The European Union’s institutions and bodies, and the powers conferred on them, derive from the founding Treaties. All 28 members of the European Union have signed up to these treaties. The UK joined the EU in 1973 when the then government signed up to the existing treaties.
Since then the UK has played an integral part in the further development of the EU and has ratified all subsequent treaties and ammendments together with the governments of all other EU member states. The Union’s powers have evolved considerably over the years through the successive treaties, as have its decision-making procedures.
The Treaty on European Union refers to seven EU institutions in the strict sense of the term: four of these are responsible for drafting policies and taking decisions, namely the:
1. European Council - Heads of state or government of the member states
2. Council of the European Union - National ministers from each of the member states
3. European Commission - Executive body of the European Union with appointed Commissioners
4. European Parliament - Members are directly elected by citizens in the member states
The remaining three are the:
5. Court of Justice - ensures that Community law is observed
6. European Central Bank - maintains price stability in the euro area
7. Court of Auditors - examines the legality and regularity of Union revenue and expenditure.
The disastrous effects of the Second World War and the constant threat of an East-West confrontation meant that reconciliation between France and Germany had become a top priority. The decision to pool the coal and steel industries of six European countries, brought into force by the Treaty of Paris in 1951, symbolised the birth of a common purpose and marked the first step towards European integration. The Treaties of Rome of 1957 strengthened the foundations of this integration and the notion of a common future for the six European countries involved.
The European Union has its own legal order which is separate from international law and forms an integral part of the legal systems of the Member States. The legal order of the Union is based on its own sources of law. Given the varied nature of these sources, a hierarchy had to be established among them. Primary legislation is at the top of the hierarchy and is represented by the Treaties and general legal principles. This is followed by international agreements concluded by the Union, and secondary legislation, which is based on the Treaties.
In areas which do not fall within the Union’s exclusive competence, the principle of subsidiarity, laid down in the Treaty on European Union, defines the circumstances in which it is preferable for action to be taken by the Union, rather than the Member States.