Understanding the European Union: how does it work?September 9th, 2008
By Keith Nuthall
The European Union (EU) is a complex political organisation, but businesses and industries wanting to trade or work within Europe need to understand its workings. To stay within the law, and also to influence the development of EU regulations and directives, it is essential that some managers really know how legislation is agreed in Europe and where to get the information about these laws.
And just to underline the importance of European law: it is the highest authority in Europe. No supreme court within the 27 member countries of the EU can challenge it. National laws must comply with EU regulations and directives. If they do not, then anyone – a consumer, a company, or a government – can ask the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to make a ruling saying a national law must be changed, or that an action was in breach of EU law. If company trades in a way that is legal in under an EU country’s national laws, but is found to be illegal under EU law, it is the European legislation that takes precedent. That national law is null and void and has to be changed.
So how does the EU go about its business? As it stands, the EU is not a government. It may make laws, but there are no EU elections that lead to a government being formed, that is able to run Europe and propose laws. Instead we have a hybrid system: partly run by an unelected central bureaucracy – the European Commission. And most laws have to be agreed by a body representing the EU’s national governments – the EU Council of Ministers; and an EU-wide elected assembly – the European Parliament.
It is the European Commission that is closest to being a government. It is run by a College of Commissioners, upon which sit 27 officials appointed by the EU’s member states. These Commissioners are supposed to act in the interest of Europe as a whole, and they have specific portfolio, from finance, to environment, to justice and to competition. In reality, Commissioners are often under pressure to help out the country that appointed them, but as a rule, they take an EU-wide view. Their job is to propose EU legislation for agreement by the council and the parliament. They are also supposed to act as a guardian of the treaties founding the EU, and challenge illegal acts under EU law either at the ECJ or using their own powers……
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