Discover The Facts


This section contains non-partisan factual information about Europe. It has been compiled by the site editor and is updated periodically. It cannot be re-edited by site users. If you believe any of this material is factually incorrect or politically biased please contact the editor.

Key Questions

Are the organs of Europe anti-democratic?

There is no easy answer to this question.  In some ways, it is a question of what we mean by democratic.  The members of the Council of Europe, the European Council and the Council of the European Union all owe their positions to their tenure of office as either head of government (prime minister, president) in their home state or as an official of the government in their home state (minister).  As most heads of government are democratically elected (though even here they may be cause for debate – in the UK for example the prime minister is nominated by his or her party, not directly elected by the populace), their office within the three similarly named but entirely distinct Councils can be said to have some democratic legitimacy.  Not all UK ministers, however, are elected MPs, so one might argue that actions that they take in Europe lack democratic legitimacy.  On the other hand, such ministers are answerable to parliament.  The President of the European Council is not a head of government or a head of state and is not democratically elected.


The Members of the European Parliament are the only directly elected representatives of the people of Europe within the organs of the European Union, and their democratic legitimacy would therefore appear to be well established.  However, many point out that the powers of the European Parliament are very limited – for example the Parliament has no power to initiate legislation.  Many point to the fact that the Parliament may dismiss the Commission as validating the contention that the European Union is, ultimately, a democratic creature.


In many ways the crux of the matter lies in the extensive powers and reach of the European Commission.  Although the Commissioners are appointed by the democratically elected governments of each member state, they are not necessarily politicians and need not ever have been elected by anyone to any position.  Moreover, the Commission is not only the body which initiates legislation in Europe, it also has the power to issue directives and regulations which are binding on all member states and the mechanisms regarding its accountability are regarded by many as unsatisfactory.  It is therefore at the level of the Commission that arguments as to the democratic deficit in Europe tend to rage.  The arguments are likely to intensify in the next few years, as the transitional amendments provided for in the Lisbon Treaty gradually fall into place, and the number of Commissioners serving at any one time is capped at 15, which will mean that each member state will only have a Commissioner for 10 years out of every 15.  The argument is that the Commissioners are bound to represent the interests of Europe and not of their ‘mother’ nation, but it is almost inevitable that resentment will grow as decisions made by the reduced Commission bind all member states.


If we extend the meaning of the word ‘democratic’ to include the concept that those who legislate for us should reflect the society for which they legislate, then the European organs may also be considered to be undemocratic.  The Three Councils are overwhelming dominated by white, middle class males.  According to Operation Black Vote there are only 10 out of 732 MEPs who are black or of other minority ethnic origin.


One significant objection to the democratic legitimacy of European organs, is that in practically all cases, with the exception of the European Parliament, the deliberations of these organs take place in secret, with only summaries of the their deliberations or decisions being available.  The lack of openness calls into question the democratic nature of the European machine.  On the other hand a recent introduction and a product of the Treaty of Lisbon is a provision whereby 1 million citizens across Europe may petition the Commission to consider an issue.  It is not yet clear how effective such provision will be in terms of increasing ‘direct democracy’, especially in the light of the fact that the commission is not bound to take any action in respect of such petition.


A further issue is the influence of lobbyists in the European Parliament and the Commission.  A recent report suggests that efforts to introduce a voluntary code of conduct of lobbyists have not been entirely effective and this, combined with the fact that deliberations of so many organs and committees take place in private, means that there are concerns that commercial interests may have an undue influence over the decision making process in Europe.


What is the point of voting in European elections when the power is vested in the European Commission?

In defending the accusation of a democratic deficit in Europe, the argument is often made that the legitimacy of the Commission is guaranteed by the fact that the European Parliament has the power to confirm appointments and to remove Commissioners from office.  However, it only tends to compound the democratic deficit if the turnout at European elections is low.  Turnouts have been in steady decline since 1979, falling to well below 50% at the last election.  It is sometimes said that apathy at the polls means that an electorate gets the representation that it deserves.  Higher levels of voting and commitment by the general public not only improves the legitimacy of the elected bodies, but also brings greater pressure to bear on those elected representatives to fulfil their duties.


By contrast others argue that the large and unwieldy structure of the Commission, based far away from the UK, mean that no matter who is in office in Brussels, the Commissioners and the Commission in general is bound to be out of touch with the people affected by the decisions it makes and that the fact that the public have no direct method of demonstrating their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the Commission cannot be cured by the election of individuals to a completely different body.



What you need to know

The United Kingdom's relationship with Europe is equivocal.  In the years immediately following the Second World War, the United Kingdom was a prime mover in the efforts made to achieve closer dialogue and understanding between the nations of Europe and to introduce measures designed to ensure that a European war could not happen again.  However, the UK did not join the European Union (or the EEC as it then was) on its formation in 1957 and it was not until 1973 that, somewhat reluctantly, the UK conceded the imperative of recognising that we are part of Europe and the benefits that closer European cooperation can bring.  However, the successive treaties which have inched closer towards total European integration, in parallel with the expansion of the powers of the central organs of Europe, have divided opinion in the UK as to whether they represent an abdication of parliamentary sovereignty

The organs of European cooperation, both within and outside the European Union, are many and varied, but in almost every case they derive their authority from treaties to which the UK is party.  An understanding of these structures is an essential prerequisite to forming a view as to whether or not 'Europe' represents a threat to the British constitution. 

For details of debates in the Commons on the European Union Bill, 2011

Why does it matter?

Citizens of the United Kingdom participate in ‘Europe’ in a number of ways; for example, they vote for Members of the European Parliament to represent them, regulations emanating from the European Commission directly impact everyone's daily life, all UK citizens are entitled to recourse to the European Court of Human Rights and we take for granted the right to free movement throughout the European Union.  Yet the views of many, both for and against 'Europe' tend to be founded on only a sketchy knowledge of the structures operating in Europe and are liberally tainted with national and transnational prejudices and preferences.   An informed view would lead to a clearer strategy on Europe.

