The key to getting the most out of the European Union (EU) is to understand how it functions.
The EU operates through a system of institutions which relate to each other in different ways to make sure everything runs as smoothly as possible and a diverse range of views are accommodated. It seems complicated, but all the Member States have worked hard to create a system thatís open, transparent and fair to all European citizens.
The EU is not like the Irish political system. The various Treaties (Rome, Maastricht, Lisbon etc.) have built a unique system that balances national interests, the sovereignty of big and small countries, has democratic representation and is also effective enough to develop good policy.
Decisions that affect our everyday lives are made by the three main institutions that are sometimes referred to as the institutional triangle.
THE MAIN INSTITUTIONS:
- The European Parliament represents all of the EUís citizens and is directly elected by the people of Europe every five years. Its main jobs are to pass laws and to approve the EU budget, responsibilities it shares with the European Council. The European Parliament has 736 MEPs. Ireland has 12 representing four constituencies: Dublin; East; South; and North West. MEPs can provide assistance to groups who want to influence EU policy and legislation. Parliamentís work is divided between parliamentary committees that deal with different issues such as environment, employment, gender equality, external relations and human rights. Learn more about the European Parliament.
- The Council of the European Union represents the governments of individual member states. Itís sometimes called the Council of Ministers and is one of the main decision making institutions. The council usually takes decisions based on proposals from the European Commission and it shares its law making responsibilities with the Parliament. The Council can also request the Commission to make proposals on important issues. More about the Council of Ministers.
- The European Commission is a body thatís independent of member states. Itís job is to promote and protect the interests of the EU as a whole. The Commission drafts proposals for new EU laws which it presents to the European Parliament and the Council. The Commission also represents the EU on the international stage and in its role as guardian of the EU treaties, has the right to launch legal proceedings and impose fines when member states fail to fulfil their obligations. More about the European Commission.
Between them these three institutions produce the policies and approve the laws that apply throughout the European Union. All polices and laws are based on EU treaties
that have been negotiated and agreed between all member states.
The treaties are sometimes updated to keep up with changes in society and they canít be altered without the consent of all EU countries.
Two other EU institutions play a significant role in keeping the EU ticking over.
- The European Court of Justice makes sure that EU legislation is interpreted and applied correctly in all EU countries. It has the power to settle legal disputes between EU member states, EU institutions, businesses and individuals
- The European Court of Auditors is there to check that the EU budget is spent legally. It has the power to investigate the paperwork of any person or organisation handling EU income or expenditure
Apart from the main institutions, there are several other important bodies that play significant roles in the day-to-day running of Europe. The European Parliament, the Council of the European Union and the European Commission routinely consults with these bodies to come up with new policies and legislation.
THE ROLE OF NGOs
- The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) is an advisory body representing employers, trade unions, farmers, consumers and the other interest groups that collectively make up Ďorganised civil societyí
- The Committee of the Regions (COR) is an advisory body of representatives from Europeís regional and local authorities. It has to be consulted before EU decisions are taken on certain matters
These are the main institutions and bodies that make up the European Union but in order for them to work they need the input of citizens.
In order to have a better say and influence over EU policy and legislation hundreds of trade unions, business organisations and NGO groups have organised themselves at a European level.
By cooperating at an EU level NGOs can supplement the work they do locally and regionally. Many Irish NGOs are now represented in Europe by umbrella groups, some of which have dedicated EU officers and permanent representations in Brussels.
European NGO networks represent their members on a European political level by sharing information with one another and lobbying politicians and Commission officials on specific issues.
The EU actively engages with NGO networks through informal lobbying and direct consultation. Making good use of the NGO networks can be a powerful campaigning tool for Irish groups.