What is the EU? — Explaining How the European Union Works to Americans
The European Union is an institution equaled only in its rising global importance by its sometimes maze-like complexity. A complexity that puzzles many of those that dare to look upon it. Americans and, sadly, Europeans alike. To shed the tiniest hint of light on this, in this article I will attempt to explain what the EU is and how it works in less than 5.000 words. Which is about equivalent to trying to drink the North Sea through a paper straw. And because I am European and so like to do everything in as frustratingly complex a way as possible, I will be doing this with a little bit of a twist.
I will draw parallels to the U.S. system of government. This means I’ll have a look at key EU institutions one by one and explain how they are similar, and how they love to be different, from the equivalent institutions in America that you’re probably more familiar with.
As this article will focus on drawing parallels with American institutions, and as the snazzy title indicates, this article is primarily aimed at informing our Yankee friends familiar with American political institutions. However, be not afraid my fellow tousled-haired and square-jawed Europeans, it should be quite understandable to you as well. Especially if you’re familiar with American politics. Which shouldn’t be too hard since, if you’re European, you should know European news likes talking about “them crazy Yankee politics” more than it likes informing us of our own. Probably because you have all the guns and nukes and Trumps.
Let’s start by explaining the European Union itself and how it is both similar to and quite different from the United States of America.
The European Union vs. The United States of America
Like the U.S., the EU is not a solid block but comprised of member states. For the U.S. these are the familiar 50 states, which I definitely all have memorized, and for the EU these are 27 member countries.
Just as the U.S. states have their own legislatures, courts and governments and make and enforce their own laws, the various EU countries do as well. The laws which are made at the EU-level take precedence over the laws made at the country-level, even though some countries’ courts *stares at Poland’s courts for no reason whatsoever* have been disagreeing on this lately, in a similar way that the U.S.’s federal government’s laws take precedence over state laws, as was helpfully illucidated during the American Civil War.
In these ways U.S. and EU are similar.
However, there are also some crucial differences, mostly in the best department: the subtle tiny linguistic and legal nuances department. Aka the nerds department. Aka my homebase.
As you may have deigned to notice, while the U.S. is a country comprised of a bunch of STATES which are united, the European Union is an international organization comprised of freely associating COUNTRIES. This might seem like semantic nitpicking, and I do love me some semantic nitpicking, but it isn’t. And, sorry to disappoint all the linguists reading along, it has actual practical implications.
The EU being a freely associating union of countries means that unlike the states that are part of the United States, the countries that are part of the European Union have a legal right to essentially “secede” at will. This is why Brexit was legal and there was an procedure for the U.K. to leave, even if it was chaotic and by the end of it everyone’s hair was on fire, but it was there.
This is not true for the United States. Which are United and shall remain united for all eternity as there is no “GTFO Clause” in the U.S. constitution as was so spectacularly shown in the 1860s. There is no way for U.S. states to legally secede. No, not even you, Texas.
This is because the EU, as an international organization and not a country, doesn’t have any sovereignty of its own. While the U.S. federal government is a sovereign entity which derives its sovereignty directly from the voters, the EU kind of “borrows” its sovereignty like a humongous cup of sugar from the governments of the countries that make up the EU instead.
That might seem like nothing but a technicality, but in practice this means that the EU only has the responsibilities that the countries that make it up allow it to have.
In the U.S. the states are below the federal government, but in the EU the governments of the various countries, fundamentally, are in a superior position over the EU. The U.S. government tells states what the do, but European countries tell the EU what to do. To put it in internet terms: The U.S. government is a top and the EU is a bottom.
Imagine, if you’ll indulge me, if in the U.S. the various states like New York, Texas, California, Virginia, etc. all had the ability to leave the U.S. at will. That all of their state governments could come together and change what the U.S. federal government is and isn’t allowed to do whenever they want. A nightmare, you say? Well, that’s the current state of the EU. Despite all of the British whinging about sovereignty, in the EU it is the countries that rule.
Also, unlike the U.S. federal government, to the dissatisfcation of many a libertarian, the EU also does not have the right to collect its own taxes. Instead taxes are collected by member countries and some of these taxes are then given to fund EU institutions. Though countries do have certain obligations on payments to the EU set by law and treaty, particularly in regards to customs.
