Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Understanding the EU: Part I -- The Institutions

With Britain to hold a referendum on the proposed EU constitution sometime over the next 2 years, probably soon after the next general election, a considerable debate seems to be brewing. With the rise of the UKIP advocating withdrawal from the EU, the Tories opposing the constitution and the govt officially endorsing the constitution alongwith the Lib Dems, we can already see the battle lines being drawn. To understand what is going on, one will need to understand what the EU is, and what changes the constitution will make.

This is the first of a series of articles aimed at describing the EU as presently constituted. In it I shall describe the basic institutions of the EU and how they relate to each other. I base my descriptions on the information provided by these pages hosted by the EU itself.

I start with the institutions, as it seems to me the key to understanding how power is wielded by the EU lies in the relationship between these institutions.

The three main institutions of the EU are:

  • the European Commission

  • the Council of the European Union (or "the Council", aka the Council of Ministers)

  • the European Parliament

The European Commission

This is a key body in the EU. One of the most important facts about it, is that it has the exclusive right to propose EU legislation. Its remit is to uphold the interests of the EU as a whole, to ensure that the regulations EU legislation adopted by the Council and the Parliament is being implemented and to take any offending parties to the European Court of Justice to oblige them to comply with EU law.

The Commission also manages the policies of the EU as decided in the Council, and manages the EU's budget for these policies. The Commission (as a whole) can be dismissed by the Parliament, and is appointed by agreement between the governments of the member states, subject to the Parliament's approval.

As of 1 May 2004 when 10 more countries joined the EU, the Commission consists of a President (still to be agreed) and 1 commmissioner per member state (25 in total), and is appointed for a five year term.

The Council of the European Union

Not to be confused with the European Council, this used to be known, and is sometimes still referred to as the Council of Ministers. Each council meeting is attended by 1 minister each from the member states, with different ministers attending depending on the subject matter. E.g. foreign policy will attract foreign affairs ministers whilst economic policy will be attended by finance ministers such as Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Council shares legislative power with the Parliament, and also determines the budget in conjunction with the Parliament. The Council also concludes international agreements that have been negotiated by the Commission.

Votes in the Council take one of two forms. They either require unanimity, or employ qualified majority voting where the number of votes cast by a member state is roughly proportional to the size of the member state's population. The precise formula is given in this document but is in flux due to the enlargement.

The European Parliament

This is the only directly elected institution of the European Union. The Commission is appointed by member states' governments and the Council of Ministers consists of ministers from those governments.

Prior to enlargement there were 26 Members of the European Parlliament (MEPs) but this will increase to 732 with the new members, and a further planned enlargement will increase it to 786. The document linked to above for the Council's voting formula gives the numbers for each member state which are allocated to be roughly proportional to population size, but with a minimum of 5 MEPs per state.

The Parliament and Council share legislative power. The Parliament's legislative power is as follows:

  • Under the "cooperation procedure", the Parliament can give opinions on draft legislation proposed by the Commission.

  • Under the "assent procedure", the Parliament must give assent to international treaties, to any proposed enlargement of the EU and any changes in election rules.

  • Under the "codecision procedure", the Parliament can throw out legislation by a majority vote against it.

The codecision procedure is used in legislative areas such as the free movement of workers, the internal market, education, research, health, culture and consumer protection and "Trans European Networks". The Treaty of Amsterdam and the Treaty of Nice added 30 areas to this list and the EU constitution is likely to add more.

The Parliament has to give its assent to the budget, if it rejects it the process of producing the budget is restarted.

The other institutions

  • The European Council. This is the meeting of heads of member states (i.e. Prime Ministers and Presidents) plus the head of the European Commission. It's the highest level decision making body in the EU and tends to handle "high politics", e.g. it handled the negotiations on the proposed EU constitution and it is the body where new EU treaties get negotiated. Since the Maastricht Treaty it holds the power to initiate the EU's major policies and the power to settle issues when the Council of the European Union has failed to reach agreement.

  • The European Court of Justice. The job of the Court is to ensure that EU law is complied with and that EU treaties are correctly interpreted and applied. The Court can find states guilty of failing to fulfil treaty obligations and can also find the other EU institutions guilty of failing to act as they're required to by EU treaties and law. 1 judge per member state is appointed assisted by 8 advocates general.

  • The Court of Auditors. Audits the handling of EU funds.

  • The European Economic and Social Committees. Represents various interest groups to the Council and Parliament. It has to be consulted before decisions are made in various areas.

  • The Committee of the Regions. Represents local and regional governments in the EU. Must be consulted on matters relevant to the regions and can adopt its own opinions on legislation.

  • The European Investment Bank. Finances development projects in less well off EU areas.

  • The European Central Bank. Sets monetary policy and manages the Euro.

  • The European Convention. A temporary body that produce the draft EU constitution which the European Council took forward in negotiations.


In order of decreasing importance I list institutions as the European Council, European Commission, the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament, followed by all the rest. The European Council handles the most far reaching topics, however the Commission sets the day to day legislative agenda.

The Council and the Parliament jointly form the equivalent of the legislature in most nation states. However these 2 bodies are there to provide assent or otherwise to legislation the Commission presents. They thus have less power over EU legislation than e.g. the British Parliament has over British legislation, where MPs can propose legislation as well as the executive.

Of course crucial issues include, what areas of legislative competence the EU has, how decisions are made in the Council and the Parliament and between the two bodies, and what power the national governments have. In the later articles in this series I will go into such issues in more detail.