What are the key dates?

Formation of the Council of Europe (the Treaty of London)
Adoption of the European Convention on Human Rights (the Treaty of Rome)
Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands form the European Economic Community (subsequently the EU, and referred to below as the EU
First session of the European Court of Human Rights
European Court of Human Rights issues its first judgement
Denmark, Ireland, United Kingdom join the EU
First direct elections to the European Parliament
Greece joins the EU
Portugal, Spain join the EU
Austria, Finland, Sweden join the EU
Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia join the EU
European Constitutional Treaty rejected by France and the Netherlands
Bulgaria, Romania join the EU
European Court of Human Rights issues its 10,000th judgement
Lisbon Treaty comes into effect, modifying the institutional structure of the EU

What are the key facts?

The United Kingdom regulates its relationship with fellow European states in different ways.  First, we are party to treaties with many other European states which regulate our dealings with those states both individually and collectively.  Second, we are members of the European Union.  The European Union is a new type of structure that does not fall into any traditional legal category (such as a federation of states).  The political system of the EU has been constantly evolving in the 50 years since its foundation, but the primary legislation which brought the EU into existence and which regulates its operation is a series of treaties of which the Lisbon Treaty is the most recent.   More

In this section we deal only very briefly with the history of European cooperation and union.  For a more detailed account see 

Confusingly, many of the administrative organs which exist in Europe bear very similar names and their functions also sometimes overlap.  What follows is not an exhaustive list of all European organs, but a guide to the principle organisations whose activities impact on the United Kingdom.


The Council of Europe


The Council of Europe is completely distinct and separate from the European Union.  It is an international organisation in Strasbourg which comprises 47 countries of Europe, including many countries which are not members of the European Union.  More

As at 2010 the members of the council of Europe are:







Bosnia and Herzegovena




Czech Republic




















The Netherlands*





Russian Federation

San Marino


Slovak Republic





The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia



United Kingdom*


To date, no country has become a member of the European Union without first being a member of the Council of Europe.


* indicates founding members

It was established by the Treaty of London after the Second World War to promote democracy and protect human rights and the rule of law in Europe.  The Council of Europe seeks to develop throughout Europe common and democratic principles based on the European Convention on Human Rights and other reference texts on the protection of individuals.  Born out of the post-war desire to try to avoid another war, the Council became to some extent sidelined on the formation of the European Union, but has acquired new impetus following the collapse of communism in the eastern bloc in the 1980s, doing much to promote democracy and human rights in the former eastern bloc states. More

The Council of Europe summarises its objectives as


- to protect human rights, pluralist democracy and the rule of law;   


- to promote awareness and encourage the development of Europe's cultural identity and diversity;


- to find common solutions to the challenges facing European society;


- to consolidate democratic stability in Europe by backing political, legislative and constitutional reform


This political mandate was defined and approved by the third Summit of Heads of State and Government, held in Warsaw in May 2005

Council of Europe member states maintain their sovereignty but commit themselves through conventions and treaties and co-operate on the basis of common values and common political decisions. More

The conventions and decisions are developed by the member states working voluntarily together at the Council of Europe and each state decides for itself whether to accede to the various measures agreed upon.  By contrast, European Community law - other than the treaties which establish the framework for the operation of the European Union - is set by the organs of the European Union.  By agreeing to become a member of the Union, member states agree to abide by that law.

The Council of Europe is sometimes criticised for being only a rather expensive talking shop.  Yet it performs a number of practical functions in the field of human rights, public health, social cohesion and cultural development.  A number of international organisations work under the auspices of the Council of Europe, for example the European Court of Human Rights, the European Directorate for the Quality of Medicines and the European Committee of Social Rights, the Council of Europe Anti-Doping Authority and Eurimages (promoting European film).  More

The European Anthem and the European flag (twelve stars against a blue background) were both originally adopted by the Council of Europe before the European Union and are therefore the preserve of all the states who are party to the Council of Europe and not just the member states of the European Union.

For the financial year 2010, the United Kingdom contributed just over 11% of the total ordinary budget of the Council of Europe of € 218 million.  The Council employs a full-time secretariat of 2,000 individuals in Strasbourg and other offices across Europe. More

The additional budgets of the Council of Europe for the year 2010 are as follows:


€  5,090,000

Pension reserve fund

€ 37,383,300

European Youth Foundation

€ 3,089,400

Convention on the elaboration of a European Pharmacopoeia


(net contribution: the Convention is largely self-financing through income from sales)

Partial Agreement on the Council of Europe Development Bank

€ 1,267,600

Partial Agreement on the Co-operation Group for the prevention of, protection against, and organisation of relief in major natural and technological disasters and adjustment of the scale of contributions of member states to the budgets of the Council of Europe

€ 1,330,100

Partial Agreement on the European Support Fund for the co-production and distribution of creative cinematographic and audio-visual works "Eurimages"

€ 2,456,300

(net contribution: this organisation is largely self-financing)

European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission)

€ 3,499,400

Partial Agreement on the Youth Card

€ 86,500

Enlarged Partial Agreement on the European Centre for Modern Languages (Graz)

€ 1,702,000


The Committee of Ministers is the decision making body of the Council of Europe and is made up of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of each of the 47 member states. More

or the equivalent office in each member state.  The UK’s representative is the Secretary of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. A list of current Ministers can be found here

Each member State appoints a Permanent Representative who resides in Strasbourg.  They are usually senior diplomats with Ambassadorial rank, occasionally chargés d'affaires. More

The UK's Permanent Representative is Ms Eleanor Fuller.  A complete list of Permanent Representatives can be found here

In practice the Ministers usually appoint Deputies to conduct most of the day to day work of the Committee, exercising all of the powers of the Minister. 

