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The European Union: a brief overview & terms to understand

August 6, 2013

The European Union (EU) has a structure of government which is uniquely their own. Although aspects may seem similar to a federal structure, it does not fall into that category. The government of the EU has evolved over 50 years, and is historic in its ability to have so many nations retain a level of independence but still work together for the greater good.

There are three main bodies which are charged with lawmaking in the EU

There are three main bodies which are charged with lawmaking in the EU

The European Commission (EC) is the body which represents the EU as a whole. It consists of a president and 27 commissioners, one from each member state. Although commissioners are nominated by their nation, they act for the benefit of the Union as a whole. Commissioners are no longer affiliated with their respective governments when they are appointed and are therefore expected to act neutrally in policy-making decisions. They serve for a five year term under the leadership of the commission president, and all are appointed by the European Council. The Commission’s term is five years, in which they are charged with proposing new laws, managing the EU’s budget and allocating funds, enforcing EU law along with the Court of Justice, and representing the EU internationally.

A list of current Commissioners, who serve until 2014 can be found here:

A list of current Commissioners, who serve until 2014 can be found here:

The Commission also includes permanent staff, which includes administrators, lawyers, economists, translators, interpreters, secretarial staff, etc. which are allocated into departments known as Directorates-General (DG). Additional administrations which carry out various tasks on behalf of the EU serve under the Directorates-General. For example, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) sits under the Directorate General for Health and Safety (DG-SANCO).

The European Parliament consists of representatives from each EU member state, which are directly elected by their citizens every 5 years. These representatives, unlike the Commission are direct representatives of their member nation and act on their behalf to make sure they are being properly represented. The number of representatives from each member nation is roughly determined by their population, although no country can have less than 6 representatives under the Lisbon Treaty. They debate and pass EU laws and debate and adopt the budget proposed by the Commission, along with the Council. They also supervise other EU institutions to ensure they are acting democratically.

The Council of the European Union consists of the political leaders of each member nation, the Commission President, and the Council President. This body does not have the power to pass laws, but are influential in deciding the EU’s political direction and objectives. They typically meet in a Summit 4 times per year, but the Council President can convene a special meeting if they deem necessary.

Important Terms & Other Institutions

For more information about the European Union, visit the website for “Europe in 12 Lessons”

For more information about the European Union, visit the website for “Europe in 12 Lessons”

Member State – every nation which has a membership and representation within the European UnionThird Country – nations outside of the boundaries of the EU (typically used when referring to imports and exports)Directive – a regulation which has been established by the EU, but is expected to be carried out by member statesGreen Papers – documents published by the Commission to generate discussion at the European level. The Commission invites stakeholders to take part in the debate on these proposals, which may escalate to proposals in future white papers.

White Papers – proposals for policy released by the Commission on a specific topic

Ombudsman – investigates complaints against EU institutions, bodies, offices and agencies in order to determine where EU institutions, bodies, offices or agencies have broken the law, failed to respect the principles of sound administration or violated human rights

Court of Justice – responsible for making sure EU law is carried out the same way in each member state

Court of Auditors – audits EU finances

European Economic and Social Committee – represents European workers, employers, and other interest groups to ensure their voice in EU policy

Committee of Regions – Responsible for representing local and regional interests by releasing reports (opinions) regarding Commission proposals

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