Institutions of the European Union

Institutions of the European Union

There are currently five institutions of the European Union which govern the Union. They are outlined in the treaties of the European Union in the following order: the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union (the Council); the European Commission, the Court of Justice of the European Communities and the European Court of Auditors.cite web|title = Consolidated versions of the treaty on European Union and of the treaty establishing the European Community|publisher = Eur-lex|url=|format=PDF|accessdate = 2007-06-12 ]


Most EU institutions were created with the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in the 1950s. Much change since then has been in the context the shifting of the power balance away from the Council and towards the Parliament. The role of the Commission has often been to mediate between the two or tip the balance.cite book| last = Hoskyns | first = Catherine | coauthors = Michael Newman | title = Democratizing the European Union: Issues for the twenty-first Century (Perspectives on Democratization | publisher = Manchester University Press | year = 2000 | isbn = 978-0719056666 ] However the Commission is becoming more accountable to the Parliament: in 1999 it forced the resignation of the Santer Commission [cite web|last = Topan|first=Angelina|title = The resignation of the Santer-Commission: the impact of 'trust' and 'reputation' |date=2002-09-30|publisher=European Integration Online Papers|url=|format=PDF|accessdate = 2007-06-12 ] and forced a reshuffle of the proposed Barroso Commission in 2004. [cite web|last=Tobais|first=Troll|title =“We have to democratise procedures”|date=2004-11-02|publisher=Café Babel|url=|accessdate = 2007-06-12 ] The development of the institutions, with incremental changes from treaties and agreements, is testament to the evolution of the Union's structures without one clear "master plan". Some such as Tom Reid of the Washington Post said of the institutions that "nobody would have deliberately designed a government as complex and as redundant as the EU". [cite book|last=Reid|first=Tom|authorlink=|coauthors=|title=The United States of Europe|publisher=Penguin Books|year=2004|location=London|pages=272|url=|doi=|id=|isbn=0-141-02317-1] The new Lisbon Treaty is a further attempt to modify the institutions (see below) after the Constitution, which would have replaced all previous treaties, was rejected.cite web|publisher = BBC News|title = Q&A: The Reform Treaty|url=|accessdate = 2007-08-02]


The first institutions were created at the start of the 1950s with the creation of the ECSC, based on the Schuman declaration, between six states. The ECSC was designed to bring the markets of Coal and Steel, the materials needed to wage war, under the control of a supranational authority with the aim of encouraging peace and economic development. It established the first institutions. At its core was an independent executive called the "High Authority" with supranational powers over the Community. The laws made by the Authority would be observed by a Court of Justice in order to ensure they were upheld and to arbitrate.cite web|title = Treaty establishing the European Coal and Steel Community, ECSC Treaty|publisher=Europa (web portal)|url=|accessdate=2007-10-09]

During the negotiations, two supervisory institutions were put forward to counter balance the power of the High Authority. The "Common Assembly" proposed by Jean Monnet to act as a monitor, counterweight and to add democratic legitimacy was composed of 78 national parliamentarians. The second was the Council of Ministers, pushed by the smaller states also to add an intergovernmental element and harmonise national polices with those of the authority.


In 1957 the Treaties of Rome established two, similar, communities creating a common market (European Economic Community) and promoting atomic energy co-operation (Euratom). The three institutions shared the Court of Justice and the Parliament, however they had a separate Council and High Authority, which was called the Commission in these Communities. The reason for this is the different relationship between the Commission and Council. At the time the French government was suspicious of the supranationalism and wanted to limit the powers of the High Authority in the new Communities, giving the Council a greater role in checking the executive.cite web|publisher = European NAvigator|title = Council of the European Union|url=|accessdate = 2007-06-24] cite web|title = European Commission|publisher=European NAvigator|url=|accessdate=2007-06-18]

The three communities were later merged in 1967, by the Merger Treaty, into the European Communities. The institutions were carried over from the European Economic Community (making the Commission of that community the direct ancestor of the current Commission).cite web|title = Merging of the executives|publisher=European NAvigator|url=|accessdate=2007-07-09] Under the Treaties of Rome, the Common Assembly (which renamed itself the Parliamentary Assembly, and then the European Parliament) was supposed to become elected. However this was delayed by the Council until 1979. Since then it gained more powers via successive treaties.cite web|title = European Parliament|publisher=European NAvigator|url=|accessdate = 2007-06-12] The Maastricht Treaty also gave further powers to the Council by giving it a key role in the two new pillars of the EU which were based on intergovernmental principles.