While the U.S. has its own army, as many Middle Eastern countries have found out the hard way, the EU does not truly have its own army. Instead, for the most part, only its member countries have armies. And these armies are not in any way controlled by any central EU command but rather by those countries themselves.
The EU does not have anything that is similar to the Pentagon or the joint chiefs and the EU commission president is not the supreme commander of any armed forces like the U.S. president. Instead every EU country has its own supreme commander of their armed forces.
In other words, it’s kind of like New York had its own army with the governor of the state as its commander-in-chief. As did Texas and California and even cute little Vermont. But the federal government didn’t.
The EU does have some military capabilities, because in classic European fashion it gets more complicated, but this amounts to nothing more than the EU Battlegroup which is a military force of about 27,000 soldiers, a number smaller than the military of even mighty Estonia and… well, let’s leave it at that.
None of this should be very surprising as the EU started as a purely economic union primarily aimed at being a single market. Only over time has it acquired some additional responsibilities. But it has not yet graduated to tax-collecting, big stick swinging and fully sovereign state.
Alright, so now that we understand what the EU is and what makes it different from the good ol’ U.S. of A’s federal government, let’s get to how it actually works on the inside.
There are five important institutions which are at the top of the EU, these are: The European Commission, the European Council, the Council of the European Union, the European Parliament and the European Court of Justice.
And yes, you will get tired of how many times I’m going to use the word “European.” But no, I won’t stop. You’ll learn to love it.
Let’s start with the simplest and most straightforward one, though still not that straightfroward because Europe: The European Parliament.
The European Parliament vs. The United States House of Representatives
The European Parliament is a legislative body and it is most simular to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Like the House of Representatives, the members of the European Parliament are directly elected by their citizens through universal sufferage. The composition of the chamber is roughly based on the total size of the EU population as was the case for the house until its number of representatives was frozen. Like the House, the European Parliament’s primary role is to pass, amend or reject EU laws through voting. There are quite a few differences though.
Members of the House of Representatives are generally elected through a first-past-the-post system. This means that the U.S. is divided into congressional districts and voters vote for a person to represent their district. The person who gets the most votes in the district wins. This system is also responsible for the lovely two-party duopoly that every U.S. citizen just loves.
The European Parliament instead uses a proportional representation system. This means that people vote either for candidates or for parties directly. The proportion of votes a party (or a candidate associated with that party) gets determines what proportion of seats that party will get in the European Parliament. This means that if a party gets 23% of the vote they will have roughly 23% of the seats in the European parliament.
Since first-past-the-post systems always trend towards 2 parties (thank you, math) but proportional representation systems do not, this also means that while the U.S. House of Representatives is ruled primarily by 2 big parties (the Democrats and the Republicans) the European Parliament is comprised of many different political groups. Note that I didn’t say “parties” there.
These political groups are similar to, but are not actually, political parties. Instead, in-keeping with the EU not being a country but a collection of countries, they are collections of national parties. They are, from left-to-right, the NGL (a communist-socialist group), S&D (a socialist group), the Greens (a pro-environmental, progressive group), Renew Europe (a (neo)liberal group), the EPP (a centre-right group), the ECR and ID (both centre to far-right, more Euroskeptic groups).
None of these parties are likely to attain a majority of 50% in any election and, in fact, this has never, ever, ever happened once in EU history. This means that unlike in the U.S. House of Representatives no single party ever has full control of the legislature and different parties always have to work together and compromise in order to pass legislation. This “working together” thing is called “cooperation.” Try not to scream and run in horror at this idea existing in our politics, my American friends.
There are also non-aligned members in the EU parliament roughly equivalent to independents in the U.S. House. These people are, however, generally still very confusingly part of national parties. Like if you had independents in the House who were not part of the national Democratic Party but who were confusingly still part of the New York Democratic Party and they went around calling themselves independents. Longing for painkillers to stop that headache yet?
Our parliament also happens to be bigger, insert dick joke here, than the U.S. House of Representatives. With the House having a measly 435 representatives and the European Parliament having 705 MEPs (Members of the European Parliament). This does make some sense since the EU’s population is about 447 million people whereas the U.S.’s population is only about 328 million people. And also because who would want to have more politicians? The U.S. kind of wins this route.
Finally, and perhaps most crucially, any member of the House of Representatives can (theoretically, anyway) propose a law whenever the House is in session. While members of the European Parliament can vote on laws, amend laws and reject laws, but they cannot propose new laws. This is because the European Parliament lacks the “right of initiative.”
