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The European Union

The member countries of the European Union (EU)

The European Economic Community was established by the Treaty of Rome in 1957. At that time it was made up of only six countries.

The Treaty of Maastricht (which came into force in 1993) created the European Union (EU). The member countries of the EU are:-

  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Bulgaria
  • Croatia
  • Cyprus
  • Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Estonia
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Hungary
  • Ireland
  • Italy
  • Latvia
  • Lithuania
  • Luxembourg
  • Malta
  • Netherlands
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Romania
  • Slovakia
  • Slovenia
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • United Kingdom

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The institutions of the European Union (EU)

The European Union has four decision-making institutions:-

  • the Council of Ministers
  • the European Commission
  • the European Parliament
  • the Court of Justice of the European Union.

The Council of Ministers

The Council of Ministers is made up of ministers who represent each of the EU member states. The Council of Ministers makes the final legal decisions on important issues based, mainly, on proposals from the European Commission. The Council represents the interests of the various national governments. Since the implementation of the Maastricht Treaty, the European Parliament also plays a part in the law-making process.

The presidency of the EU rotates every six months, in alphabetical order of country. The country which holds the EU presidency also presides over the Council of Ministers for that period. The Council of Ministers is backed up by permanent staff based in Brussels.

The European Commission

The European Commission is the institution responsible for ensuring that the measures in the Treaties are carried out. Members of the European Commission (commissioners) are nominated for a five year term of office by each member state. The UK traditionally appoints one commissioner from the government and another from the opposition. The president of the European Commission is appointed by the government of member states. The European Commission is based in Brussels.

Commissioners may act only in the interest of the EU and they are answerable only to the European Parliament. They may not take instructions from any national government or other body, such as the Council of Ministers.

The European Commission has a relatively small administrative staff, based mainly in Brussels, which is divided into Directorates-General (DGs). Each DG covers a particular subject area and is similar to a UK government department. A list of the DGs is on the European Commission website at www.europa.eu.int/comm/dgs_en.htm.

The duties of the European Commission include administering EU funds and investigating complaints of breaches of EU laws by member states.

The European Parliament

The European Parliament is composed of publicly elected members (MEPs) from each member state. Elections are held every five years. The European Parliament is divided into political rather than national groupings, for example, the Socialist Group, the Christian Democratic Group and the Green Group. MEPs choose which group they wish to belong to.

The European Parliament is based in Strasbourg, but its committees meet in Brussels and staff have offices in Brussels and Luxembourg. The European Parliament can, in some circumstances, both recommend and decide on legislation in certain subject areas.

The Court of Justice of the European Union

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) is based in Luxembourg. It is composed of judges and Advocates-General, who are appointed by member states’ governments.

The functions of the Court of Justice of the European Union :-

  • examining the validity of things done by EU institutions
  • taking action against member states which have infringed EU law
  • clarifying EU law, on request from national courts, by making preliminary rulings
  • delivering legally binding opinions on proposed agreements with other international bodies.

Individuals who want, for example, to challenge EU legislation or to force a member state to implement EU legislation, cannot take a case directly to the CJEU. These types of cases must be taken through the domestic legal system of the member state concerned and the relevant domestic court will, if necessary, refer the case to the CJEU.

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The European Ombudsman

The European Ombudsman can investigate maladministration in the activities of the European community institutions and bodies. These bodies include the European Commision, the Council of the European Union and the Court of Justice.

Examples of the problems that can be investigated by the European Ombudsman include administrative delay, refusal of information, discrimination and abuse of power.

What to do first

Before you can make a complaint to the European Ombudsman, the European institution concerned should be given the opportunity to investigate and try to resolve the matter.

How to complain

You have two years from the date when you knew the facts of the problem within which to complain to the European Ombudsman. It is not necessary for a complaint to be referred to the European Ombudsman by an MEP. There is no fee for making a complaint to the European Ombudsman, which should be in writing. There is a form that you can download from the European Ombudsman website, which you can complete and submit by e-mail. However, it is not necessary to make a complaint using the form.

The address of the European Ombudsman is:-

1, Avenue du President Robert Schuman
CS 30403
F-67001 Strasbourg Cedex
France
Tel: 00 33 388 172313
Fax: 00 33 388 179062

E-mail: euro-ombudsman@europarl.eu.int
Website: www.ombudsman.europa.eu

What can the Ombudsman do

The European Ombudsman examines complaints and conducts enquiries. Complaints are not usually handled confidentially, but if you ask for your complaint to be treated confidentially this will be respected in individual circumstances, if at all possible.

