A legal lowdown of the European Union (EU) | tutor2u Law
Explanations

A legal lowdown of the European Union (EU)

Recent weeks have seen a lot in the news about the EU and our relationship with it - but what exactly is the EU? 

As we’re heading to a referendum where everyone over the age of 18 is being given the chance to vote on whether we should stay in or leave the EU - Brexit sound familiar? - it’s a good time to take a look and find out what it’s all about.

What is the EU?

The EU is a partnership of 28 European countries whose governments work together. It was created in the aftermath of the Second World War with the idea behind it being to foster economic cooperation -  it was thought countries who trade with one another become economically interdependent, so are more likely to avoid conflict.

  • Formerly known as the EC (European Community); before that the EEC (European Economic Community)
  • Countries join because they think that they will benefit from the changes the EU makes
  • The EU offers big rewards for its members - but these rewards come with a cost. Not only do we have to pay a lot of money (mostly through taxes) to be included, we also have to change our national law to be in line with European law
  • The EU is a bit like a club - to join you have to agree to follow rules and in return you get certain benefits
  • It’s an important organisation, which has a big impact on every person living in European member states - the EU uses the money to change the way people live and do business in Europe

The EU institutions

The EU is made up of institutions who make decisions on policy, create different types of EU law and apply the law which is made.

In order to understand what the EU does, it’s important to grasp the roles of each of these institutions:

Council of the European Union / The council of ministers 

The council of the European Union is the main decision making body in the EU - it makes laws and speaks for particular areas of expertise.

  • Headed up by a president - a rotating position, which changes every 6 months
  • Comprises representatives from each member state government
  • Government ministers are sent from each member state - eg the economy and finance ministers from each member state will meet to agree on matters to do with the economy
  • Responsible for policy-making, deciding the sorts of things that the EU is interested in and issuing regulations, directives and decisions 
  • Works closely with the European parliament to make laws and adopt the EU budget

European commission

The European commission proposes laws and negotiates with outside bodies.

  • Made up of 27 commissioners who act in the best interests of the EU as a whole
  • Proposes the legislation and a range of topics - primarily these new laws must protect the interests of EU citizens on issues which aren’t dealt with effectively within the member state itself
  • Ensures that EU laws are implemented properly in the member states - and are allowed to bring court action if they are not
  • Represents Europe as a whole when speaking to international bodies and while negotiating outside of the EU

European parliament / European assembly

The European parliament, also known as the European assembly, is the only elected part of the EU which makes laws.

  • Members of the European parliament (MEPs) are elected in each member state
  • Works together with the council of the European Union and makes laws based on proposals made by the commission
  • Reviews the commission’s work and ask them to propose new laws on relevant topics
  • Agrees a budget with the European council and supervises the way it is spent
  • Scrutinises all other areas of the EU

European council

The European council doesn’t make laws - they decide the overall direction

  • Heads of state are sent from each member state to serve on the European council
  • Chaired by the president of the council, which changes every 2 and a half years 
  • Meetings called “summits” are held 4 times a year (additional meetings can be called by its president for urgent issues)
  • Decides on the overall direction of the EU based on the particular interests of each member state 
  • Identifies areas of concern by adopting “conclusions”, which include suggestions to the problems they identify
  • Looks at more long-term issues by putting together a “strategic agenda”

The council is not one of the EU law making institutions so it doesn’t actually negotiate or adopt EU law

European court of justice

The European court of justice applies the European law and make decisions which have to be enforced by member states.

  • Split into three different bodies, the main one being the court of justice which comprises one judge from each EU country, plus 11 advocate generals
  • In charge of ensuring the EU law is applied and interpreted in the same way in each of the EU states
  • It is the final court to resolve disagreements between EU countries and citizens on EU law

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