The European Union is run not by one body but by a series of institutions with their own remit. The following institutions were created in the 1960’s and have developed since. The European Commission has come in for criticism from those who oppose the European Union and many have criticised the apparent lack of national democracy as a result of the powers of these institutions in the European Union.
The most senior of these institutions is the Council of Ministers.
The European Commission The European Parliament The European Court of Justice
This is the European Union’s most powerful decision-making body. It is made up of the foreign ministers of member states. Other ministers from member states may have an input in topics relevant to their expertise.
The policies discussed and eventually decided on by the Council are largely developed by non-elected civil servants in member states and by the non-elected Commission. This has led to many complaints about how this system works in that 320 million people have decisions taken for them by elected ministers but these ministers discuss policies created by non-elected civil servants.
Before 1986, just one country represented in the Council could veto a policy but in 1986 Qualified Majority Voting was introduced. This is a system whereby each country has been given a block of votes dependent on its size. Britain, France and Germany as the largest member states have 10 votes each. Luxembourg has 2 votes. In total, there are 87 votes in the Council and 62 are needed to secure a majority.
Britain has suffered rebuffs using this QMV system. Britain was overruled on the principle of a 48 hour week in 1993. In 1996, the Major government, in retaliation for the EU banning the sale of British beef as a result of the BSE scare, introduced a policy of non-co-operation with the EU. However, this was doomed to fail and was no more than gesture politics as the Council of Ministers did not need Britain’s 10 votes to push through policy.
The European Parliament, based in Strasburg, is an elected body. Members of it are known as Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and they are elected by voters within a member state. However, turnout for MEP elections within Britain is low – much lower than for a national election. In 1999, the average MEP constituency vote was a mere 23% in the UK, comparing less than favourably with the average 60% in mainland European Union states.
The European Parliament has two theoretical powers but in reality it is unlikely to ever use both.
The Parliament can reject the annual budget of the European Union (which it did 6 times in the 1980’s) but now with a centralised currency, this would bring to a halt all the work the European Union does and bring the whole concept of a Europe working together into disrepute. The two bodies clashing would fundamentally weaken the whole fabric of the Union and give added ammunition to those anti the European Union.
The Parliament also has the theoretical right to dismiss the European Commission if two-thirds of MEP’s vote for this. This would cause huge chaos and simply will not happen. As the driving force behind policy initiative is the Commission, such an act would deprive the European Union, in many senses, of its modus operandi. However, it was pressure from the Parliament that lead to the resignation of all 20 commissioners in 1999.
The Parliament has 626 MEP’s and they are elected for 5 years. The more populated member states have been allocated a higher number of seats. When the Parliament sits, those who belong to a political party, tend to sit with all those from a similar party – i.e., the Socialists will all sit together regardless of which member state they are from; the environmentalists will also do the same etc.
This body is the one most anti-Europeans target as the one which has/will undermine British political sovereignty. They believe that the European Court of Justice will impose onto member states what they want and that the people within those states will not have any choice.
When Britain joined the EEC, simply by doing this the government put European law above British law. Though the Treaty of Rome has no validity in itself, what it stated was brought into British law by an Act of Parliament – the European Communities Act – in 1972. Therefore, all British domestic law has to be in synch with European Union law. The European Court will decide if it is or is not. The first time this affected Britain was in 1991 when the House of Lords used the 1972 Act to adjudge the 1988 Merchant Shipping Act to be contrary to European Union law (known as the Factortame Case). The summary of that case is blunt:
The European Court of Justice is made up of 15 judges appointed by the member states. Their appointment is for a fixed term of office of 6 years though the term is renewable.