(November 14, 2003) The earliest beginning of the present European Union was the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1951. This was followed in 1957 by the establishment of the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). Those three treaties had the purpose to support co-operation between European member countries. Earliest (founding) members were Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. In 1972, Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom joined the Community, followed by Greece in 1981 and Spain and Portugal in 1986. Last members that entered were Austria, Finland and Sweden (1995), making up a total number of 15 Member States.
The European Union (EU) was established, as a kind of successor to the EEC, by the Treaty on the European Union, which came into force in 1993. With the official creation of the European Union a complex and political difficult program was started: a monetary union, new common policies, a common foreign and security policy, etc. Decision-making in the EU is a complicated story in which several institutions are involved. Besides, it is in the process of reform, necessary because of the accession of (at least) 10 new Member States. The main institutions are: the Council of the EU, the European Council, the European Parliament, the European Commission and the Court of Justice.
Council of the European Union
The Council of the EU is the main decision-making institute. It is made up of Ministers from the 15 Member States. At each meeting of this council, the 15 Ministers discuss a certain topic: foreign affairs, environment, agriculture, etc. In case of an environment meeting of the Council, the Environment Ministers of the 15 Member States will attend. The Council of the EU enacts legislation (regulations, directives and decisions) and acts as a legislature. The European Parliament is involved in preparing new legislation in co-operation with the Council. The Presidency of the Council of the EU rotates every six months to a new Member State.
Decisions by the Council of the EU are made either unanimously, by a simple majority or by a qualified majority (62 votes out of a total of 87). France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom have 10 votes each; Spain has 8; Belgium, Greece, the Netherlands and Portugal 5 each; Austria and Sweden 4 each; Denmark, Finland and Ireland 3 each; and Luxembourg 2. The system of qualified majority voting is applied to most areas, such as employment, public health, customs, research programmes. Unanimity is only required for issues of "constitutional" importance (amendments to treaties or accession of new Member States) or certain "sensitive" areas such as taxation. There has been a move from unanimous voting to qualified majority voting since the Amsterdam Treaty of 1997 extended the scope of qualified majority voting to new areas. The decision-making procedure of the Council of the EU is difficult and discussed over and over.
The European Council
Is not a body but the name of the meeting of the Heads of Governments of the Member States. Since 1974, the European Council meets at least twice a year as a discussion board for important issues. Major political initiatives are launched at the European Council meetings. The Council is also used for settling controversial issues not resolved by the Ministers of the Council of the EU. The meetings of the European Council are well known because of big media coverage and political conflicts being discussed at a high level. The European Council can be more or less seen as a discussion platform for the EU countries where important agreements are made on future policies of the EU (whereas subsequent legislation is made by the Ministers of the Council of the EU).
The European Commission
The 20 members of the European Commission are appointed by the 15 Member States (2 each for France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom, and one each for the others). The European Commission has to ensure that directives and regulations taken by the Council of the EU will be implemented by the Member States. If necessary the Commission can bring a case before the European Court of Justice to enforce the implementation. The Commission has also a right of initiative and can intervene in the legislative processes between the Council of the EU and European Parliament. The European Commission can come up with proposals (developing a policy) and sent it to the Council of the EU for the further procedure (making binding legislation). The European Commission has significant powers in relation to common policies in areas such as research and technology.
The European Parliament
It is quite difficult to explain the real power of the European Parliament. It has less power than usually in national governments, although it has improved in the last years. European Parliament elections are held every five years and it has currently 626 seats, elected by the people of the Member States: Germany (99), France (87), Italy (87), United Kingdom (87), Spain (64), Netherlands (31), Belgium (25), Greece (25), Portugal (25), Sweden (22), Austria (21), Denmark (16), Finland (16), Ireland (15) and Luxembourg (6). In the Parliament, political rather than national groups are organised, for example Christian-Democrats, Conservatives or Greens. Plenary sessions of the Parliament are held in Strasbourg and Brussels is the meeting place for the 20 different committees.
The Parliament shares officially the legislative function with the Council of the EU: it has a hand in the drafting of directives and regulations and putting forward amendment proposals. But its "joint decision-making powers" are limited. The power of the Parliament is limited to specific areas and it can only reject (by absolute majority) a proposal of the Council of the EU in its entirety. The same applies to budgetary issues. It can adopt a budget or reject it and if rejected, the whole procedure begins again from scratch.
The Court of Justice
The 15 judges and 9 advocates-general of the European Court of Justice (located in Luxembourg) have to judge whether EU regulations are interpreted and implemented in line with the applying treaties. For example, it may rule that a Member State has failed to act on an obligation under a directive.
The enlargement of the EU will result in changes in decision-making structures. The European Council in Nice (France) in December 2000 reached agreement on the enlargement process. Among these decisions were: extension of areas for qualified majority voting (in place of unanimous voting); new weighing of votes of Member States in the Council of the EU, because of the arrival of new states; and new allocation of seats in the European Parliament.
The total number of votes in the Council of the EU will increase from 87 to 321. The weighing of votes has changed. For example, presently Germany has 10 votes and will have 29 votes in the future Council. All present Member States will have more votes, but the new accession countries will also gain votes in the Council, varying from 3 for Malta to 27 for Poland. Qualified majority voting will be set at 232 votes, but there are special conditions as well for the total amount of states required to adopt a decision (either a majority or two thirds of the members). Besides, a Member State can request that in case of qualified majority voting by Members such a decision will represent 62% of the total population of the EU. If the real population does not sufficiently (62%) represents the supporting Member States, a decision must be rejected.
The European Parliament will increase from 626 to 732 seats. Almost all present EU states will loose some seats (except for Germany and Luxembourg) and new Member States will vary from 3 for Malta to 54 for Poland.
The Laeken Summit in December 2001 called for the creation of a new structure for the EU. As a result a European Convention was established to draft a new Constitution for Europe.