Political institutions

There are three political institutions which hold the executive and legislative power of the Union. The Council represents governments, the Parliament represents citizens and the Commission represents the European interest. Essentially, the Council, Parliament or another party place a request for legislation to the Commission. The Commission then drafts this and presents it to the Parliament and Council, where in most cases both must give their assent. Although the exact nature of this depends upon the legislative procedure in use. Once it is approved and signed by both chambers it becomes law. The Commission's duty is to ensure it is implemented by dealing with the day-to-day running of the Union and taking others to Court if they fail to comply.


The "European Parliament" shares the legislative and budgetary authority of the Union with the Council. The Parliament's President (its speaker) is Hans-Gert Pöttering (EPP), who was elected from the Parliament's members in 2007.cite web|title = Parliament's powers and procedures|publisher=European Parliament|url=|accessdate = 2007-06-12]

Its 785 members are elected every five years by universal suffrage and sit according to the political allegiance. They represent nearly 500 million citizens (the world's second largest democratic electorate) and form the only directly elected body in the Union. Despite forming one of the two legislative chambers of the Union, it has weaker powers than the Council in some areas, and does not have legislative initiative. It does, however, have powers over the Commission which the Council does not. It has been said that its democratic nature and growing powers have made it one of the most powerful legislatures in the world.cite web|title = Parliament - an overview. Welcome|publisher=European Parliament|url=|accessdate = 2007-06-12] cite web|title = Professor Farrell: "The EP is now one of the most powerful legislatures in the world"|publisher=European Parliament|url=|date=2007-06-18|accessdate = 2007-07-05]


The "Council of the European Union" (informally known as the Council of Ministers or just the Council) is a body holding legislative and executive powers and is thus the main decision making body of the Union. Its Presidency rotates between the states every six months, but every three Presidencies now cooperate on a common programme. This body is separate from the European Council which is a similar but is composed of national leaders: see below.cite web|last=|first=|authorlink=|coauthors=|title=Institutions: The Council of the European Union|work=|publisher=Europa (web portal)|date=|url=|format=|doi=|accessdate=2007-06-25]

The Council is composed of twenty-seven national ministers (one per state). However the Council meets in various forms depending upon the topic. For example, if agriculture is being discussed, the Council will be composed of each national minister for agriculture. They represent their governments and are accountable to their national political systems. Votes are taken either by majority or unanimity with votes allocated according to population. In these various forms they share the legislative and budgetary power of the Parliament, and also lead cooperation in the second and third pillars: the Common Foreign and Security Policy along with Police and Judicial Co-operation in Criminal Matters.


The "Commission of the European Communities" is the executive arm of the Union. It is a body composed of one appointee from each state, currently twenty-seven, but is designed to be independent of national interests. The body is responsible for drafting all law of the European Union and has a monopoly over legislative initiative within the European Community pillar. It also deals with the day-to-day running of the Union and has a duty to uphold the law and treaties (in this role it is known as the "Guardian of the Treaties").cite web|last=|first=|authorlink=|coauthors=|title=Institutions: The European Commission|work=|publisher=Europa (web portal)|date=|url=|format=|doi=|accessdate=2007-06-25]

The Commission is led by a President who is nominated by the Council (in practice the European Council) and approved by Parliament. The remaining Commissioners are proposed by member states, in consultation with the President, and then have to be approved by the Parliament as a whole before the Commission can take office. The current President is José Manuel Barroso (EPP), his commission was elected in 2004 and has a mandate until 2009.

