In Defence of Liberty

Driven by data; ridden with liberty.

On the EU: The Current Form


How does the EU currently work? (Edited: Cedric Puisney)

The European Union (EU) has a long and complex history.

Emerging from the binds of that history is the EU as it is presently formed. The EU is a unique group of institutions: confederally funded by its member states but endowed with federal powers. There are five main institutions, with interlocking purposes.


What does each institution do? (Source: Europa)

The Two Councils

The European Council is comprised of EU leaders, either the heads of government or state, along with the President of the European Commission and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. This group gained formal status in 1992, and became an official EU institution in 2009, following the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty.

The European Council sets the overall strategic and political direction of the European Union, including its common foreign and security policies, but does not pass any laws [1]. Donald Tusk is the current President of the European Council. The President is elected once every two and a half years, and each person can serve two terms.

This Council also nominates and appoints candidates to certain roles within the EU, like in the European Central Bank. It typically meets every quarter, but can meet at other points if urgent matters arise.

The next institution is the similarly-named Council of the European Union [2]. This Council acts as the voice of EU member governments in policy discussions, coordinating and developing policies, concluding international agreements and adopts the EU budget.

These ministers are chosen on the basis of the policy area. For financial matters, Britain would be represented by its current Chancellor, George Osborne. If the Council were discussing home affairs, then the present Home Secretary Theresa May would sit.

(Video: Council of the EU)

Commission and Parliament

The European Commission is an older institution, set up in 1958 [3]. Its purpose is to promote the general interest of the EU, proposing, enforcing and implementing legislation and the EU’s budget. The current President of the European Commission is Jean-Claude Juncker.

The European Commission is the EU’s politically independent executive arm, responsible for initiating legislation and representing EU countries in international bodies and agreements. It is a team of 28 commissioners, nominated by each member state, with each assigned a portfolio. The current UK commissioner is Jonathan Hill (the Right Honourable Lord Hill of Oareford), who looks after financial stability in his role in the Juncker Commission [4].

Elected every five years, the European Parliament has 751 MEPs, and is considered to be the law-making body for the European Union [5]. The number of MEPs is broadly proportional to its population, but there are certain limitations: no country may have less than six or more than 96, and the total count cannot be larger than 751. Rather than grouped by their nations, these MEPs are placed together on the basis of their pan-European political affiliation. The last elections were in May 2014 [6].


The UK Independence Party won the last European election in Great Britain. (Source: BBC)

The Parliament itself has three main roles within the EU: legislation, supervision and budgets. In its legislative function, the Parliament passes EU laws, examined in committees and voted upon in plenary sessions. It produces decisions on any international agreements (such as trade deals) and any suggested enlargements of the EU, as well as being able to request legislation from the Commission.

The Parliament supervises and gives scrutiny to all other EU institutions, as well as electing the Commission President and approving the Commission as a whole. It also establishes the short-term and long-term budget plans.


How is the European Parliament made up? (Source: Europa)

Court of Justice

The oldest institution is the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), established in 1952 [7]. Its role is legal: ensuring the uniform interpretation and application of EU law within EU member states, and ensuring that EU institutions comply with those laws. It can annul legal acts of the EU, as well as fining those institutions who are not compliant. Whilst it is important, the European Court of Human Rights is not an EU court.

Laws are treated by these five institutions in different ways. The European Council sets the political direction, but does not deal with policy detail. The European Commission initiates legislation. This is then discussed and amended by the Council of the EU and the European Parliament, and passed by both in a co-decision. The Court of Justice of the EU then ensures those laws are applied in a consistent manner.

Of the five institutions that deal directly with the laws, directives and regulations that the European Union writes, two are directly beholden to national governments. Indeed, they are made of either prime ministers, chancellors or presidents, in the case of the European Council; or of the department secretaries, in the Council of the European Union.

The European Parliament is directly elected, by proportional representation in Britain, every five years. This can be a reflection of the electorate’s political priorities. The European Commission is meant to be politically independent of particular nations. The Court of Justice of European Union serves the rule of law, not politicians.

A Doomed Marriage

It is difficult to conform these descriptions, of how the EU is currently formed, with the rhetoric that envelops it. For instance, Daniel Hannan MEP (Conservative, South West England) wrote in his book A Doomed Marriage [8]:

The Brussels system was undemocratic from the start, but its hostility to the ballot box had always been disguised by the outward trappings of constitutional rule in its member nations. That has now ceased to be true.

The claim that the EU is fundamentally undemocratic ignores the multitude of ways that elected politicians — both from national governments and from proportional elections — affect the EU’s legislation.

Michael Gove, the Justice Secretary, said in his statement that he wanted Britain to leave the EU “and take control”, in honour of one of the Leave campaigns [9]:

As a minister I’ve seen hundreds of new EU rule cross my desk, none of which were requested by the UK Parliament, none of which I or any other British politician could alter in any way and none of which made us freer, richer or fairer.

Depending on the policy area, the “new EU rule” could have had the British EU Commissioner write the proposal. It would have then been discussed and developed by the Council of the EU, where a British Secretary of State would attend. It would have also been discussed and amended by the 73 British MEPs in the European Parliament.

“Completeness and Unity”

Ipsos MORI asked British MPs numerous questions about the European Union, between 6th November and 18th December 2015 [10]. They found that, when asked which country currently holds the Presidency of the Council of the EU, 60% said they did not know. Poland was the most popular affirmative answer, at 10%, with the correct answer of Luxembourg said by only 8% of MPs. MPs were also asked what the 12 gold stars on the EU flag represented. Just 7% gave the correct answer that the number 12 has been the traditional symbol of “perfection, completeness and unity”. 73% of the polled MPs gave the incorrect answer that it represented the twelve nations in the European Community when the flag was first designed.

Questions to the general public fare little better. Back in 2006, citizens were questioned on factual statements relating to the European Union [11]. 38% of respondents thought that Britain joined the European Union in 1992, and 56% thought that the EU consisted of 20 countries, despite its enlargement from 15 to 25 countries occurring in 2004.

It is fundamental to this debate on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union that the British government, news groups, civil organisations and EU institutions make readable summaries of important information about how the EU functions.


[1] Europa, 2015. European Council. Available from: [Accessed: 27th February 2016]

[2] Europa, 2015. Council of the European Union. Available from: [Accessed: 27th February 2016]

[3] Europa, 2015. European Commission. Available from: [Accessed: 27th February 2016]

[4] Europa, 2015. Jonathan Hill. Available from: [Accessed: 27th February 2016]

[5] Europa, 2015. European Parliament. Available from: [Accessed: 27th February 2016]

[6] BBC, 2014. UK European election results. Available from: [Accessed: 27th February 2016]

[7] Europa, 2015. Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). Available from: [Accessed: 27th February 2016]

[8] Hannan, D., 2012. The case against Europe: One MEP reveals the disturbing contempt for democracy at the heart of the EU. Daily Mail. Available from: [Accessed: 27th February 2016]

[9] Gove, M., 2016. By leaving the EU we can take control. Conservative Home. Available from: [Accessed: 27th February 2016]

[10] Ipsos MORI, 2015. MPs Survey European Union 2016 Tables. Available from: [Accessed: 27th February 2016]

[11] Europa, 2006. EU attitudes in UK Analytical Report. Available from: [Accessed: 27th February 2016]


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