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Better understand the European Union

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Better understand the European Union

For the common opinion, the European Union is a difficult structure to understand: how many institutions are there? What is their role? What is the difference between the Council of Europe and the Council of the European Union? How influent is the Union in each Member State, in the daily life or in the national law?

In order to answer to all these questions, we decided to present you a simplified scheme of the European Union, in order to understand it better and to be able to take advantage of what it can offer, especially of all funding opportunities that will support the projects you will develop to promote a European added value.

1 - Building the Community

a) The first steps

The European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC)

The ECSC Treaty was signed by France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Italy on 18 April 1951 for the pooling of their resources of coal and steel. The first goal was to ensure peace on the continent in order not to know the horrors of the war anymore and to make it materially impossible.

This Treaty will end on 23 July 2002.

The European Economic Community (EEC)

After the successes of this first experience, the six Member States signed the Rome Treaty on 25 March 1957.


  • Establish a common market between these States, remove the customs barriers and apply the same tariffs for external transactions for the free movement of goods
  • Establish the free movement of persons, services and capitals

Adopt common policies

The European Atomic Energy Community (EAEC)

In Rome, on the same day, the EAEC or Euratom Treaty was signed. The Member States anticipated a great increase of the energy consumption : they wanted to invest in nuclear power and to harmonise the political choices. Even if it does not operate very well, this Treaty ensures the energetic independence of Europe.


b) 1992 : institution of the European Union

The Maastricht Treaty runs over the initial economic goal of the EEC and gives a political vocation to it.

It establishes a European Union between 12 Member States: France, Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Italy, Denmark, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Ireland and the United Kingdom.

They become 15 by 1995 (Sweden, Austria and Finland).

The decision to create a single currency achieves the economic and monetary integration within the single market.

The Treaty creates 3 pillars:

The European Community (EC)

The European Community replaces the EEC and carries larger supranational competencies: education, training, public health, industrial or social policies…It includes the two other treaties ECSC and EAEC.

Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP)


  • safeguard the common values, the fundamental interests and the independence of the EU
  • strengthen the security of the Union and its Member States
  • maintain peace and strengthen international security
  • promote the international cooperation
  • develop and strengthen democracy and the rule of law as well as the respect of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms in the world

Justice and Home Affairs (JHA)

This third pillar was created to facilitate and make the free movement of persons safer between the countries of the European Union:

  • rules for the crossing of borders external to the Community and strengthening of controls
  • fight against terrorism, crime, drug trade and international fraud
  • cooperation in criminal and civil justice
  • creation of a European Police Office (Europol) with a system of information exchange between the national policies
  • fight against irregular immigration
  • common asylum policy.


c) 1999 and 2000 : new orientations

1999 : the Amsterdam Treaty


the enlargement and an institutional reform for it

support and information of the citizens

Pilot projects and prompting measures for job creation can yet be financed by the European funds. Social policy becomes a Community policy and the balance of employment in Europe a priority.

2000 : the Nice Treaty

Its great elements are:

  • the reformation of the institutional triangle Council – Commission – Parliament for enlargement
  • passage of the charter of fundamental rights that gathers all the citizens rights within a same text
  • will to fight against social exclusion;

The treaty has not been ratified by the Member States.


2 - The European Institutions

The Community institutions have their statutes and general objectives defined in the Treaties and establish their internal rules themselves.

They are five, the other organisms are not considered as institutions but as complementary organs, independent or annexed.

The institutions are: the European Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union, the Court of justice of the European Communities and the Court of Auditors

a) The European Commission

The role of the Commission can be defined following three major principles:

Supervision function: Guardian of the Treaties

The Commission ensures the implementation of the Treaties and the secondary legislation. It can bring an action before the Court of Justice if a Member State has not taken into account motivated advice it has issued.

Initiative function

The Commission impulses the Community building by passing acts and makes proposition texts to the Parliament and the Council that will carry them to produce a European "law".

