With European elections just around the corner it is with some embarrassment I admit I am far more knowledgeable about US institutions and political parties than I am about the European Union equivalents. I have decided to rectify this in a blog post that I hope will take some of the mystique out of the machinations of the EU.
Non EU Institutions
First I want to briefly mention famous European institutions that sound like they are part of the EU, but aren’t.
The Council of Europe
This is an organisation founded in 1949 whose aim is to uphold human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Europe. It has 47 member states covering 820 million people. It is an Official United Nations Advisor but cannot make binding laws. To confuse one further, the EU adopted the European Flag and the European anthem from the council of Europe. Every EU member is also a member of the council of Europe, but the inverse is not also the case. It is headquartered in Strasbourg, France.
It has a number of bodies. Its Executive branch, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe comprises of Foreign ministers of all the member states. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) is made of 324 members drawn from member states and meets 4 times a year. Both bodies draw their members from national parliaments and have no direct elections. Ireland has 4 seats in the Parliament and the delegation can be viewed on the oireachtas website. Currently the delegation comprises of Senator Joe O’Reilly, Senator Maura Hopkins, Deputy Barry Cowen and Senator Paul Gavan.
The Councils work typically involves drafting treaties and resolutions and performing work to protect freedom and democracy such as election monitoring. The following short list of treaties should gives some examples of the areas they can cover, a full list is available on their website.
- Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (European Convention on Human Rights)
- Convention for the Protection of the Architectural Heritage of Europe
- European Convention for the Protection of Vertebrate Animals used for Experimental and other Scientific Purposes
- Convention on Insider Trading
- Council of Europe Convention against Trafficking in Human Organs
European Court of Human Rights
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is an international court established under the European Convention on Human Rights. An application can be made to the court by one or more individuals, or a state that is a member of the Council of Europe regarding human, civil or political rights breaches as defined in the Convention and its protocols. It is comprised of 47 judges, 1 from each member state and sits in Strasbourg, France. The current Irish representative is Dr. Síofra O’Leary, who formerly worked at the European Court of Justice. The ECHR has ruled on a number of Irish related cases in the past, some of the most famous being Ireland v. the United Kingdom in 1978, Norris v. Ireland in 1988 and A,B and C v. Ireland in 2010.
Now, on to the main event. The EU is comprised of 7 institutions.
- European Court of Auditors
- European Central Bank
- Court of Justice of the European Union
- European Council
- Council of the Europe Union
- European Parliament
- European Commission
Three are notionally non-political (Court of auditors, ECB and ECJ) whereas the remaining 4 are composed of national or European politicians.
European Court of Auditors
The least glamorous of them all is the European Court of Auditors. Founded in 1975, the court has no judicial functions. The court is composed of one member from each EU state and is responsible for ensuring the EU budget is correctly implemented. Members are appointed by the Council of the European Union after a hearing in the Committee on Budgetary Control, a European Parliament committee. In Irish terms it is performs similar functions to the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General. A list of its current members is available on its website. Tony Murphy is the current Irish member, he was formerly an auditor at the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General and has held various other bureaucratic EU positions.
European Central Bank
The European Central Bank, better known by its acronym “the ECB”, is the central bank for the Euro and administers euro zone monitory policy. It is one of the “Big Four” central banks alongside the Bank of England, the Federal Reserve (USA) and the Bank of Japan.
- The capital stock of the bank is owned by the central banks of all 28 EU member states.
- It has an executive board comprising of 6 members, President, Vice President and 4 other members. The executive board is responsible for carrying out the decisions of the Governing Council.
- Governing Council of the European Central Bank is the main decision-making body, it comprises of members of the Executive board and the governors of the national central bank of the Euro Zone countries.
- The governing council meets twice a month in Frankfurt.
- The current governor of the Irish Central Bank, Philip_R._Lane is a member of the council.
- Members of the Executive Board of the European Central Bank are nominated by agreement between the Heads of Government of the Eurozone countries for a non-renewable eight-year term. Executive members do not represent a particular country and are not expected to track the economic fortunes of their home state.
Court of Justice of the European Union
The Court of Justice of the European Union is an institution that comprises of the European Court of Justice (officially the Court of Justice), more commonly known by its acronym “the ECJ” and the General Court.
The ECJ is the supreme court of the European Union. Its mandate is to interpret EU laws and ensure their implementation in all EU states. It is comprised of one member from each EU state. The judges and Advocate-generals are appointed by common accord of the governments of the member state, in practice, each member state nominates a judge whose nomination is then ratified by all the other member states. The current Irish representative is Aindrias Ó Caoimh, a former high court judge, and son of former ECJ judge Aindrias Ó Caoimh. National Supreme courts can refer cases to the ECJ, for example in April 2018 the Irish Supreme Court requested the ECJ consider 11 questions on transferring Facebook users data to the US. Individuals and organisations can also petition the ECJ if they feel a national government isn’t correctly implementing EU law, for example in 2007 Birdwatch Ireland took a case against the Irish government in relation to special protection areas for wild birds.
The General Court, a Court focused on competition law, state aid, trade, agriculture and trade marks, is far well less known. It consists of two judges from each member state and a registrar. Appoint procedure is by common accord similar to the ECJ. The current Irish representative is Anthony Michael Collins.
I hope this gives you an overview of some of the non-EU institutions you may have come across and the three non-political EU institutions. In a future post I will cover the four more “political” EU institutions: the European Council, the Council of the Europe Union, the European Parliament and the European Commission.