The Committee of Ministers usually meets once a year.  Records of these 'sessions' are confidential but a final communique is usually issued at the end of each session.  The Committee approves the budget of the Council and determines policy, but the remit of the Committee also encompasses the maintenance of good diplomatic and working relationships within all member states and the striving towards common ground and common values.  Each Minister chairs the Committee for six months.

The Deputies meet once a week for full "Meetings of the Ministers' Deputies" and several further times a week in subsidiary groups or working parties to fulfill and implement the policies determined by the Committee.

Although the Committee of Ministers may approve treaties, conventions and agreements, these do not have automatic effect.  Instead each member state must sign up before it is bound.

The Holy See, the United States of America, Canada, Japan and Mexico all have permanent observers on the Committee.  


The Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) is the deliberative body of the Council of Europe which initiates and debates policy and makes recommendations to the Committee of Ministers.  Each member state appoints a delegation to PACE, whose members are serving politicians in their home state.  More

Until 12th April 2010 the United Kingdom delegation comprised 18 members, 10 Labour, 6 Conservative and 2 Liberal Democrat, of whom 17 were serving MPs and one a peer.  The UK delegation is appointed by the Prime Minister. The complete list may be found here 

PACE can initiate new policies, must be consulted about all treaties drawn up by the Council of Europe and elects the judges of the European Court of Human Rights, the Commissioner for Human Rights, the Secretary General and Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe and its own Secretary General.

PACE monitors compliance of member states with their obligations, although it has few mandatory powers to ensure enforcement. More

In a case of persistent default, PACE may refuse to ratify or may withdraw the credentials of the country's national delegation and in extreme cases it may recommend the suspension of that state's membership of the Council.

PACE meets four times a year for week-long plenary sessions. On the recommendation of the Committee of Ministers,  PACE appoints a Secretary-General who holds office for 5 years.


The Congress of Local and Regional Authorities is the voice of Europe’s 200 000 councils, regions and municipalities and provides a forum where elected representatives can discuss common problems, pool their experiences and develop policies.  It consists of two chambers, the Chamber of Local Authorities and the Chamber of Regions, and has 318 members.  It meets twice a year in Strasbourg. More

For a list of the members of the Chamber of Regions see here.  For a list of the members of the Chamber of Local Authorities see here

Each state has its own procedure for appointing members, who elect the Congress President for two ordinary sessions. More

In England nominations are made by the Local Government Association, in Scotland by the Scottish Parliament and COSLA, in Wales by the Welsh Assembly and the Welsh Local Government Association and in Northern Ireland by the Northern Ireland Assembly and NILGA, but all nominations are subject to final approval by the Prime Minister.  Members receive no salary from the Congress, but can claim travel expenses from their home state.  The office and other operating expenses on the ground in Strasbourg are met out of the budget of the Congress.

The general remit of the Congress is to promote and uphold democracy, social cohesion, culture, education and sustainable development in member states.  It has no mandatory powers of enforcement.

The Conference of INGOs includes some 400 international Non Governmental Organisations (INGOs).  NGOs who comply with basic criteria set by the Council may apply to become members.  The Conference meets three to four times a year in plenary session.  The purpose of the conference is to engender closer cooperation and understanding between the various bodies and the member states.


The European Convention on Human Rights and The European Court of Human Rights


It is a common misconception that the European Convention on Human Rights and the Court of Human Rights are the product of the European Union.  In fact the Convention is the product of the Council of Europe and pre-dates the formation of the European Union by several years.  All Council of Europe member states are party to the Convention and new members are expected to ratify the convention at the earliest opportunity. 

The United Kingdom was in large part responsible for the drafting of the convention and was one of the first nations to sign it, so the Convention has had legal effect in the United Kingdom since it first came into force in 1953.  More

The principle rights contained in the Convention can be summarised as follows:


* the right to life

* freedom from torture and degrading treatment

* freedom from slavery and forced labour

* the right to liberty

* the right to a fair trial

* the right not to be punished for something that wasn't a crime when you did it

* the right to respect for private and family life

* freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and freedom to express your beliefs

* freedom of expression

* freedom of assembly and association

* the right to marry and to start a family

* the right not to be discriminated against in respect of these rights and freedoms

* the right to peaceful enjoyment of your property

* the right to an education

* the right to participate in free elections

* the right not to be subjected to the death penalty


The full text of the Convention can be found here

Many of the provisions of the convention draw heavily on principles well established in English law over many centuries, but the contents of the convention are commonly viewed as 'European' because the language used attempted to accommodate nations common from many different national legal perspectives.  More

For example, it would be wrong to think that slavery was permitted or that there was no right to a fair trial in the UK before the Convention came into being.  In fact as early as the Magna Carta in 1215 references can be found to the right to liberty, and it is reasonably clear that by the time of Somersett's Case in 1772 slavery was regarded as illegal on British soil. Magna Carta also established the principle of habeas corpus, whilst the Bill of Rights in 1689 ensured the right to freedom from fines and forfeitures without trial. Equivalent rights exist under Scottish law.

The European Court of Human Rights was established as an organ of the Council of Europe and is the permanent judicial body which guarantees for all Europeans the rights safeguarded by the European Convention on Human Rights.  The Court may rule that a member state is in violation of the principles of the Convention and may award compensation to the offended party. 

