EU FAQ

EU FAQ

1 – What is the EU?2 – What does the EU do?3 – How does the EU make laws?4 – What is the European Commission?5 – What is the European Parliament?6 – What is the difference between the Council and the European Council?7 – What does the Court of Justice do?8 – What about the other EU institutions and bodies?9 – How much does the EU spend – and where does it get the money from?10 – How much does EU membership cost the UK?1 – What is the EU?The European Union (EU) is a group of 28 countries (formally referred to as ‘Member States’) each of which has agreed to be bound by a series of Treaties and to accept the supremacy of EU law over national law. The Union has been described as a unique experiment in international governance.The 28 Member States are: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. The Europa website has information about the 28 countries that are currently members and seven others that are in the process of joining the Union.What is now the European Union started out as the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), established under the 1951 Treaty of Paris, signed by Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. The Europa website has information about the history of the EU.The success of the ECSC led to the creation in 1957 of the European Economic Community (EEC). When the UK joined the EEC in 1973, it was the prospect of being part of a common market that was the attraction, rather than the goal set out in the EEC Treaty of creating ‘an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe’.2 – What does the EU do?From its origins as the European Coal and Steel Community, which had relatively limited interests, the EU now has ‘competence’ to legislate in a wide range of  areas. Those areas include: agriculture, the environment, employment and social affairs, food safety, public health, trade, and transport. The Europa website includes a list of topics in which the EU is active.The EU not only produces legislation. It publishes policy documents, reports, statistics, and establishes and manages funding programmes in a wide range of areas (see A Beginner’s Guide to EU Funding).3 – How does the EU make laws?At a basic level, the EU legislative process works as follows: the European Commission puts forward a proposal for legislation, which the European Parliament and the Council discuss and either approve or reject.The vast majority of EU legislation takes the form of Regulations – a type of act which is introduced into each national legislative system exactly as agreed at EU level, with no changes made by the Member States.Each year a number of Directives are also adopted by the EU. They differ from Regulations, in that Member States have some flexibility in how they implement the provisions of a Directive. The details of national laws introduced to implement Directives may, therefore, differ between Member States.In the UK, the provisions of both EU Regulations and Directives are generally implemented as Statutory Instruments (SIs – a form of UK act also known, confusingly, as ‘regulations’).For further information, see the European Commission booklet: How the European Union works: Your guide to the EU institutions, and the European Parliament’s own guide to Legislative powers. Non-EU sources of information include books from: John Harper Publishing, Oxford University Press, and Routledge.4 – What is the European Commission?The European Commission is essentially the EU’s civil service. The Europa website states that the Commission ‘Promotes the general interest of the EU by proposing and enforcing legislation as well as by implementing policies and the EU budget’.The Commission is divided into departments, known as either ‘Directorates-General’ or ‘Services’ depending on their function. Each is managed by a Director General, under the oversight of a Commissioner (it is a similar system to that in the UK, where the various Whitehall departments, staffed by civil servants, are the responsibility of individual Ministers).Each Member State has one Commissioner; collectively, they are known as the ‘College of Commissioners’. The term ‘Commission’ may be used to mean either the College or the wider institution. More information is available on the Commission website.The Commission’s Representation in the UK  provides a range of information about EU developments, particularly those that affect the UK. It also includes a section refuting ill-informed stories about the EU that appear in the British media. 5 – What is the European Parliament?The European Parliament (EP) is the EU’s only democratically-elected institution. The 751 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) sit in political, not national, groups. EP elections take place every five years; the most recent were held in 2014.Successive Treaties have increased the Parliament’s powers, and it has evolved from a consultative assembly to a significant legislative body. According to the Europarl website, Parliament ‘now acts as a co-legislator for nearly all EU law. Together with the Council, the Parliament adopts or amends proposals from the Commission. Parliament also supervises the work of the Commission and adopts the European Union’s budget.’The Parliament is based in Strasbourg, Brussels and Luxembourg (an arrangement often criticised for wasting time and money). Plenary sessions (when all MEPs meet) are held in Strasbourg (four-day plenaries) and in Brussels (two-day sessions).The EP’s Information Office in the UK provides a range of information about the Parliament, its activities and UK MEPs.6 – What is the difference between the Council and the European Council?The Council of the European Union brings together Ministers from the EU Member States to decide policy and adopt legislation.Its role is described on the Council website as: adopting legislative acts (Regulations, Directives, etc.); helping coordinate Member States’ policies; developing the Common Foreign and Security Policy; concluding international