Friday, July 29, 2011

European Institutions

I am sure not everyone knows how the European Union actually functions. All we hear on the news is that Brussels has decided this or that. However I am sure it is worth explaining the European Institutions, especially for those living within the EU. 
The institutions of the European Union form the framework for cooperation between the (current) 27 member states. The European Commission is the only one that can initiate legislation. It submits its proposals to the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, in order to be approved or rejected. The parliament also has responsibility for supervising the 27 commissioners and is the only institution with the power to fire them. Commissioners are appointed by the Council of Ministers and then approved by the parliament.
When legislation is finally passed, the European Court of Justice makes sure it is interpreted uniformly across all the member states.
The Court of Auditors is the watchdog for the budget, checking that the money is being well spent.

The European Commission is the only body that can propose legislation within the EU. It is seen as the driving force behind European integration. The commission is made up of 27 commissioners, each with a responsibility for a policy area, such as agriculture or enlargement, each being appointed by the member states and are usually senior politicians. Nevertheless, their main focus is to act in the general European interest and not to advance the interests of their own countries.
The Council of Ministers is where member states have their say. This can bring together government ministers from each country, ambassadors and even government officials. The Council of Ministers, formally known as the Council of the European Union, should not be confused with the European Council, which is the name given to regular meetings, summits, of the EU heads of state. Under the Lisbon Treaty the Union has for the first time a full time President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, from Belgium, serving for 2,5 years. This treaty has also given the EU a new foreign policy supremo, Baroness Catherine Ashton from Great Britain.
The parliament is the only direct elected body within the European Union. It holds regular plenary sessions in Strasbourg and retains a secretariat in Luxembourg; however members of the parliament do most of their work in Brussels. This is where they examine draft legislations in committees and consult with the Commission and Council of Ministers. The parliament has the power to sack the Commission, it holds hearings on new commissioners and has the last word on about half the spending in the EU annual budget. Its powers, however, have been gradually increasing.  A majority of EU legislation requires to be approved by both parliament and the Council of Ministers before it becomes law.
The European Court located in Luxembourg rules on disputes over EU treaties and other Union legislation. Its decisions are binding on EU institutions and member states. The latter can be taken to court for failing to meet its obligations under EU law. Big fines can be imposed for non-compliance with the courts' rulings. The court hears actions brought by individuals seeking damages from European institutions, or the annulment of EU legislation which directly concerns them. It also clarifies points of European law at the request of courts in member states. It complies of senior judges from each member state, who hold office for a renewable term of six years.
The European Central Bank located in the German city Frankfurt is responsible for monetary policy within the eurozone.  Its main goals are maintaining price stability and safeguards the value of the euro. It does this together with the eurozones' national central banks, by setting interest rates, conducting foreign exchange operations and managing national foreign reserves. The bank is formally independent, along the lines of the German Bundesbank. When taking decisions on monetary policy, neither the ECB nor the national central banks are allowed to take instructions from the EU institutions or member states.
The EU relies on a number of smaller bodies to keep it running. There are various agencies found across the continent dedicated to every aspect of European life.  

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