Since the Court of Human Rights sits in Strasbourg and applications may only be brought after exhausting local remedies, access to the Court is in practice costly and therefore impracticable for most potential applicants.  This was one reason that it was felt appropriate to incorporate the provisions of the convention into United Kingdom law in the form of the Human Rights Act 1998 More

However, there was also a perception that the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights had been out of sympathy with UK law and practice.  Under section 2(1) of the Human Rights Act 1998, the courts must ‘take into account’ any relevant judgment from the European Court of Human Rights.  But that phrase does not make decisions of the Strasbourg court binding on our own courts. More
In R v.  Horncastle the Court stated that there will be rare occasions when Britain’s most senior judges have ‘concerns as to whether a decision of the Strasbourg court sufficiently appreciates or accommodates particular aspects of our domestic process’.  Lord Phillips, president of the Supreme Court said that in these circumstances:

‘it is open to this court to decline to follow the Strasbourg decision, giving reasons for adopting this course.  This is likely to give the Strasbourg court the opportunity to reconsider the particular aspect of the decision that is in issue, so that there takes place what may prove to be a valuable dialogue between this court and the Strasbourg court.’ 

Notwithstanding this, there is a continuing perception in certain quarters that the rulings of the UK courts under the HRA have effected a 'villain's charter', because decisions weigh in favour of the human rights of the applicant.  Whether or not this view is justified, it is leading to calls for the repeal of the HRA and its replacement with a British Bill of Rights.  More
Critics of the Act cite cases such as the action currently pending by Jack Richard Foster, a prisoner who is claiming that a ban on smoking in prison constitutes a violation of his rights under the 1998 Human Rights Act.   It should be noted, however, that he is also pleading that the ban constituted a "cruel and unusual punishment'' in breach of a statutory duty imposed by the 1688 Bill of Rights.  On the other hand supporters of the legislation point to cases such as  A. v. Secretary of State for the Home Department in which the House of Lords made a declaration that section 22 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, which authorised the indefinite detention without charge of certain foreigners suspected of having links to international terrorism, was incompatible with the right to liberty and the right to be free of discrimination under Articles 5 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights as given effect in the UK by the Human Rights Act 1998.  Supporters characterise this decision as a victory for civil liberties in the face of an overbearing state.


The European Union


The EU, founded in 1957, is based on a series of legal treaties between the member states.  The United Kingdom joined the EU in 1973.  More

The first treaty, which established the European Economic Community (EEC), was signed in Rome in 1957.  There have been five subsequent treaties,  the Single European Act (1986), the Treaty of Maastricht (1992), the Treaty of Amsterdam (1997), the Treaty of Nice (2001) and the Treaty of Lisbon (2009).  Each such treaty contained provisions which progressively expanded the fields of operation of the European Union.  The full text of the treaties can be found here.  A consolidated text of all the treaties can be seen here.

The European Union has influence over a very wide range of policy areas.  In economic policy, it has sole responsible for the Euro, external trade negotiations, overseeing the single market, competition policy and the EU budget.  It also operates various funds, including the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).  The EU has responsibilities in many areas of justice and home affairs, foreign policy and social policies, such as working hours, and health and safety.  Finally it regulates numerous areas of peoples' lives relating to issues including in relation to the environment and consumer protection.

The European Union describes itself as “a pact between sovereign nations which have resolved to share a common destiny and to pool an increasing share of their sovereignty.  It touches on things that Europeans care most deeply about: peace, economic and physical well-being, security, participatory democracy, justice and solidarity.” More

Source:Europe in 12 Lessons, published on the portal site of the EU

There is no Constitution of the European Union as such.  Successive attempts to get all member states to agree to a constitution have failed, however, many view the consolidating amendments to the previous treaties which were made by the Treaty of Lisbon as being tantamount to a constitution.


The European Council


The European Council is made up of the heads of the governments of the member states (so the United Kingdom’s representative is the Prime Minister), and the President of the Commission. It meets for summits four times a year to discuss the direction of EU policy. More

The Council of the European Union and its Secretariat does much of the work leading up to a European Council Summit.

To the extent that one of the aims of the European Union is to enhance the force of Europe as a single entity on the world stage, the European Union summits play an important role in demonstrating the glamour and gravitas of the European Union to the rest of the world.

The High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, although not a member of the Council, takes part in its meetings, as well as the Secretary-General of the Council of the European Union and the President of the European Commission.  At the start of each session, the President of the European Parliament usually attends to deliver a speech on the position of the European Parliament.  More

Other senior national politicians may attend the Council if the subject-matter merits it.  It was in the past quite common for the foreign ministers of member states to attend, but since the Lisbon Treaty re-defined relations between member states as a domestic rather than an international issue, their attendance is now less frequent.  The fact that not all states divide ministerial responsibility in the same way may give rise to some difficulty in deciding who should be present at meetings, as only two members from each country may attend.

The Council appoints a President, who serves a 2 and a half year term, which can be extended to 5 years.  The current President of the European Council is Herman van Rompuy, former Prime Minister of Belgium.  The President is primarily responsible for preparing and chairing the Council meetings, and has no executive powers, but the President represents the European Council and the EU to the outside world.  He must report to the European Parliament after each European Council meeting.

The remit of the Council, as set down in the Treaty of Lisbon is to “provide the Union with the necessary impetus for its development”.  The European Council cannot enact any binding legislation, although it calls upon the European Commission and the Council of the European Union to take action, and the guidelines it lays down must be taken into account in decisions of the Council of the EU.

The European Council makes the decisions which set the course for the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), although it is the High Representative for Foreign Affairs who is responsible for co-ordinating the EU's foreign policy and building consensus between member states.  The European Council also issues 'common strategies' on issues about which members states agree.  More

Many of these strategies form part of the European Neighbourhood Policy, which includes strategies such as promoting democracy and peace in Russia and the eastern Mediterranean.

