A European Economic Community was forged into existence by the signing of The Treaty of Rome in 1957. The agreement was ratified and at the time by only 6 countries.
Following that treaty, the Treaty of Maastricht was drawn up, ratified and came into force in 1993. This treaty essentially created the European Union (EU) as we know it today.
The member countries are listed below and all form the EU community:
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 and The United Kingdom.
The Institutions of the EU
The European Union consists of 4 decision-making bodies:
- The Council of Ministers
- The European Commission
- The European Parliament
- The Court of Justice of the European Union
The Council of Ministers (CoM)
The Council of Ministers (CoM) is the body which is made up of ministers who symbolise authority and represent each of the EU member states. The CoM have the authority and make the ultimate legal decisions on the most important issues. The decisions are generally based on proposals made by the European Commission. This Council does represent the interests of the national governments which belong to the EU. Since each country gave assent to the Maastricht Treaty, they implement the accord reached. Explaining this, the European Parliament also plays a part in the EU law-making process.
As with each institution, the EU has a president and that presidency rotates every six months and in alphabetical order of countries belonging to the EU The country who holds the EU presidency chairs the CoM for the 6 months in office. The CoM is supported by permanent staff who are all generally based at the Head Office of the EU located in Brussels.
The European Commission (EC)
The European Commission (EC) is another body and is primarily accountable for safeguarding the measures in the treaties agreed. Their function is to ensure the treaties are complied with and carried out by each member. The members of the EC (commissioners) are chosen for a 5-year term and by each member state. The UK customarily appoints 1 commissioner from the sitting government and a 2nd from the largest opposition party. The EC also has a president and is elected by the governments of each member states. The EC is also based in Brussels.
The function of these commissioners is to act only in the interest of the EU and are answerable to the European Parliament only. They are not permitted to take instructions from their own national government or any other bodies including those other bodies in the EU.
The EC therefore, retains a relatively small numbers of administrative staff and that staff is generally based in Brussels. The EC is divided into Directorates-General (DGs) and each covers particular subject areas and is akin to UK government departments.
A complete list of the DGs is on the European Commission website at https://ec.europa.eu/info/departments
The duties of the EC include administering EU funds and investigating national complaints of alleged breaches of EU laws and regulation and by member states.
The European Parliament
The European Parliament is compartmental and contains people who are publicly elected. They are generally referred to as Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and are comprised of a certain pre-agreed quota from each member state. Elections for these members are held every five years in each country. 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, when elected have a choice which group they want to belong to.
The European Parliament is based in Strasbourg; however, its general committees meet in Brussels. The Parliament has a large staff who work from offices in Brussels and Luxembourg. The European Parliament is permitted (in some circumstances) to both recommend and resolve legislative issues and 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 to the positions by member states, i.e. Member Governments.
The functions of the Court of Justice of the European Union are mainly 4 fold:
- 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.
The individuals of each country who express a desire to challenge EU legislation, or to make a member state implement EU legislation, cannot take their individual case directly to the CJEU. These types of cases must be taken through the domestic legal systems of their retrospective member state’s courts first, and the relevant domestic court will (if necessary) refer the case to the CJEU for a final adjudication.
The European Ombudsman
The European Ombudsman has a duty to and can investigate maladministration in the activities performed by the European Community, its institutions and bodies. These bodies include the European Commission, the Council of the European Union and the Court of Justice.
Example investigations include administrative delay, refusal of information, discrimination and abuse of power.
Before you (as a consumer) can launch a complaint to the European Ombudsman, the European institution you have concerns about should be given an opportunity to investigate and try and resolve the matter with you. Such a process is deemed a fair, reasonable and proportionate.
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.
The address of the European Ombudsman is:
1, Avenue du President Robert Schuman
F-67001 Strasbourg Cedex
Tel: 00 33 388 172313
Fax: 00 33 388 179062
How Can the Ombudsman Assist You?
The European Ombudsman looks into complaints and conducts enquiries independently. Complaints are not generally handled by way of confidentially. Depending on the nature of the complaint you can ask that your complaint is treated as confidential. Your request will be deliberated upon and should be respected in individual circumstances if at all possible.
If a case is not resolved satisfactorily, the Ombudsman has a duty to try to find a solution through mediation/conciliation.
If mediation/conciliation fails, the European Ombudsman is empowered to make recommendations to the institution to resolve your case. If the complained of institution fails to accept the Ombudsman’s recommendations, the Ombudsman can make a special report on the matter to the European Parliament.
EU Law – UK law
European Union law TRUMPS UK law and if they conflict, that said under UK law, Acts of Parliament are not challengeable unless they conflict or prevent EU law functioning justly.
Excluding the treaties, there are two ways in which European law is made – regulations and directives.
- EU Regulation – An EU regulation trumps any member state’s domestic law or a law which is inconsistent with it. Member states will not be required to make changes to, or develop additional domestic laws to implement or apply regulations it makes and imparts on the EU communities. Individuals who are domiciled in the EU can fully rely on EU regulations and in any matter in domestic court cases.
- EU Directive – Directives set goals which must (as opposed to might) be reached by a certain date confirmed in the regulation. Each member state is responsible for making or implementing their own laws in order to reach this goal.
Office of the European Commission (UK)
32 Smith Square
Tel: 020 7973 1992
9 Alva Street
Tel: 0131 225 2058
2 Caspian Point
Tel: 029 2089 5020
74-76 Dublin Road
Tel: 028 9024 0708
European Consumer Centres
There are European Consumer Centres (ECC’s) 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.