Acts and procedures

There are a number of types of legislation which can be passed. The strongest is a regulation, an act or law which is directly applicable in its entirety. Then there are directives which bind members to certain goals which they must achieve. They do this through their own laws and hence have room to manoeuvre in deciding upon them. A decision is an instrument which is focused at a particular person/group and is directly applicable. Institutions may also issue recommendations and opinions which are merely non-binding declarations. [cite web|last=|first=|authorlink=|coauthors=|title=Community legal instruments|work=|publisher=Europa (web portal)|date=|url=|format=|doi=|accessdate=2007-09-18]

For these acts, there are three EU legislative procedures which are commonly used. They alter the power balance between the Parliament and Council. The assent procedure and the consultation procedure give the Parliament less control over the legislation providing for a more unicameral system centred on the Council. Under assent, the Parliament need only accept or reject the proposal. Under consultation the Parliament, and the other advisory bodies, are asked for their opinion and the Parliament may proposed amendments but it cannot block the proposal.cite web|last=|first=|authorlink=|coauthors=|title=Decision-making in the European Union|work=|publisher=Europa (web portal)|date=|url=|format=|doi=|accessdate=2007-09-18]

The most common system used is the codecision procedure which provides an equal footing between the two bodies. Under the procedure, the Commission presents a proposal to Parliament and the Council. They then send amendments to the Council which can either adopt the text with those amendments or send back a "common position". That proposal may either be approved or further amendments may be tabled by the Parliament. If the Council does not approve those, then a "Conciliation Committee" is formed. The Committee is composed of the Council members plus an equal number of MEPs who seek to agree a common position. Once a position is agreed, it has to be approved by Parliament again by an absolute majority.

Non-political institutions

Court of Justice

The "Court of Justice of the European Communities" (commonly known as the European Court of Justice) is the highest court of the Union on matters of Union law and is composed of 27 judges (one per state) with a President elected from among them (currently Vassilios Skouris). Its role is to ensure that Union law is applied in the same way across all states and to settle legal disputes between institutions or states. It has become a powerful institution as Union law overrides national law. In 2001 it ruled that parts of the German Constitution were illegal according to the treaties and had to be amended. This related to the ban on women participating in military combat.cite web|last=|first=|authorlink=|coauthors=|title=Germany votes for women in combat|work=|publisher=BBC News|date=2000-10-27|url=|format=|doi=|accessdate=2007-07-13] cite web|last=|first=|authorlink=|coauthors=|title=Institutions: Court of Justice|work=|publisher=Europa (web portal)|date=|url=|format=|doi=|accessdate=2007-06-25]

The Court of Justice is assisted by a lower court called the "Court of First Instance of the European Communities" (CFI) and a Civil Service Tribunal which are designed to reduce the workload of the main court.

Court of Auditors

The fifth institution is the "European Court of Auditors", which despite its name has no judicial powers like the Court of Justice. Instead, it ensures that taxpayer funds from the budget of the European Union have been correctly spent. Notably the court provides an audit report for each financial year to the Council and Parliament. The Parliament uses this to decide whether to approve the Commission's handling of the budget. The Court also gives opinions and proposals on financial legislation and anti-fraud actions.cite web|last=|first=|authorlink=|coauthors=|title=Institutions: Court of Auditors|work=|publisher=Europa (web portal)|date=|url=|format=|doi=|accessdate=2007-06-25]

It is the only institutions not mentioned in the original treaties, being set up in 1975. It was created as an independent institution due to the sensitivity of the issue of fraud in the Union (the anti-fraud agency, OLAF, is also built on its independence). It is composed of one member from each state appointed by the Council every six years. Every three years one of them is elected to be the president of the court, who is currently Hubert Weber.