The European Council is a forum for free and informal exchanges of views between the responsible leaders of the Member States and is often thought of as the organ which brings about a sort of "esprit de corps" on the part of Europe's political leaders. Decisions in the European Council are generally made unanimously, a reflection of the inter-governmental nature of the Council and the fact that the member states remain sovereign. In common with other treaty organisations, the European Council relies more on consensus to reach political agreement and has to reach compromises in order to reach a conclusion.  The agreements reached in each session are summarised in the “Presidency conclusions”.   A less formal organization than the Council of the European Union (whose proceedings may become frozen by the rigidity of its method of operation), the European Council can take advantage of the fact that it is a forum where deals between states may be brokered and can therefore act as a kind of appeal body for politically and economically important business which is deadlocked at ministerial level.   More

Despite their undeniable political value the declarations and conclusions of the European Council have no legal binding force.  They give the political impetus for the enactment of common policies, but the implementation of such policies may require the conclusion of treaties in the usual way.  When it comes to the area of the common foreign and security policy it is arguable that the decisions have more force because, in addition to adopting common strategies, the European Council can decide upon joint actions or common positions, which bind member states politically, if not legally.


The Council of the European Union (the Council of Ministers)

The Council of the European Union — sometimes also called the Council of Ministers or the Consilium — consists of ministers from the national governments of all the EU countries.  It is an important decision-making body of the EU and it shares with the European Parliament the responsibility for passing EU laws.  However it does not have the power to propose new legislation, as this is the remit of the Commission.  For any EU law to be passed, or deal on the EU budget to be agreed, the Council of the European Union (along with the European Parliament) must vote in favour of it and in that respect its role is key.  It is also ‘in charge’ of the EU’s foreign, security and defence policies, in as much as the policies are set by agreement between the member states in the European Council, but it is the Council of the EU which has the responsibility for implementation.  In matters relating to policy areas in which member states have not delegated powers to the other EU institutions, the Council plays the predominant role, setting political guidelines.  For example, it has the power to sign international agreements with non-EU countries on behalf of the EU.

The Council Meetings are attended by whichever ministers are responsible for the items to be discussed – for example ministers with responsibilites for agriculture attend meetings reating to the Common Agricultural Policy. More

The most important gatherings are Ecofin (for economic issues), the Council of Agriculture Ministers, and the Council of Foreign Ministers.  Each group of ministers meets monthly.  Prior to meetings, COREPER - a committee of permanent representatives of the member states' Civil Services - plays a major behind-the-scenes role in seeking common ground between member state governments.  The Council is also aided by a powerful bureaucracy and Council Secretariat to run its administration, currently headed by Pierre de Boissieu.

Every six months, a different member state assumes the so-called presidency of the EU, meaning that its ministers chair the meetings of the council and set the overall political agenda, except in relation to Foreign Affairs, in respect of which meetings are permanently led by the EU's High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, currently the UK's Catherine Ashton.  

The introduction of the High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy position has caused some confusion over the foreign policy role of the EU.

The Council of of the EU can take a decision in three ways: by a simple majority vote, by a qualified majority vote (QMV) or unanimously and the voting system used depends on the subject and whether a particular method of voting has been stipulated in advance by a treaty or other arrangement. More

The system of qualified majority voting is in transition at the moment, because of amendments made by the Lisbon Treaty.   With effect from 2014, decisions of the Council of Ministers will need the support of 55% of the Member States, representing at least 65 % of the European population. 
The Council has to agree unanimously in order to amend Treaties, to launch new common policies or to allow a new country to join the EU.  In most other cases, QMV is used, in which the Council adopts a decision if a specified minimum number of votes is cast in its favour.   The number of votes allocated to each EU country roughly reflects the size of its population, but there is a weighting in favour of smaller countries. More
Populous countries like Germany, France, Italy and the UK each have 29 votes. Countries with a smaller populations like Estonia, Cyprus, Latvia, Luxembourg and Slovenia only have four votes.

For a decision to pass, it has to have a minimum of 255 votes out of 345.

Under the Lisbon Treaty, QMV will be extended to 40 policy areas, including asylum, immigration, police co-operation and judicial co-operation in criminal matters.

As the activities of the EU have expanded, the Council has lost some authority to the Commission.  More

The EU's High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy has been criticised for setting up her office in the Brussels executive's headquarters and for using commission officials as her key advisers.

The Commission proposes most of the issues to be discussed by the Council of the EU.  There are also issues regarding the accountability of the Council of the EU, in particular because the Council still meets mainly in secret and neither minutes of meetings nor Ministers' negotiating processes are made public.  Although ministers are answerable to their national parliaments, the fact that they are empowered to commit and take decisions in secret meetings of the Council of the EU means that it can be difficult for national parliaments to keep track of changes that are being made.  Moreover, the extension of the use of QMV means that sometimes member states can have decisions forced upon them that they do not support and may struggle to pass through their national parliaments.


European Commission

The European Commission is the EU's permanent administration, but it is more than just a civil service for the European Union, because it is the only institution in the Union which has the power to propose EU laws.  For this reason it is sometimes seen as the driving force behind integration in Europe.  The European Commission has four main roles:

1. to propose legislation to Parliament and the Council;

2. to manage and implement EU policies and the budget;

3. to enforce European law (jointly with the Court of Justice);

4. to represent the European Union on the international stage, for example by negotiating agreements between the EU and other countries.

The European Commission is made up of 27 commissioners, each of whom is supported by his or her own cabinet of advisors.  A number of directorates general perform the day to day work of the Commission, including devising and drafting legislative proposals; however, such proposals only become official once they are formally adopted by the Commission at its weekly meeting.    More

The Commission’s 38,000 staff, in offices in Brussels, Luxembourg and elsewhere in Europe, is organised in departments, known as ‘Directorates-General’ (DGs) and ‘services’ (such as the Legal Service).  Each DG is responsible for a particular policy area and is headed by a Director-General who is answerable to one of the Commissioners.  Overall coordination is provided by the Secretariat-General, which also manages the weekly Commission meetings.  It is headed by the Secretary-General, who is answerable directly to the President of the Commission.

