in a Member State. Regulations are generally used to create uniformity in law between Member States.

Directives can be address to all or specific Member States. They do not automatically become law, requiring governments to implement them. Directives set out objectives to be achieved by Member States but leaves the means of achieving them to national governments to decide, generally with a specified deadline.

Decisions are binding on the addressees only.

Recommendations and opinions have no binding force on Member States.


Capture d’écran 2016-02-15 à 20.16.55.png
Timeline of Treaties (year of enforcement) and Member State accession by Gabriella Atkins

The Institutions

Article 13 TEU outlines the institutions of the European Union:

The European Parliament

The hemicycle in Brussels – by  Marco Ammon, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Officially based in Strasbourg, the EP’s committees sit in Brussels and its secretariat is divided between Brussels and Luxembourg. An inefficient division but one which has arisen for purely historic reasons. Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are elected for five-year terms and any citizen can stand for election. MEPs do not organise themselves along national lines but instead sit in multinational party groups centred around ideology. The EP carries out a range of functions and tasks. Regarding legislative procedure, the Lisbon Treaty created a single ‘ordinary legislative procedure’ and this process is highly complex but essentially aims at getting the Council and the EP to agree on a common text. However, the EP has most power because it can effectively veto the passing of legislation. The EP also has the power to approve or reject the entire EU budget and exercises a significant supervisory function in holding the Commission to account, receiving petitions from Union citizens and the power to veto the accession of new Member States.

The European Council

The European Council is a meeting of the Heads of Government of the Member States and the President of the Commission and is often referred to as a summit meeting. Decisions are often made by consensus, but QMV (see below) can be used.

The Council of the European Union (‘the Council’)

The CEU is primarily based in Brussels and is referred to in Treaties as ‘the Council’. The Council represents Members States, allowing them to defend their national interests. Presidency is allocated to Member States on rotation. As representatives of their states, Council members are politically accountable to their national governments. The Council is the main decision-making body in the EU and, together with the European Parliament, can approve the EU budget. Decisions are made in the Council through a voting process. As a simple majority would require individual Member States to cede too much power, ‘qualified majority voting’ (QMV) has been developed. This is a weighted voting system which prevents a small block of Member States from vetoing a decision. To facilitate and carry on the work of the Council between meetings, a secondary body has been developed, the Committee of Permanent Representatives (COREPER).

The European Commission

04 European Commission
The Berlaymont building, head office of the European Commission – Amio Cajander, licenced under CC BY-SA 2.0

The Commission is primarily based in Brussels and is entrusted with the representation of the EU’s interest as a whole, as opposed to individual Member States (the Council) and Union citizens (Parliament). The Commission cannot be seen to be furthering the interest of any single Member State and guards its independence highly. Commissioners are appointed for five years and must act in an independent capacity. Whilst they do not represent any Member State, the Commission is comprised of one national from each Member State. The Commission is headed by its President who is the figurehead of the EU, representing it at international meetings. As an independent unit, the Commission is not politically accountable to Member States but the European Parliament can force the whole Commission to resign through a vote of censure or no confidence. This power has never been used. The Commission is divided into policy departments, called Directorates General (DG) each headed by a Director General who must report to the Commissioner responsible for that department. Commissioners appoint a small cabinet of advisers to assist them. The Commission is responsible for furthering the interests of the Union and is therefore responsible for any requirements that arise out of that. It is responsible for the initiation of Union policy and ensuring that policy is properly implemented. Furthermore the Commission also carries out the external relations of the Union acting as negotiator and establishing overseas missions.

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU)

Based in Luxembourg, the CJEU is made up of 28 judges, one from each Member State and 9 Advocates General (who provide reasoned and impartial opinion for the judges) all of which must be indepdent from their national governments. The CJEU should not be confused with either the European Court of Human Rights (Strasbourg) or the International Court of Justice (The Hague). Judgements in the CJEU are by majority and collegiate, in other words there is only one judgement with no dissenting opinions. The CJEU has a wide range of functions, most important of which are enforcement proceedings and preliminary references. Regarding enforcement proceedings, the CJEU has the power to determine whether or not a Member State has fulfilled its obligations under EU law. Preliminary rulings are matters of EU law brought to the CJEU for intepretation, the ensuing decisions are then binding on all national courts.

The General Court and Specialised Courts

These courts exist to relieve the pressure of work on the CJEU.

The Court of Auditors

Based in Luxembourg and composed of 28 members, one from each Member State, the Court of Auditor’s role is to independently audit the revenue and spending of the European Union and to certify that its accounts are legal and reliable. The role of the Court is not to address shortcomings it might find but to pass on the information to the relevant authorities.


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2 thoughts on “A Beginner’s Guide to the European Union

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