The European Council

The structure of the European Union‘s political institutions is odd.  There are three institutions which hold the executive and legislative power, headed by a fourth, the European Council, which has no formal powers!

The European Council is comprised of the heads of government of each member state and meets at least four times a year.  It also includes the President of the Commission (non voting), and the High Representative often attends the meetings.  The European Council is headed by the President of the European Council who holds the position for two and a half years.  The first President, Herman Van Rompuy, took office on 1 December 2009.  It will be interesting to see how this role evolves; will it become the defacto President of Europe?

Essentially, the European Council defines the EU’s policy agenda.  As it has almost no formal powers it does this only through the influence of its members. That is, the leaders of the member states.

The European Council highlights the tension within the EU between intergovernmental cooperation and supranational power.  At present the European Council exerts power almost totally through intergovernmental cooperation.  Its formal powers are limited to the appointment of its President and resolution of issues referred to it by the Council of the European Union (also known as: the Council of Ministers,  the Consilium).

Oddly, the High Representative (for Common Foreign and Security Policy) has more executive power within the EU than the European Council itself.  The High Representative runs, among other things, the EU’s fledgling diplomatic service, the European External Action Service.

The other three institutions are the European Commission, the Council of the European Union, and the European Parliament.    The legislative procedure is slightly odd: the Commission presents legislative proposals to both the Parliament and the Council of the European Union which then negotiate a common draft which must be agreed by both the Council and an absolute majority in the Parliament.

A quick aside on terminology.  As there are two Councils: the European Council and the Council of the European Union,  I will abbreviate the Council of the European Union to “the Consilium” but will always use European Council in full.

I will discuss the Consilium, the Commission and the Parliament in future articles, so that’s it for now.  This entry has been rather dry but it has helped me understand the structure.  By way of apology, I’ll try to debunk one myth.

Everyone thinks of the EU as a bureaucratic leviathan, mired in multilingual paperwork.  The reality is rather different, and only around 20,000 eurocrats work directly for the Commission which is approximately half the number as work for Birmingham City Council!

That is slightly misleading.  If you add in all the agencies, expert committees, the Council Secretariat and the people who are employed in the member states by EU institutions, the total number rises to around 170,000.  But that is still small when compared to Her Majesty’s Civil Service which employs over 500,000 people (excluding Northern Ireland and the Diplomatic Service which are counted separately).

In contrast to the myth, the EU is a very lean organisation.

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