Treaty of Lisbon changes

The Lisbon Treaty outlines a number of changes to the institutional structure of the Union. Largely following the changes proposed in the European Constitution, it brings nearly all policy areas (including the budget) under the codecision procedure (renamed "ordinary legislative procedure"), hence increasing the power of the Parliament. The rules for the distribution of seats in the parliament will also be changed to a formula system.cite web|title =Draft treaty modifying the treaty on the European Union and the treaty establishing the European community|date=2007-07-24|publisher=Open Europe|url=|accessdate = 2007-07-28 |format=PDF] cite web|title =The Institutions of the Union|date=|publisher=Europa (web portal)|url=|accessdate = 2007-09-18 ]

The size of the Commission (dropping its extended "of the European Communities" name) will shrink and include the High Representative with the appointment of the President more dependent upon the last EU elections. The Council of Ministers (now just the "Council") will adopt more Qualified majority voting. There will also be some minor changes in configurations and some powers will be transferred to the European Council (see below). The Court of Justice of the European Communities will become the "Court of Justice of the European Union" when referring to the whole judicial institution, while the court itself (excluding the Court of First Instance) will be simply the Court of Justice. The Court of First Instance of the European Communities will be renamed the "General Court", and specialised courts may be attached to this body by legislation. In addition, the following bodies will become full institutions:

European Council

The "European Council" would become an institution. At present it is an informal body linked to the Council; it being composed not of ministers but of state leaders together with the Commission President. It meets four times a year to define the Union's policy agenda and give impetus to integration. Its presidency works in the same basis as that of the Council, rotating between each member every six months. The holder of the Presidency has no formal powers, but has influence over agenda and representation. The body as a whole has been described as the highest political body of the European Union.cite web|last=van Grinsven|first=Peter|authorlink=|coauthors=|title=The European Council under Construction|work=|publisher=Netherlands Institution for international Relations|month=September | year=2003|url=|format=PDF|doi=|accessdate=2007-08-16]

Under the proposed treaty, it would be made more formal and have its own, permanent, "President of the European Council" - but it would still be an administrative position. The European Council would gain the executive powers of the Council (now called the Council of Ministers) such as the power to appoint the Commission President and High Representative.

European Central Bank

The "European Central Bank", is the second body set to become an institution. It is the central bank for the eurozone (the 15 states which have adopted the euro) and thus controls monetary policy in that area with an agenda to maintain price stability. It is at the centre of the European System of Central Banks which comprises all EU national banks. The bank is governed by a board comprising of national bank governors and a President, currently Jean-Claude Trichet, appointed by the Council. This power of appointment will pass to the European Council.cite web|last=|first=|authorlink=|coauthors=|title=ECB, ESCB and the Eurosystem|work=|publisher=European Central Bank|date=|url=|format=|doi=|accessdate=2007-09-02]

From the start the bank was designed to be independent of political influences, which has been questioned by figures such as Nicolas Sarkozy. With the agreement to make the bank an institution, Trichet has expressed concern that it could undermine the bank's independence. He fears that the bank would be bound by the same code as the other institutions, to cooperate and pursue a common agenda. This may encourage leaders to put political pressure on the banks decisions.cite web|last=Buck|first=Tobias|authorlink=|coauthors=|title=Central bank chief urges change to EU treaty|work=|publisher=Financial Times|date=2007-08-11|url=,dwp_uuid=70662e7c-3027-11da-ba9f-00000e2511c8.html|format=|doi=|accessdate=2007-09-02]


While the EU's system of governance is largely unique, elements can be compared to other models. The EU's institutional set up are somewhat similar to the government of Switzerland. The Swiss consensus-driven system is seen as successfully uniting a state divided by language and religion, although the EU was not directly modelled on the Swiss system despite bearing a number of similarities. The double majority system in the Council means that for legislation to be passed, a vote of approval must represent both a majority of states and a majority of the EU's population. This system is also used in Switzerland where legislation requires a majority in the National Council, representing the people, and a majority of the Council of States, representing the cantons. The same is true for referenda, although none are held Union-wide in the EU.cite web|last=Meyer-Resende|first=Michael|title =Comment: Making the EU democratic is desirable but risky|publisher=EU Observer|url=|date=2007-06-18|accessdate = 2007-10-26]

The European Commission also has a similarity to the Swiss Federal Council in that both have all-party representation. The President of the Federal Council rotates between its members each year, in a fashion similar to that of the EU's Council Presidency or the future presidency of the European Council. Due to this system of presidency Swiss leaders, like those of the EU, are relatively unknown with national politics viewed as somewhat technocratic resulting in low voter turnout, in a similar fashion to that of the European Parliament. Other parallels include the jealously guarded powers of states, the considerable level of translation and the choice of a lesser city as the capital.