Execution and management function

The Commission executes the budget, in accordance with the financial rules and under its own responsibility.

It also manages all the common Structural Funds (European Social Fund, European Regional Development Fund and European Agriculture Guidance and Guarantee Fund)

Finally, it negotiates treaties for the Community with third countries.

Find all the Structural Funds on the database Eurofunding:

Structural Fund – ERDF

Structural Fund – ESF

Structural Fund - EAGGF

b) The European Parliament

It is made of European Members of Parliament directly elected in each Member State.

Legislative Power

The Parliament is one of the European decision makers, a role it shares with the Council of the European Union: it carries Community acts.

Budgetary Power

It passes the definitive budget and can reject it.

Political control of the institutions

For instance, it can ask the Commission to submit a proposal to the Council or ask written or oral questions to the institutions.

In March 1999, the Parliament had threaten the Commission to apply a motion of censure. The College of Commissioners resigned after the publication of a report on the financial transparency of the Commission ordered by the Parliament.

c) The Council of the European Union

It is also called "Council" or "Council of Ministers".

It is made of fifteen representatives at a ministerial level, able to commit the governments of the 15 Member States depending on the topic of the meeting. For instance, the Agriculture Council will gather 15 Ministers for Agriculture.

It carries regulations, directives, decisions, recommendations or advice.

d) The Court of Justice of the European Communities (CJEC)

The Court of Justice is a juridical institution that ensures the strict observance of the Community law. Since 1989, a Court of First Instance has been attached.

e) The Court of Auditors

The Court of Auditors started its activity in 1977 to become the fifth Community institution in 1993.

It is an independent institution that monitors the financial management of the Union, its institutions, the organisations or recipients of European financial supports.

The Court of Auditors allows the European Union to have a monitoring organ external to the persons in charge of the financial management within the institutions.


f) Particular case : the European Council

The European Council has a vague and pretty undefined statute. It is not an institution but it acts beyond the Community impulsion: it is an instance born within the political practice and not visible in the Treaties.

At least twice a year, it gathers the President or/and Prime Minister of the Member States of the European Union in a Summit.

Together, they define the priorities and the calendar of the Community building, like on 15 and 16 June 2001 during the Summit of Göteborg in Sweden.


3 - The other Community organs

a) The Economic and Social Committee (ESC)

The Economic and Social Committee gathers the representatives of the organised civil society of the Member States and the groups of social and economic interests to enable them to express and defend their opinions within the institutions.

It must be consulted by the Commission and sometimes by the Parliament and the Council, depending on the topic. However, it can decide to issue opinion for the institutions to defend the living conditions of the citizens.

It is made of groups of executives, employees and several activities concerning all kinds of sectors.

b) The Committee of the Regions

The Committee of the Regions is a consultation organ and represents the local and regional authorities.

As the ESC, it must be consulted by the European Commission or the Council and can also be consulted by the Parliament.

It can also issue opinion at its own initiative.

Its role takes more and more importance. The Commission ensures that the decisions or other Community acts are applied by the nearest public authority level to the citizens. (but only if it can do it in a more targeted and efficient way than the Community level).

c) The European Investment Bank (EIB)

The Bank is the financial organisation of the European Union. Under the society name of Group EIB, it consists of the EIB itself that allocates direct or indirect global loans and the EIF (European Investment Fund) that supports the innovative companies through activities of capital venture or guaranties, by acting through the intermediary of credit institutions or national funds (within the Member States or in the third countries).

They act in order to foster the implementation of fundamental and priority objectives if the European Union.

d) The European Central Bank (ECB)

The ECB organises the introduction of the single currency and defines the monetary policy of the countries belonging to the Euro-zone. Its fundamental mission is to monitor and master inflation in the Union, but it also manages the reserves and leads the operation of change.

The ECB is independent and transparent. Its Board of Governors makes the decisions and defines the monetary objectives. It gathers the governor of the Central Bank of the 12 Member States of the Euro zone.


