How Europe works

An overview of how the European Union’s key parts are appointed and their links back to the union’s states and people.

CommissionEuropean Commission

President: José Manuel Barroso (Portugal, pictured)

UK Commissioner: Baroness Catherine Ashton (foreign affairs)

Irish Commissioner: Máire Geoghegan-Quinn (research, innovation and science)

The 27 commissioners are unelected, with each one nominated by a member state government. Once established, the Commission is independent of the governments and tasked with protecting the interests of the EU as whole. Its power rests in its ability to propose legislation, something which neither the Council nor Parliament can do. The other two institutions will then influence the legislation and the Commission ensures that the end result is implemented.

Each Commission is appointed after the European Parliament election, held every five years. Member states firstly agree on a new President, who must then be approved by the Parliament. The President then discusses whom shall fill the other posts with the national governments.

The Council approves the list of commissioners by qualified majority voting and sends that to the Parliament for approval. Each nominee is interviewed and MEPs vote to reject or accept the whole Commission. It is then formally appointed by the Council, again by qualified majority. Commissioners attend European Parliament meetings and can be dismissed by a vote of censure from MEPs. The Lisbon Treaty also requires commissioners to resign if this is requested by the President. They can also be removed by a Court of Justice judgment.

The Commission’s headquarters is the Berlaymont building in Brussels.

A full list of commissioners is available at

European Commission Representation in the UK: (includes office in Northern Ireland)

European CouncilHerman van Rompuy

President: Herman van Rompuy (Belgium)

UK Prime Minister: The Rt Hon David Cameron MP

Taoiseach: Enda Kenny TD

The European Council is the top-level grouping of prime ministers and also heads of state, where they have executive power e.g. the French President. The Commission President is also a member and it has its own President, Herman van Rompuy (pictured).

The European Council President is chosen by the Council, using qualified majority voting, for a two- and-a-half year term which is renewable once.  Meetings take place in Brussels around four times per year and set the strategic direction of the EU.

Council of the European Union

council of european union

Presidency: Ireland (1 January – 30 June 2013)

UK Foreign Secretary: The Rt Hon William Hague MP

UK Minister of State for Europe: The Rt Hon David Lidington MP

Irish Foreign Minister: Eamon Gilmore TD

Irish Minister of State for European Affairs: Lucinda Creighton TD

The Council consists of ministers from all member state governments, which are therefore democratically elected at a national level. It meets almost monthly and its presidency rotates among countries every six months. A country’s share of the 345 votes depends on its population; the UK has 29 and Ireland seven.

Not all governments are equally accountable to their electorates. In Northern Ireland, the Conservatives are the only national party which contests seats so local voters have little say in the UK Government’s formation. Lidington was Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary from 2003 to 2007.  Council meetings normally take place in Brussels.

ParliamentEuropean Parliament

President: Martin Schulz MEP (Germany)

UK MEPs: 73

Irish MEPs: 12

The only EU institution with its own elections, the Parliament is seen as most democratic part of the EU. Its 754 members have a five-year term. Proportional representation must be used.

Vacancies are generally filled by co-option i.e. an MEP is replaced by a party nominee if he or she stands down.  Malta is the only country which allows for by-elections; the island state sometimes uses co-options instead.

Northern Ireland is one of the few areas of the EU where voters choose their own MEP, by single transferable vote. Ireland and Malta are the other two countries using that system. Just 20 MEPs are therefore elected in person. All others use list systems, where a party draws up its own slate of candidates. These systems assume that people will back a party rather than a person. The first candidate on the list has the best chance of being elected and the last has the least; personal popularity is not tested by voters.

Five countries use regional lists, where the country is sub-divided up into constituencies i.e. the UK (for the 70 seats in Great Britain), Belgium, France, Italy and Poland. The remainder have national lists, where the whole country is a constituency. The largest ‘constituency’ is therefore Germany (99 seats), followed by Spain (54 seats). Altogether, the Parliament represents around 500 million people but voter turnout fell to a low of 43 per cent in the 2009 elections. Northern Ireland’s 42.8 per cent figure therefore almost met the broad trend. The UK’s turnout was 34.7 per cent and the Republic’s voters took a greater interest, with 58.6 per cent participating.