Further more, executive power in the EU isn't concentrated in a single institution. It becomes clearer under the Lisbon Treaty with the division of the European Council as a distinct institution with a fixed President. This arrangement has been compared to the duel executive system found in the French republic where there is a President (the Council President) and Prime Minister (the Commission President). However, unlike the French model, the Council President does not hold formal powers such as the ability to directly appoint and sack the other, or the ability to dissolve Parliament. Hence while the Council President may have prestige, it would lack power and while the Commission President would have power, it would lack the prestige of the former.cite web|last=Hix|first=Simon|last2=Roland|first2=Gérard|publisher = Foreign Policy Centre|title = Why the Franco-German Plan would institutionalise 'cohabitation' for Europe|url=|accessdate = 2007-10-01 ]

The nature of the European Parliament is better compared with the United States House of Representatives than with the national parliaments of the European Union. This is notable in terms of the committees being of greater size and power, political parties being very decentralised and it being separated from the executive branch (most national governments operate a parliamentary system). A difference from all other parliaments is the absence of a Parliamentary legislative initiative. However, given that in most national parliaments initiatives not backed by the executive rarely succeed the value of this difference is in question. Equally, its independence and power means that the European Parliament has an unusually high success rate for its amendments in comparison to national parliaments; 80% average and 30% for controversial proposals.cite web|first= Amie|last= Kreppel|title = Understanding the European Parliament from a Federalist Perspective: The Legislatures of the USA and EU Compared|publisher=Center for European Studies, University of Florida|year=2006|url=|format=PDF|accessdate = 2008-09-26]

The composition of the council can only be compared with the quite unique and unusual composition of the German upper house, the Bundesrat. Membership of the Bundesrat is limited to members of the governments of the states of Germany and can be recalled by those governments in the same manner as the EU's Council. They retain their state role while sitting in the Bundesrat and if their term ends when they are recalled by their state governments (who are solely responsible for their appointment) or they cease to sit in their state government. Those members vote in their state blocks, hence they do not act as individual members but as representatives of their state governments to that government's agreed line. However, unlike the EU's Council, the Bundesrat does not vary its composition depending on the topic being discussed.cite web|title = Organisation: Bundesrat members|publisher=Bundesrat|url=|accessdate = 2008-10-07]


The institutions are not concentrated in a single capital city, they are instead based across three cities, Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg. The current arrangement was agreed in 1992 and attached to the Treaty of Amsterdam.cite web|first=|title=The seats of the institutions of the European Union|date=|url=|publisher=European NAvigator|accessdate=2007-07-18] The treaty states that the Commission and Council would be based in Brussels, the Courts in Luxembourg and the Parliament in Strasbourg. However some departments of the Commission and meetings of the Council take place in Luxembourg, while the Parliament has its committees and some sessions in Brussels and its secretariat in Luxembourg. Of the new institutions, the Central Bank is based in Frankfurtcite web|first=|title=Protocol (No 8) on the location of the seats of the institutions and of certain bodies and departments of the European Communities and of Europol (1997)|date=|url=|publisher=Europa (web portal)|accessdate=2007-07-15|format=PDF] while the European Council is based in Brussels (but has some extraordinary meetings elsewhere).cite web|last=Stark|first=Christine|authorlink=|coauthors=|title=Evolution of the European Council: The implications of a permanent seat|work=||date=|url=|format=PDF|doi=|accessdate=2007-07-12]