4 - The international organisations

Some organisations were defined for the economic or political development of the European continent at the beginning, and years passing by the political scheme changing, it was enlarged to other countries.

Some others concern European Member States but their statutes are the one of international institutions totally independent of the Union: they can collaborate or pursue the same objectives but do not appear in the Treaties.

In order to avoid any confusion, we are going to quote the most popular to make a distinction between them and the institutions or Community organs.

a) The Council of Europe

The Council of Europe gathers 43 Member States. It is the forum where preoccupations, hopes and aspirations for the European continent are expressed.

Created in 1949, its first goal was to strengthen the unity of the continent, to protect the dignity of the European citizens and to "create a union getting always tighter between its members."

Its biggest work was the signature of the European Convention of the Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms on 4 November 1950 that created the European Court of the Human Rights, which seats is in Strasbourg.

So caution! This independent international organisation must not be confused with the Council of the European Union and the European Council.

Visit the web site of the Council of Europe


b) The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)

Created in 1948, under the name of EOCD (European Organisation for Co-operation and Development), it was an American proposal, which objective was the distribution of the funds of the Marshall Plan after the war for reconstruction.

After this period, it became the OECD and includes several countries external to Europe like the United States, Canada, Japan and Australia, and has 30 Member States.

Currently, it is an organisation of co-operation for economic development.

Visit the web site of the OECD


c) North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)

The Atlantic Alliance was a partnership gathering all democracies of North America and Europe that ensure their common security thanks to a political and military alliance. It also facilitates the co-operation in other domains like science and environment, emergency civil plans, and support in case of catastrophe.

It also contributes to political stability, economic development and long term security in the Member States. It is as well ready to contribute to an efficient prevention of conflicts and to commit itself in the crisis management.

Visit the web site of NATO


5 - What is a Community act?

The Community act represents what we can call the European "law" and is elaborated within a specific procedure. The initiative or proposal is made by the Commission then the text will be debated between the Council and the Parliament. After the adoption of the text, the act will be restrictive or not for the Member States, depending on the case or domain.

The three compulsory Community acts are: the regulation, the directive and the decision.

The others are notably the recommendation and advice.

Some definitions of Community law

The Community law ensures the good administration of the relationships between the institutions and the European citizens, as well as the Member States.

The Community law is superior to the national law, even if the States have kept their sovereignty in some domains like tax system. It has some compulsory effects. Each State that would not conform to the application of a Community act can be pursued by the European Court and instructed by the Commission.

The primary legislation

The primary legislation of the European Union is constituted by the Treaties instituting the European Communities, describing all common and general principals as well as the big objectives of the Union and all assimilated acts like the protocols and conventions annexed to the Treaties. These text has the same juridical value as the Treaties, added to the original texts, often to complete them: they often act as explanation annexes.

The secondary legislation: the different Community acts

The secondary legislation consists of all the acts passed by the Community institutions (institutional triangle formed by the Commission, the Council and the Parliament)

The regulation

The simple publication of it triggers its direct applicability into the national law of each Member State. Generally, it describes an objective concerning a policy and the means to implement it.

The directive

The publication is not enough to make the decision applicable. The institutions establish an objective to reach but let the choice to the Member States for the means they will have to implement to achieve it. The directive foresees a deadline of transposition into the national law, through a national juridical act. Beyond that date, each State is liable to be pursued if it has not transposed the directive. It is also used to harmonise the national legislations, like for the achievement of the Common Market.

The decision

It allows the regulation of some specific situations and is compulsory for the structures it expressively designs. They can be some Member States, companies or private individuals. For instance, the decisions create the subsidy programmes the Commission will allocate.

The non-restricting acts

These acts have a strict political value. They express the position of the institutions on a given problem. They can furnish information to the Court of Justice. They are recommendations or advice.


Special File elaborated by Christelle Mazza - Welcomeurope©2001



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