agreements on behalf of the Union; and adopting the EU budget. With successive Treaties having strengthened the European Parliament’s powers, the Council’s legislative and budgetary roles are increasingly shared with the EP.The Council meets in 10 distinct ‘configurations’, each comprising national ministers responsible for the relevant portfolio, e.g. General Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Economic and Financial Affairs (for a full list, see the Council configurations page on the Consilium website). The frequency of meetings varies according to configurations. The Council is based in Brussels. It is headed by a President, currently Donald Tusk, former Prime Minister of Poland. Every six months, the Presidency of the Council rotates, so that each Member State will at some point be responsble for managing it. The European Council is the body which provides general political direction for the EU and decides its priorities. It ‘consists of the Heads of State or Government of the Member States, together with its President and the President of the Commission. The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy takes part in its work.’ The European Council website states that: ‘It is not one of the EU’s legislating institutions, so does not negotiate or adopt EU laws. Instead it sets the EU’s policy agenda, traditionally by adopting ‘conclusions’ during European Council meetings which identify issues of concern and actions to take.’The Treaty of Lisbon created the post of President of the European Council. The first holder of that post was Herman Van Rompuy. He was succeeded on 1 December 2014 by Donald Tusk, former Prime Minister of Poland. The European Council meets at least twice during each six-month term of the rotating Presidency of the Council. Meetings are often referred to as ‘European Summits’ or ‘Summits’.Neither the Council nor the European Council is the same as the ‘Council of Europe’ (CoE) which is not an EU institution.7 – What does the Court of Justice do?The task of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) is to ‘ensure that in the interpretation and application of the Treaties the law is observed.’ The CJEU website states that the Court: reviews the legality of the acts of the institutions of the European Union; ensures that the Member States comply with obligations under the Treaties; and interprets EU law at the request of the national courts and tribunals.The Court comprises three distinct elements: the Court of Justice, the General Court, and the Civil Service Tribunal (which under proposed reforms will be incorporated into the General Court).The Court of Justice itself has 28 Judges (one for each Member State) and nine Advocates General (AG). The role of the AG is to present opinions on cases brought before the Court. Although the Court will usually follow the advice of the AG, it does not always do so. Sadly, the media often reports AG opinions as judgements of the Court, which they are not.Located in Luxembourg, the CJEU is the highest Court in the European Union – there is no appeal against a judgement from it.The CJEU has no relation to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which is a Council of Europe (CoE) institution. However, that does not stop the media using the term ‘European Court’ indiscriminately – and inaccurately – to refer to either body.8 – What about the other EU institutions and bodies?The Europa website has further information about the European Court of Auditors, the European Central Bank, Europol, Frontex and other EU institutions and bodies.9 – How much does the EU spend – and where does it get the money from?The EU budget for 2015 was approximately €145 billion, and for 2016 is set at some €155 billion (approx. £110 billion, depending on the exchange rate).In percentage terms, the €145 billion of the Union’s 2015 budget was divided among the following broad areas:Competitiveness for growth and jobs (12%)Economic, social and territorial cohesion (34%)Sustainable Growth: natural resources (41%)Security and Citizenship (1%)Global Europe (6%)In addition, about 6% of the budget was allocated to administrative costs associated with the European Commission, Parliament, Council and other institutions.Almost 75% of the budget is funded through contributions from Member States, based on the gross national income (GNI) of each.Overall, the EU budget is equivalent to about 1% of the wealth generated each year by the Member States.The annual budget is agreed by the Council and the Parliament, on the basis of proposals submitted by the Commission. All three must operate within the constraints imposed by the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), which sets out what the EU can spend in various policy areas over a given period (currently 2014-2020).About 80% of EU funding is managed by national governments. For more information, see the Europa Budget page.10 – How much does EU membership cost the UK?The cost to the UK of its membership of the EU is debatable.UKIP have famously claimed that the UK’s membership fee is £55 million a day – or some £20 billion annually.Full Fact says that, although UKIP’s figure can be described as a membership fee, it is a gross amount which ignores the existence of money that the UK gets back from the EU. In the view of Full Fact, the UK’s net contributions in 2012 – the year used by UKIP – were some £33 million per day (see Is our EU membership fee £55 million?).The issue is further complicated by the fact that HM Treasury publishes annual figures showing the UK’s gross and net contributions to the EU, for both calendar and financial years.The Treasury’s EU Annual Statement shows net UK contributions to the EU budget to have been £8.4m in 2012, £10.4m in 2013, and £9.7m in 2014. The amount for 2015 is estimated to be £8.4m.Based on the Treasury figures, Full Fact states that the UK’s net contribution to the EU for 2013 was about £24 million a day.

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