Brussel's hosting of institutions has made it a major centre for the EU. Together with NATO it has attracted more journalists and ambassadors than Washington D.C. [cite journal|last = Parker|first = John|title = A tale of two cities|journal = E!Sharp magazine|pages = 42–44|date = January - February 2007|publisher = Encompass Publications ] However the three-city agreement has come under some criticism, notably in regards to the Parliament due to the large number of people that move between the cities. The European Green Party estimated that the arrangement costs 200 million euro and 20,268 tonnes of carbon dioxide. [cite web|first=|title=Greens condemn EU parliament's 'travelling circus'|date=2007-04-26|url=|publisher=4ecotips|accessdate=2007-07-05] Brussels is preferred by some due to the presence of other institutions and other groups while Strasbourg is supported due to its historical importance to European unity. [cite web|last=Wheatley|first=Paul|title=The two-seat parliament farce must end|date=2006-10-02|publisher=Café Babel|url=|accessdate=2007-07-16]

Other bodies and agencies

There are a number of other bodies and agencies of note that are not formal institutions. There are two advisory committees to the institutions which in some cases must be consulted: the Economic and Social Committee (EESC) advises on economic and social policy (principally relations between workers and employers) being made up of representatives of various industries and work sectors. Its 344 members, appointed by the Council for four-year terms, are organised into three fairly equal groups representing employers, employees and other various interests;cite web|last=|first=|authorlink=|coauthors=|title=The European Economic and Social Committee|work=|publisher=Europa (web portal)|date=|url=|format=|doi=|accessdate=2007-08-02] while the Committee of the Regions (CoR) is composed of representative of regional and local authorities who hold an electoral mandate. It advises on regional issues. It has 344 members, organised in political groups, appointed every four years by the Council.cite web|last=|first=|authorlink=|coauthors=|title=PRESENTATION / Role|work=|publisher=Europa (web portal)|date=|url=|format=|doi=|accessdate=2007-08-02] The is also the European Investment Bank, which provides long term loans to help development and integration.cite web|last=|first=|authorlink=|coauthors=|title=About the EIB|work=|publisher=European Investment Bank|date=|url=|format=|doi=|accessdate=2007-08-02]

There are a number of specialised and decentralised agencies operated by the Commission, or sometimes the Council. They are set up by legislation or a treaty to deal with specific problems or areas. These include the European Environment Agency and Europol.cite web|last=|first=|authorlink=|coauthors=|title=Agencies of the EU|work=|publisher=Europa (web portal)|date=|url=|format=|doi=|accessdate=2007-08-02] In addition to these there are also three inter-institutional bodies: the Office for Official Publications, which publishes and distributes official Union publications;cite web|last=|first=|authorlink=|coauthors=|title=Activities|work=|publisher=Europa (web portal)|date=|url=|format=|doi=|accessdate=2007-08-02] the European Personnel Selection Office (EPSO), a recruitment body which organises competitions for posts within Union institutions;cite web|last=|first=|authorlink=|coauthors=|title=European Personnel Selection Office|work=|publisher=Europa (web portal)|date=|url=|format=|doi=|accessdate=2007-08-02] and the European Administrative School (EAS), which provides specific training for the staff of Union institutions.cite web|last=|first=|authorlink=|coauthors=|title=Welcome to the eas|work=|publisher=Europa (web portal)|date=|url=|format=|doi=|accessdate=2007-08-02] Another body is OLAF, a major independent anti-fraud agency. Its mission is to protect the financial interests of the Union.cite web|last=|first=|authorlink=|coauthors=|title=OLAF|work=|publisher=Europa (web portal)|date=|url=|format=|doi=|accessdate=2007-08-02] Two further posts are: the European Ombudsman deals with citizens grievances against the Union's institutions and is elected for five-year terms by the Parliament;cite web|last=|first=|authorlink=|coauthors=|title=At a glance|work=|publisher=Europa (web portal)|date=|url=|format=|doi=|accessdate=2007-08-02] the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) ensures the institutions respect citizens' privacy rights in relation to data processing.cite web|last=|first=|authorlink=|coauthors=|title=Welcome to the home page of the European Data Protection Supervisor|work=|publisher=Europa (web portal)|date=|url=|format=|doi=|accessdate=2007-08-02]

ee also

* Brussels and the European Union
* List of the names of bodies of the European Union in its official languages


External links

* [ EU institutions and other bodies] , Europa (web portal)

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