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An overview and institutions of the EU

Made up of its Member States, the European Union (EU) is a union established on common treaties. Its goal is to increase democracy and stability, economic welfare and the free mobility of people in Europe as well as to create improved conditions for Europe to operate in a globalised world.

Measures for achieving the objectives include common legislation, treaties and basic documents.

The EU has various institutions for processing, preparing and deciding on joint issues, the most important of which are the Council of the European Union, the European Council, the European Commission and the European Parliament. In addition, the EU has its own Court of Justice.

At present, the European Union has 27 Member States. The most recent Member States, Bulgaria and Romania, joined the Union on January 1, 2007.

The Council of the European Union

The Council of the European Union is the EU's main decision-making organ. Members include the ministers of all of the Member States.

The responsibilities of the Council are divided under ten subjects:

  • General affairs
  • Foreign affairs
  • Economic and financial affairs
  • Cooperation in justice and home affairs
  • Employment, social policy, health and consumer affairs
  • Competitiveness
  • Transport, telecommunications and energy
  • Agriculture and fisheries
  • Environment
  • Education, youth and culture.

In practice, the Council convenes in ten different configurations: meetings are arranged on each subject, and are attended by the minister responsible for the subject in question from each Member State. Each Member State takes a turn as President of the Council for a six-month period. President of the Council is assisted by the so-called Troika, with the previous and next President participating. The aim of this procedure is to ensure continuity in decision-making within the EU.

The Council shares legislative power with the European Parliament, referred to as the co-decision procedure. In addition, the Council and the Parliament adopt the budget for the EU, although the European Parliament has the final say on approving the budget. The Council takes care of integrating the general economic policy of the Member States.

The Council has an important role in the sphere of EU security. It evolves EU Common Foreign and Security Policy and coordinates cooperation between the national courts and police forces in criminal matters.

The European Council

The European Council consists of the Heads of State or Government of the Member States and is often called for Eurosummit. With the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon in December 2009, it became an institution headed by its President Herman Van Rompuy. The President's term of office is two and a half years, renewable once. The European Council meets twice every six months. Moreover, when the situation so requires, the President will convene a special meeting of the European Council.

The European Council defines the general political direction and priorities of the European Union. Furthermore, it defines e.g. the directions for economic policy as well as the Union`s strategic interests and objectives within the field of foreign and security policy. The European Council does not exercise legislative functions, but in practise it has significant possibilities to contribute to the Union`s development and priorities.

The European Parliament

The European Parliament shares the power to legislate and authority over the budget with the Council. The Parliament has the final say on approving the budget. In addition, the Parliament has an important role in supervising all the EU institutions. It approves or rejects the nomination of members of the Commission and has the right to censure the Commission as a whole.

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are elected by direct elections. Each Member State arranges its own European parliamentary elections, electing as many representatives as there are places appointed for the country in question.

The European Parliament has its own political groupings. These have been formed in accordance with the political trends represented by the main political parties in the Member States rather than in accordance with nationality or national parties. Each elected MEP can freely choose which group he or she will join.

For the period 2009-2014, the European Parliament has 736 members, 13 of whom are Finnish. Following the Treaty of Lisbon's entry into force the number of members will expand to 754.

The European Commission

The European Commission supervises and manages the EU budget and the implementation of the programmes and decisions approved by the Parliament and the Council. It has the right of initiative in the EU's legislative work. On the basis of this right, the Commission draws up proposals for new EU legislation for the Parliament and the Council.

Following the Treaty of Lisbon`s entry into force, the commission will now have a formal obligation - once certain conditions have been met - to consider proposals from citizens.

The Commission cooperates with the EU Court of Justice to ensure that EU law is applied appropriately in all of the Member States. The Commission also represents the EU and its Member States in international cooperation, organisations and negotiations.

Each Commissioner is responsible for a certain policy area. Currently, the Commission has 25 Commissioners, headed by a President.

The Commission is politically answerable to the European Parliament, which has the authority to call for its mass resignation by passing a motion of censure. The Parliament also approves or rejects the Commissioners nominated by the Member States.

The Court of Justice of the European Communities

The Court of Justice of the European Communities ensures that EU legislation is always identical for all parties and in all circumstances. It has the power to settle legal disputes between Member States, EU institutions, businesses and individuals.

The Court is composed of one judge per Member State. The judges are appointed by joint agreement of the governments of the Member States for a term of six years.

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Suomi.fi editorial team | State Treasury