No group has an overall majority in the Parliament but its business is dominated by the three largest ones:

  • European People’s Party (centre-right federalist / 270 seats)
  • Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (centre-left / 190 seats)
  • Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (liberal / 85 seats)

There are also four smaller groups:

  • Greens & European Free Alliance (environmentalism & nationalism / 59 seats)
  • European Conservatives and Reformists (centre-right anti-federalist / 53 seats)
  • Europe of Freedom and Democracy (Eurosceptic / 35 seats)
  • European United Left – Nordic Green Left (hard left / 34 seats)

Jim Nicholson sits with the European Conservatives and Reformists, along with the Conservative Party’s MEPs, and Martina Anderson with the European United Left – Nordic Green Left.  A further 27 MEPs, including Diane Dodds, are non-inscrits i.e. not attached to any group.

Two parties with no MEPs also have strong European links.  The SDLP is a member of the Party of European Socialists, which is represented in the Parliament by the Socialists and Democrats group.  The Alliance Party is a member of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe.

Sizes of groups are accurate as of February 2013 and updates are published at

European Parliament Information Office in the UK:

Committee of the RegionsCommittee of the Regions

President: Ramon Luis Valcárcel Siso (Spain)

UK members: 24

Irish members: 9

The committee is an advisory body, comprising 344 local and regional elected representatives across Europe; its term is five years. Northern Ireland has four members: Francie Molloy MLA (Sinn Féin), John Dallat MLA (SDLP), Trevor Cummings (DUP, Ards Borough Council),  and Arnold Hatch (UUP, Craigavon Borough Council).  The Northern Ireland Assembly and NILGA make two nominations each, which are then approved by the Assembly. These names are submitted by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the Council of the European Union, which makes the final appointments and can fill any vacancies.

Economic and Social Committee

President: Staffan Nilsson (Sweden)

UK members: 24

Irish members: 9

Also an advisory body, the Economic and Social Committee (EESC) again has 344 members, appointed by the Council in the same proportions as for the Committee of the Regions, and also for five years.  There are three groups of members: employers, employees and ‘various interests’ – the latter is a catch- all grouping drawn from professional organisations, scientists, academics and NGOs. This is designed to make the committee reflect European society as a whole, rather than just the two employment groups.  The UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills advertises for nominees to the first two groups. The third is filled by open competition with applications being sent to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Final approval in all cases rests with the Prime Minister; the First and deputy First Ministers also need to approve Northern Ireland nominees. Nominees are then voted through the Council of the European Union.

Northern Ireland’s two full representatives – Jane Morrice and Mike Smyth – sit in the various interests category.  Their alternates are James Magowan and John Simpson. Selection criteria include relevant experience in EESC areas, personal motivation and having time to prepare for attend meetings. Speaking a foreign language is an advantage.

Is the media missing out?

Journalists see their duty as holding those in authority to account but, according to MEPs, Europe is the missing story in local pages and programmes.

Jim Nicholson has emarked that the farming press gets “miles of print” out of the EU but “to get publicity on any other subject in Europe is near neigh an impossibility.” He pointed out that regional TV stations in England regularly interview their MEPs.

Nicholson thinks that local journalists lack interest in Europe and or “don’t want to find out some of the real stories that are going on.” MLAs tend to be interviewed about Europe rather than MEPs. He admits that EU stories are sometimes complicated but adds that good news, from Europe, does not sell newspapers.

During her time as an MEP, Bairbre de Brún suggested that the answer was to “tell stories”. For example, if a journalist was covering a post office closure, he or she would start by explaining its local impact rather than getting tied up in the technicalities of how the decision was made.

“It just takes a little more research for a journalist to do the same thing with the EU. I think that a lot of journalists get switched off by the fact that it’s ‘EU’ and by the fear that their readers will switch off when it’s ‘EU’.” She found the apathy “amazing” given that many laws in the Assembly have their origins in Europe.

Diane Dodds finds the same difficulty and, as a Eurosceptic, is keen that people are “tuned in” so they can keep a watch on the EU. One relevant story she picked out is the proposal to limit self-employed lorry drivers’ working hours under the Working Time Directive.

The European Parliament provides press accreditation for visiting regional journalists and its UK office organises regular visits to the Parliament.

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