Each member state appoints one Commissioner who is usually a senior politician or civil servant in his or her home state.  However, the Commissioners’ job is to act in the general European interest, not to advance the interests of their own country.  Each Commissioner is responsible for managing EU policy in a particular area - such as environment, education or transport.  The British Commissioner is currently Baroness Catherine Ashton and she is the EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy.  The Lisbon Treaty provides that from 2014 the total number of Commissioners is to be capped at 15, so that only two-thirds of member states will have an active Commissioner at any one time - so all states will have a Commissioner for 10 years out of every 15.

The Commissioners serve a term of five years. They are appointed by national governments and their appointment is confirmed by a vote in the European Parliament.  The European Council nominates one of the Commissioners to be the President (whose nomination is confirmed by a vote of the European Parliament), in order to give leadership to the work of the Commission as a whole. The current President is José Manuel Barroso of the European People's Party.  The President holds office for a five year renewable term.  The European Parliament has the right to remove the President and all the Commissioners from office on a vote of censure.    More

When, in the late 1990s, the Commission was mired in allegations of corruption and abuse of power, the threat of the use of the power of removal from office by the European Parliament was sufficient to cause Jacques Santer, the then President, and all of his Commissioners to resign from office.

The Commission meets once a week, usually on Wednesdays, in Brussels.  Each item on the agenda is presented by the Commissioner responsible for that policy area, and the whole team then takes a collective decision on it.

The Commission exercises its powers just by virtue of the various treaties which set the framework for the EU.  The Commission does not have unfettered powers over all policy areas in the way that a national government or executive would; for example, the Commission lacks power over areas like foreign policy because that power is reserved to the European Council.  More

Because of the continuing evolving nature of the European Union, it is difficult to say with certainty which view the European Council and the European Commission as jointly sharing executive power of the European Union, whilst the European Council also holds the individual national executive powers of the member states.

However, the Commission enjoys considerable financial powers, drafting the EU budget and having the responsibility for the distribution of EU funds to member states.  It also has a role representing all the members collectively in the negotiation of treaties and the enlargement of the EU and the Commission is represented at meetings when decisions are made about common foreign and security policy and justice and home affairs policy.  The Commission polices compliance by member states with EU law and has the power to take legal action against states that it believes are not in compliance.  Most importantly, except in relation to the Common Foreign and Security Policy, it alone has legislative initiative in the European Union, meaning only the Commission can make formal proposals for legislation– legislative proposals cannot originate in the legislative branches.  The European Council and the European Parliament are able to request legislation and in most cases the Commission initiates the basis of these proposals, although it is not bound to do so.  This monopoly was originally conceived of as a mechanism to ensure coordinated and coherent drafting of Union law.  But the monopoly, combined with the fact that the powers of the Commission are far-reaching and with the fact that the Commission is not directly accountable to the electorate, lead to claims of a democratic deficit in Europe. More

A new initiative in the Lisbon Treaty, is a provision whereby EU citizens are also able to request the Commission to legislate in an area via a petition carrying one million signatures.  It remains to be seen whether this attempt at so-called ‘direct democracy’ will help to enhance the democratic legitimacy of the Commission, but given that there is no obligation to take any action on receipt of such a petition, it is difficult to see that this provision can have any major or lasting impact.

Regulations and directives

The Commission may issue either directives or regulations.  Directives are addressed to member states rather than to their citizens and require member states to implement certain provisions as part of their own domestic law.  Regulations, on the other hand, take effect as soon as they are made and are binding on all citizens within the EU, regardless of the provisions of member states’ domestic laws.


European Parliament


The European Parliament (EP) is the only directly elected EU institution and, as such, is seen as giving democratic legitimacy to the EU as a whole.  The Parliament suffers from significant ‘image problems’ with the European electorate for a number of reasons:

– it does not have the powers of a normal national parliament in that it cannot propose new legislation: it can only accept, reject or put forward amendments to laws proposed by the Commission.  This makes many voters unsure of the role of the European Parliament in general or of Members of the Parliament in particular

– the European Parliament has two homes - one in Brussels, the other in Strasbourg - and a secretariat in Luxembourg; for three weeks of the month the parliament operates in Brussels, where most committee and political group meetings take place, then for one week it decamps to Strasbourg; this perpetual movement adds to the cost of running the parliament, is unpopular with members of the European Parliament (MEPs) because of the extra travel involved and creates a public perception of inpermanence More

The Strasbourg parliament is a matter of national prestige for France.   Situated on the border between Germany and France, which fought two world wars in the last century, it is also a symbol of Europe's peaceful new order.  However, it is estimated that the cost of constantly moving between the two sites is over 200million euros per year. Over 1.2 million European citizens have signed a petition in favour of the Parliament sitting only in Brussels. 

– the Parliament has also been dogged by organisation problems arising from the number of different political groups and alliances that make it up.

These problems probably together contribute to the fact that turnouts in EU elections have been in steady decline since the 1970s. More

The overall turnout figure in 1979 was 63%; in 2009 it was 43%. These figures mask very different participation rates between different member countries: turnout in Slovakia was 19.6% in 2009, compared with 65% in Italy.  It was also high in Belgium and Luxembourg, where voting is compulsory.  Over the same period, the number of people participating in national elections has also tended to drop, in some cases by 10% or more.  However, participation in European elections is lower than in national elections. Source:

Elections for the European Parliament are held every five years, and every EU citizen who is registered as a voter is entitled to vote.  MEPs in the United Kingdom are elected by proportional representation. More

Each member state decides on the form its election will take, but follows identical democratic groundrules: equality of the sexes and a secret ballot.  In all member states, the voting age is 18, with the exception of Austria, where it is 16.
Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) do not sit in national blocks, but in seven Europe-wide political groupings.  The largest of these are the European People's Party (EPP) and the Alliance of Socialists and Democracts (S&D). More
The political groupings are as follows:

EPP - European People's Party (Christian Democrats)

S&D - Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in Europe (centre-left)

ALDE - Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (liberal)

GUE/NGL - European United Left-Nordic Green Left (left-wing)