For now I will point out a major difference between the EU institutions and those of a typical democratic state. In the latter, the institutions that govern the country would involve an executive (runs the country, proposes legislation), legislature (accepts, amends or rejects legislation) and judiciary (interprets and enforces the law). The executive would either be directly elected (e.g. the US) or formed from the largest political grouping in the legislature (e.g. the UK or other EU member state). Whichever occurs, the executive can be held accountable by the people, either by voting for a new executive directly or for a new party.

In the case of the EU, the Commission is the equivalent of the executive (though the European Council can also be considered as taking on this role, in matters of "high politics" when it meets). However its members do not have to stand for election to the Parliament and do not have to come from the largest political grouping in the Parliament. They are both proposed and appointed by other politicians. They are thus not accountable to the people of the EU, merely to the other politicians. And they set the day to day legislative agenda of the EU and propose laws which can and do affect every citizen of the EU. Their power grows with every new power accrued to the EU and every area in which qualified majority voting replaces the national veto.

The EU constitution

Courtesy of, there is a reader friendly version of the proposed EU constitution available. Don't rely on the politicians or the media describing the constitution reliably, download it and read it for yourself and make your own mind up up.

Sunday, June 20, 2004

Blog changes

I've just spent a few hours making a few changes to the blog. Apart from adding the listing of recent posts and giving each post its own separate page -- both made possible by Blogger's recent revamp -- I've added a site feed.

As standard, Blogger does this in Atom format but I've run it through, so those using RSS should be able to get it too. Please let me know if this is not the case so I can look into it and fix it. Note that Feedburner checks your newsreader and serves the Atom or RSS version as needed.

This short article should explain things for those who don't know what a site feed is.

Friday, June 18, 2004

School terms and holiday prices

Liberal Democrat MP Malcolm Bruce recently called for an inquiry into holiday prices to be conducted by the Office of Fair Trading. The reason?

Liberal Democrat spokesman Malcolm Bruce has asked the Office of Fair Trading to investigate what he calls a "feeding frenzy" by holiday firms.

He says parents could be cross-subsidising other holiday-makers by paying top rates for peak-time breaks.

There is a simple explanation for why the term time holidays are cheaper. It's due (1) the law of supply and demand and (2) to the fact that school timetables are synchronized such that school holidays occur at the same times across different schools leaving narrow windows of opportunity for most parents of schoolkids to take a holiday.

Many parents cannot take holidays in term time, thus ensuring lower prices for term-time holidays. When the school holidays come along, suddenly everyone can go on holiday hence a spurt in demand and the holiday companies exploit this opportunity for profit by charging more than for holidays in term time when demand is lower.

Malcolm Bruce himself highlights this:

The market is being distorted, he argues, because school holidays are set through public policy, and parents cannot pick and choose holiday dates as freely as other groups. "It appears that families are being exploited and the extra revenue being shared with travellers who have more flexible options. In other words there appears to be a cross subsidy.

"The demand at half term is generated as a result of government or local government policy and is therefore not determined by free market forces."

So both myself and Mr Bruce agree that the problem is due to conditions created by government policy where school terms leave a narrow window in which parents can take a holiday.

It seems to me that the solution is obvious -- allow schools to stagger their term times so that the holiday period is longer and parents are not all demanding their holidays at the same time. This would result in lower prices for the out-of-term holidays, reduce the pressure on parents to take children out of school during term-time and thus boost attendance levels and lower frictions between parents and teachers.

Instead Mr Bruce suggests the Office of Fair Trading should investigate holiday companies, implicitly suggesting the companies should be forced to lower their prices somehow.

If the companies were forced to lower prices during out-of-term holidays this would simply boost demand for these holidays even further (e.g. those able to take holidays at any time might would find them more attractive), and the result would be that the market would not be able to supply an out-of-term holiday to everyone who wants one at the lowered price. Unable to charge higher prices in the out of term holidays, they'd increase the prices of holidays during term time.

This would leave parents back with the same problem again (unable to get an out-of-term holiday but this time because there aren't enough to go around), only this time the term-time option will have become more expensive as the holiday companies try to recoup the money would have got for the out-of-term holidays. Mr Bruce's proposed solution would thus make the problems worse.

Staff abuse access to police database

Expect more of this sort of thing to occur should the govt's proposed national identity register (as part of the ID card scheme) go ahead, with more comprehensive records and worse consequences.

I'd be surprised if these were the only 2 people doing it or if it was even among the worst cases of abuse as things stand now.

Everyone (innocent or not) has something to hide from those who would abuse such systems.

Thursday, June 17, 2004 -- find out what your MP has been saying/is up to in Parliament

Firstly, apologies for the lack of recent posts.

Secondly, and on to my main point here, is the kind of website that illustrates the potential the internet and World Wide Web have for transforming the relationship between governments and the governed for the better.

On this website you can not only look up debates and see who said what in Parliament, but you can add your own comments on the proceedings -- and read what others have added. You can put in your postcode, find out who your MP is and find out what he/she has been upto in Parliament, including what they said and how they voted on various pieces of legislation.

Who knows what the impact of the development of such websites will be, but one thing's for sure. It makes it easier than ever for people to keep an eye on the shenanigans of those we elect to represent us at Westminster, and it allows people to by-pass the mainstream media and look at what's said without the biases, spin and filters the media normally adds.

Now I wonder if something similar exists for EU institutions...

NB: Should you wish to look up UK legislation itself click here for Acts of Parliament (ie stuff already on the statute books) or click here for Bills going through Parliament (stuff that ain't yet made it).