The Institutions of the European Union

The European Union treaties establish so-called supra-national institutions.  These are independent bodies with their own legal identity with set powers and competences.  Within the areas in which the EU treaties give the EU institutions legal powers or competences, the European Union bodies make enforce and administer laws and their courts interpret the laws where necessary.

As well as having its own administration which deals with areas which are within the exclusive competence of the European Union such as the common agricultural policy or trade policy, the European Union makes laws which must be implemented by member states.  Most EU derived laws are administered and enforced by the home government.

In the case of most laws, the directives which are made by the European Union must be translated into local law.  In Ireland, this is done by either an Act or much more commonly by a statutory instrument under the European Communities Act.

European Union law including that which is part of the domestic law by way of statutory instruments implementing directives and EU regulations which apply directly without domestic implementation across the European Union, must be enforced by the Irish courts.  References may or in some cases, must be made to the European courts when there is any doubt on a point of European Union law.

The European Union Treaties create certain institutions and bodies which have functions in relation to the making, administration, and enforcement of European laws. The European Union and its officials are independent of national governments.

The European Commission is based principally in Brussels.  Certain departments are based in Luxembourg. The European Council is based in principally in Brussels, but during certain months it meets in Luxembourg.  The European courts are all based in Luxembourg.  The European Parliament is based principally in Strasbourg (in France, the Franco-German border).

There are 23 official languages of the EU including English and Irish.  All versions of the Treaty are equally valid and authentic.  French and English are the working languages of the European Union.  However, European Union laws are generally published in all 23 languages.

European Commission

The European Commission is the permanent government of the European Union. The Commission initiates most EU legislation.  It is the executive arm of the EU.  In the areas where the EU has exclusive competence, it administers and enforces EU laws.  It takes actions against states which have failed in their obligation to implement European Union law.

The EU is the guardian of the treaty.  It takes action to enforce breaches.  It is also involved in the foreign relations of the EU.

The European Commission employs 25,000 civil servants directly and is divided into a number of Directorates-General (DGs).  Each Directorate-General is equivalent to a government department. It is headed by a directorate general who is responsible to a commissioner.

The secretariat general of the commission manages the commission’s weekly meeting.  The secretary general at the secretariat is answerable to the president of the Commission. As with the government, each Commissioner is responsible for a particular area of policy and administration.  Each commissioner has his own advisors who form a so-called cabinet who liaise between the Commission and the directorate general.

The chief of the cabinet is usually from the same country as the Commissioner and will deputise for him at Commission meetings if necessary.  The chiefs of cabinet liaise with other chiefs of the cabinet in order to prepare the agenda for the Commission meetings.

The Commission is made up of one Commissioner from each member state.  The Commissioners are chosen by the European Council i.e., the governments.  The Commissioner’s primary duty is to act in the interest of the EU. They must act independently of their national governments.  Although, there is in practice one commissioner per member state this should be in no way be a factor in the exercise of their duty.

The Commissioner of each state is usually a permanent former minister or a  person of equivalent status. The Commission acts collectively.  Famously, the entire Commission including the President and all members was forced to resign in 1999 due to accusations of mismanagement and fraud committed by certain Commissioners.  Subsequent to that incident, a strict code of conduct was adopted by the Commission.

President of the Commission

The President of the Commission is now elected by the European Parliament, after the Lisbon Treaty reforms.  He must be proposed by the European Council.  It is required that the results of the European  Parliament elections must be taken into account.  The European Council formerly appointed a President of the Commission by qualified majority.  The nomination had to be approved by the European Parliament.

Formerly the number of Commissioners per Member State had to be no less than one and no more than two. The Treaty of Lisbon originally stipulated that the membership of the Commission, from 1 November 2014, was to be equivalent to two-thirds of the number of Member States. It introduced an element of flexibility by allowing the European Council to determine the number of Commissioners (Article 17(5) TEU). In 2009, the European Council decided that the Commission would continue to consist of a number of members equal to the number of Member States.

The President of the Commission allocates the Departments amongst the Commissioners.  This may be changed during the course of the term.  There is no provision for individual commissioners to resign.  The European Parliament may send for individual Commissioners.  The principle of collective responsibility still applies and the European Parliament may dismiss the entire Commission and effectively remove it.

The term of office of commissioners is 5 years.  It may be renewed.  Vacancies arising may be filled by a representative of the country which appointed the replaced commissioner.

As with governments, the commission acts collectively.  Decisions of the Commission represent the entire Commission.  Therefore, decisions are the subject of collective decision. The whole Commission bears responsibility politically for the decision.

Each decision must be approved by the entire Commission. In principle, the Commissioners may vote and act by the majority. In practice, the Commission will seek to act unanimously.

Guardians of the Treaty and Enforcement

The Commission is so-called guardians of the EU treaty.  They monitor and ensure the enforcement of EU laws.  They are entitled to investigate and seek information from states who must cooperate.  They may require businesses and individuals to furnish it with information.

The Commission enforces EU laws.  It enforces the laws against governments/states and may take steps to bring governments to court for failure to comply in areas in which the EU has exclusive competence.  It may impose sanctions and fines against businesses and individual.

The Commission may issue opinions and recommendations short of taking legal action before the Court of Justice.  Such reasons or opinions may be a precursor to legal enforcement.

Initiates Legislation

The Commission is the principal body to initiate and propose legislation.  In addition to adopting legislation, it may issue communications, action programs, required papers and other consultation documents.

Although the Commission is the principal body to initiate legislation, the Parliament may request the Commission to submit proposals on matters on which they believe the EU should act for the purpose of implementing the Treaties.  In the areas of security and justice, defence and foreign policy, the member states and certain other institutions have the prime powers of proposal although the council may also make proposals and recommendations.

Executive of the EU

The European Commission is the executive of the European Union.  It enforces and administers European Union laws.  In this context, it adopts the EU budget and administers funds.  This includes the European Social Fund, European Development Fund, European Regional Development Fund and the European Agricultural Guidance and Guarantee Fund.

In certain areas, the European Council adopts a framework act and then the European Commission has powers to make more detailed rules and laws implementing the Council Regulation.  This is equivalent to delegated legislation made by the government.

The European Commissioner functions in representing the EU internationally.  It negotiates international agreements between the EU and a third country.  The EU has delegations equivalent to embassies in many countries.


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