Greens/EFA - Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens and regionalists/nationalists)

ECR - European Conservatives and Reformists Group (right-wing)

EFD - Europe of Freedom and Democracy (Eurosceptic)

NA - Non-attached (MEPs not part of any group)


For a group to be recognised, it needs at least 25 MEPs from seven different countries.  The groups are important because the larger the group, the more funding it receives, the more key committee posts it gets and the longer it can speak in debates. More

The imperative of size in order to access funding and floor time results in some unusual groupings.  For example, the new Socialist group has expanded to include some Italian MEPs who used to sit with the liberals.  The British Conservatives have left the EPP-ED, regarding it as too enthusiastic about EU integration. The Conservatives are leading the new European Conservatives and Reformists Group, which includes right-wing MEPs from the Czech Republic and Poland. 
None of the groups has an overall majority, so amendments need the support of more than one group to get through.  On most issues the European Parliament divides along classic left-right lines.


The present parliament, elected in June 2009, has 736 MEPs of whom 72 are British.  More

Around one third of MEPs are women, but only 10 MEPs are either black or from other minority ethnic groupings according to Operation Black Vote.
The Lisbon Treaty (2007) limits the number of MEP's to a maximum of 750. More
The maximum number of MEPs per country now is 99 (Germany) and the minimum five (Malta).  Lisbon envisages that the maximum will be 96, the minimum six.
The number of MEPs each country has reflects the size of its population.  The UK is divided into twelve electoral regions made up of the nations and regions of the UK.  Each region has between three and ten MEPs and each MEP in a region represents each person living there. More
The regions and the number of MEPs for each region are as follow:

Eastern – 7

East Midlands – 5

London – 8

North East – 3

North West – 8

South East – 10

South West – 6

West Midlands – 6

Yorkshire and Humber – 6

Wales – 4

Scotland – 6

Northern Ireland – 3

Information on uk MEPs can be found here


The standard monthly payment for all MEPs has been set at 7,665 euros; in addition MEPs can claim a flat-rate monthly allowance of 4202 euros to cover office expenses and travel in their home country and they can claim for travel related to their official duties in Brussels and Strasbourg. More

Until recently MEPs received the same salary as members of their national parliaments. As a result, Italian MEPs earned four times more than their Spanish counterparts - and about 14 times more than MEPs from some new member states.  The new salary is roughly equivalent to the amount earned by German MPs and was also roughly on a par with a British MP's salary, until the pound fell against the euro.  In the past MEPs could claim for an expensive flexible economy class flight even if they flew low-fare. But under the new rules they will have to submit receipts and be reimbursed only for amounts actually paid. MEPs also get a daily subsistence allowance - now 298 euros - for attendance at parliamentary sessions. 

Although the European Parliament represents the electorate's interests in discussions with the other EU institutions, it can only discuss, propose amendments to, and vote to accept or reject laws proposed by the Commission.  European Parliament committees can produce 'own-initiative' reports, which recommend legislation to the Commission, but the Commission is under no obligation to act on these.  For a new European Union law or budget to pass, it must have the support of both the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union, the so-called process of "co-decision".  The other significant power the EP has is that of 'democratic supervision' over the Commission - giving it the power to sack the Commission through a vote of censure.

The EP budget for 2009 was 1.5 billion euros,  25% of which was dedicated to MEPs' expenses.

The European Parliament elects a President for a renewable term of two and a half years, i.e. half the lifetime of a Parliament.  The current President is the former Polish prime minister Jerzy Buzek.  The President represents the European Parliament in its relations with the other Community institutions and with the outside world.  Assisted by 14 Vice-Presidents, the President oversees all the work of the Parliament and its constituent bodies (Bureau and Conference of Presidents), as well as the debates in plenary session.  Twelve plenary part-sessions are held each year in Strasbourg and six more in Brussels.

There are 20 parliamentary committees which meet once or twice a month in Brussels, and which deliberate in public.   A committee consists of between 24 and 76 MEPs, and has a chair, a bureau and a secretariat.  The political make-up of the committees reflects that of the plenary assembly.  The committees draw up, amend and adopt legislative proposals and own-initiative reports.  They consider Commission and Council proposals and, where necessary, draw up reports to be presented to the plenary assembly.  The European Parliament’s 35 delegations interact with the parliaments of countries that are not members of the European Union.  More

The European Parliament also has 5 Multilateral Assemblies, which bring together MEPs and parliamentarians from African, Caribbean and Pacific States (ACP-EU JPA), the Mediterranean (EMPA), Latin America (EUROLAT), EU's eastern neighbouring countries (EURONEST), and NATO countries.

The European Parliament has its own Secretariat comprising some 4600 officials working under the authority of a Secretary-General.

The European Parliament has numerous contacts with lobby groups, which have led it to adopt an associated code of conduct.

The Quaestors are responsible for issuing individual named passes valid for a maximum of one year to people who wish to enter Parliament frequently to provide MEPs with information relating to their parliamentary duties, in their own interests or those of third parties.

Their names are recorded in a public register kept by the Quaestors, which can be consulted on Parliament’s website.

The European Parliament decides on policy proposals in the plenary by voting on the basis of either 'roll-call votes' (in which the way that each MEP votes is recorded), electronic votes or by a show of hands.  European Parliament voting is mainly via a show of hands.


The European Court of Justice


The purpose of the European Court of Justice is to ensure that the law of the European Union is observed and interpreted in a uniform manner through the EU; for example it endeavours to ensure that national courts do not give different rulings on the same issue. More

The Court’s jurisdiction extends beyond issues of compliance by member states with the various Treaties.  It includes, for example, hearing appeals from parties, such as businesses, which have been penalized by the Commission for infringements of competition law, when the Court will give a ruling on the merits of the Commissions decision and the appropriateness of penalties imposed.