If a case is not resolved satisfactorily, the Ombudsman will try to find a solution through conciliation to put matters right and satisfy the complainant. If the attempt at conciliation fails the European Ombudsman can make recommendations to the institution to solve the case. If the institution does not accept the Ombudsman's recommendations, the Ombudsman can make a special report on the matter to the European parliament.

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How European Union law relates to UK law

Under UK law, Acts of Parliament are not challengeable unless they conflict with European law.

Apart from Treaties, there are two main ways in which European law is made:-

  • regulations
  • directives.

A regulation takes precedence over any member state’s domestic law that is inconsistent with it. Member states are not required to make additional domestic laws to implement regulations. Individuals can rely on regulations in any court cases in their own country. An example of a regulation is Regulation 1408/71 which deals with EU nationals’ entitlement to social security benefits when in other member states.

Directives set a goal which must be reached by a certain date. Member states are responsible for making their own laws in order to reach this goal. An example of a directive is the EC Package Travel Directive, which was incorporated into UK domestic law by the Package Travel, Package Holidays and Package Tours Regulations 1992.

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Further sources of information

Office of the European Commission (Brussels)

Commission of the European Community
200 Rue de la Loi
B-1049 Brussels
Belgium
Tel: 0032 2 235 1111

Office of the European Commission (UK)

England

Europe House
32 Smith Square
London
SW1P 3EU
Tel: 020 7973 1992

Scotland

9 Alva Street
Edinburgh
EH2 4PH
Tel: 0131 225 2058

Wales

2 Caspian Point
Caspian Way
Cardiff
CF10 4QQ
Tel: 029 2089 5020

Northern Ireland

74-76 Dublin Road
Belfast
BT2 7HP
Tel: 028 9024 0708

European Parliament Information Office (UK)

Europe House
32 Smith Square
London
SW1P 3EU

Tel: 020 7227 4300
Fax: 020 7227 4302
E-mail: eplondon@europarl.europa.eu
Website: www.europarl.org.uk

Europe Direct

This service provides information and advice about citizens’ rights in the European Union, for example, to work, live or study in another country of the EU. You can order guides and detailed facts-sheets covering particular topics by ringing the freephone hotline number or sending an e-mail through the website - see below. For further information you can contact the hotline number, for referral to a ‘Signpost’ service which is staffed by a team of multilingual lawyers in Brussels. A member of the service will contact the enquirer within four working days.

Freephone hotline: 00800 6789 1011
Website: ec.europa.eu/eurodirect

Euro Info Centres (UK)

There are 26 Euro Info Centres in the UK. They are sometimes called European Business Information Centres. They are usually based in existing organisations which have links with the business community. Their function is to provide EU information likely to be of value to small and medium sized businesses. For the address of the nearest Euro Info Centre, people should contact their local Chamber of Commerce, or check the website of the National Euro Info Centre Network.

Website: www.euro-info.org.uk

European Documentation Centres (UK)

European Documentation Centres hold a substantial collection of the publicly available documentation of the EU. There are 44 European Documentation Centres in the UK, based mainly in university libraries. Some of them provide an information service and some will provide photocopies of, for example, relevant directives and regulations. They cannot offer legal advice. Contact details of the European Documentation Centres in the UK can be found on the website of the European Union.

Website: ec.europa.eu/comm/relays/edc_en.htm

European Consumer Centres

There are European Consumer Centres (ECCs) throughout most of the EU member states. They can provide information and advice on EU consumer issues and help if you have purchased goods or services from another EU member state. To contact the UK ECC, visit www.ukecc.net, or call 08456 040503.

Citizens Advice Bureaux (CAB)

Citizens Advice Bureaux (CAB) can advise on a wide range of issues and hold information about situations where European law has an effect on UK law. You can find the address and telephone number of your local CAB in the telephone directory, or on the website of Citizens Advice at www.citizensadvice.org.uk. In Scotland, you can find the address and telephone number of your local CAB in the telephone directory or on the website of Citizens Advice Scotland at www.cas.org.uk. In Northern Ireland, you can find the address and telephone number of your local CAB in the telephone directory or on the website of the Northern Ireland Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux (NIACAB) at www.citizensadvice.co.uk.

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Citizens Advice

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