The Court has the power to settle legal disputes between EU member states, EU institutions, businesses and individuals.  The Court comprises 27 judges - one from each member state – and the appointment of the judges is agreed between all member states.  The Court rarely sits as the full court, but usually sits as a ‘Grand Chamber’ of just 13 judges or in chambers of five or three judges.

The Court is assisted by eight ‘advocates-general’ whose role is publicly and impartially to present reasoned opinions on the cases brought before the Court. More

To help the Court of Justice cope with the large number of cases brought before it, and to offer citizens better legal protection, a ‘Court of First Instance’ was created in 1988.  This Court is responsible for giving rulings on certain kinds of case, particularly actions brought by private individuals, companies and some organisations, and cases relating to competition law.  This court also has one judge from each EU country.


EU Budget


The budget of the EU in general and the UK’s contribution to it in particular remain emotive and controversial issues in the UK.  By comparison with national governmental budgets, the EU's budget is small. For 2010 it amounts to 141.5 billion euros, equivalent to just over 1 per cent of EU GDP.  In budgetary terms, the EU does not come close to resembling a 'federal super-state', but this is because most of the biggest spending items - defence, education, health, social services - remain reserved to the member states, while many of the EU's responsibilities, such as market regulation, involve little cost.

Controversy persistently revolves less around the size of the budget than around two other specific issues: first, the size of the UK’s contribution to the overall pot, and second, the question of profligacy and waste within the EU. Since the financial crisis a contrast has been evident between austerity policies undertaken by member states and trends in the EU's overall budget - in 2011 Chancellor George Osborne descrbed an increase in the EU's budget as 'unacceptable', and demanded a rethink. More

Over 40% of the EU’s budget is spent on the controversial Common Agricultural policy.  Although there has been general agreement for some time that the policy requires reform (accounts for just 1.6 percent of GDP and employs only 5 percent of the working population) countries which benefit the most from the policy, notably France, have been very slow to agree to change.  As a result of concerns regarding the inequality of the CAP, Margaret Thatcher negotiated a substantial rebate for the UK from the amount that it contributes to the budget.  In 2006 Tony Blair agreed to give up the rebate, resulting in the UK’s contribution rising from an  average of £3.5 bn per annum to a predicted average of £6.5 bn per annum, even though issues relating to the reform of the CAP remain unresolved. 

The movement of the European Parliament between Strasbourg and Brussels and the sheer size and scale of the European bureaucracy are targets of accusations of waste and needless expenditure.  There is also a continuing concern as to the adequacy of scrutiny and accountability within the numerous different institutions which operate under the auspices of the EU.


The EU and the British constitution

EU membership has had an undoubted impact on the British constitution, but understanding the exact nature of that impact is not easy.  The central issue is one of sovereignty and whether, by becoming a member of the EU the United Kingdom has given up its sovereignty.

The ‘pooling’ or ‘sharing’ of sovereignty is nothing new.  Many international organisations created by treaty are the product of some measure of sovereignty pooling or sharing – examples would be NATO, the UN or the Council of Europe.  No one would suggest that the United Kingdom is prohibited from leaving the EU (although there would undoubtedly be costs incidental to any such move) and therefore to that extent the United Kingdom remains a sovereign nation within the EU. 

The more ticklish subject is the question of whether the UK Parliament remains sovereign.  As a consequence of the treaty obligations entered into by the UK, supranational law courts are now regularly reviewing British legislation for compatibility with international obligations.  The UK is now subject to European law which is made to support one or other of the objectives set down in the EC Treaty, such as promoting a common market between member states or preserving, protecting and improving the quality of the environment.  The UK domestic courts cannot strike down EU law, but they can challenge it, for example if they feel that it has not been passed legitimately in pursuance of a Treaty objective. 

However, it is probably in the field of the issue of regulations by the European Commission that the most concern arises. Regulations issued by the Commission take effect immediately upon all citizens within the EU, and although they may deal with banal issues, they can produce a sense of powerlessness on the part of member states.  The notorious Commission Regulation (EC) 2257/94 (requiring bananas to be "free from malformation or abnormal curvature of the fingers") is an oft-cited example of the way in which ‘Europe’ has neutered Parliamentary sovereignty.  Whilst the remit of the European institutions remains confined to very specific areas of policy, perhaps this is not a major cause for concern.  But as European ‘integration’ continues to grow and the policy areas on the European agenda continue to expand, this issue is likely to continue to arouse debate in the UK.






What do others think?

Why we need a British Bill of Rights Geoffrey Roberson QC, published in Standpoint magazine, February 2010

Repealing the Human Rights Act may not be as alarming as it seems Professor Vernon Bogdanor, The Times 18th February 2010


The Centre for European Reform a pro-european but not uncritical think-tank based in the UK


UK Independence Party Manifesto

References and Links

Research papers

Useful websites

Further reading

Research papers

Treaty on European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union- consolidated versions

Making sense of Human Rights, Ministry of Justice, 2006

Appointment procedute for the UK National Delegation to the Cogress of Local and regional Authorities of Europe, May 2008

Briefing Paper on the European Union Bill, The Constitution Society

Useful websites

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe

Europe in 12 Lessons - website of the European Union

European Parliament

Voting results in the European Parliament

Voting methods in the European Parliament

EU's new diplomatic service - European External Action Service (EEAS)

Glossary of terms used in Europe

Further reading

The Council of Europe - Pioneer and guarantor for human rights and democracy April 2010  (Published by the Council of Europe)

Nicholas Moussis Access to European Union: Law, Economics, Policies - revised anually

The European Neighbourhood Policy strategy paper, issued by the Commission of the European Communities 2004: Deirdre Curtin, Amsterdam Centre for European Law and Governance; University of Amsterdam - Faculty of Law; University of Utrecht - Utrecht School of Governance

The European Union Bill's Constitutional Implications, Philip Allott

The EU Bill's potential impact on UK-EU relations, Michael Dougan