Instead the parliament can only ask the European Commission to propose laws on its behalf. Which brings us to…
The European Commission vs. The United States’ Executive Branch
The European Commission is, essentially, the executive branch of the EU roughly equivalent to the executive branch of the U.S. government.
Just as with the U.S. executive branch the primary purpose of the European Commission is to enforce and carry out EU policy and law once it is passed by the legislature. It also manages several executive agencies (like the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, especially important in these troubled times, or the European Food Safety Authority, which is very roughly equivalent to the FDA).
This is more-or-less the same way the U.S. executive branch manages the U.S.’s own federal agencies. Although unlike the U.S.’s executive branch, we Europeans like to add astrisks on top of asterisks and so the EU executive branch does not control foreign policy (which is left up to the European Council instead).
In the same way as the U.S. president leads the United States’ executive branch, the European Commission has a president as its leader as well. The commission president. This means the closest EU equivalent to the U.S. president (currently Joe Biden) is the President of the European Commission (currently Ursula Von Der Leyen). And yes, our current president is not some old guy but some old woman instead. Hoorah for us, I suppose.
Unlike the U.S. executive branch, which really only has executive orders and does not directly concern itself with the lowly task of writing legislation, the Commission is also the primary institution which drafts and proposes new EU laws. Though it cannot pass them.
The Commission drafts a proposal for a law and after being drafted it has to be voted on by the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union. They can choose to pass, reject or amend the proposal. If everything goes well and both institutions vote in favour of the proposal it becomes EU law and I imagine all of the MEPs and the commissioners and the European leaders gather together to throw a party with confetti, champagne and pin-the-tail-on-Boris. If it doesn’t go smoothly, a whole complicated back and forth ensues in which parliament has the final say.
So following the European model, congress wouldn’t write and vote on its own laws but instead Joe Joe and his cabinet would write up laws and submit them to the house and the senate for approval and amending.
It should be noted that though the Commission is theoretically the only institution with the right to propose new laws, the European Parliament can also ask the Commission to draft a law. The Commission can refuse, but if they refuse the Commission has to give an explanation. Since the European Parliament can hold a vote of no confidence and fire the Commission this also means that the Commission must have a good reason to reject such a proposal or they may risk dismissal and possibly a pat on the butt with a large wooden paddle.
Okay, I may have made that last part up. But doesn’t sound like it’d make for good TV?
The Council of the European Union can also ask the Commission to draft a law as can several other institutions including 25% of the member states and as can the European Central Bank, though only in very specific circumstances.
Now that we’ve got duties covered, what is the composition of the Commission?
Unlike the U.S. which uses a presidential system, the EU is a sort of semi-kind-of-technically-but-not-really-a-parliamentary system similar (but different) to that of the United Kingdom. This means that while Americans directly (albeit with the electoral college getting in between) vote for who becomes president, in the EU this is not the case. Instead it is the European Parliament that votes on who becomes the President.
But I heard you like asterisks so I put an asterisk at this asterisk so you can roflmao while you lol. See, while the European Parliament can vote for the European Commission President, candidates for said job are nominated by the European Council instead. Not to be confused with the similarly named “Council of the EU” which is a different thing or, naturally, with the even similarlier named “Council of Europe” which isn’t even part of the EU.
In brief the European Council is comprised of the elected heads of state of each member country. So, people like Macron and fomerly Merkel (now Scholz). And they decide who to nominate for the job. If their choice is rejected by parliament they must nominate someone else until the person can get a majority in parliament to vote for them.
In U.S. terms this process would be as if the governors of each of the states came together every 4 years and nominated who the next president of the United States would be and then the House of Representatives had to vote on whether to take them or kick them to the curb.
Although there is currently talk of changing this method to direct election by voters as laid out by German chancellor Scholz’s roadmap for Europe.
While in the U.S. the president sits his full term and congress has nothing to say about it even if he flipped them off and went “nananananana”, as the EU has more of a parliamentary system a vote of no confidence by parliament is possible at any time. This means that at any moment the European Parliament can choose to essentially “fire” the commission (cabinet) and its president (president) and start the selection process aaaaaaall over again.
Aside from the president, the Commission also has 27 other members (prepare yourself because you’ll be seeing that number a lot today). This is because it has one member from each country. Together, these form our European version of the president’s cabinet.
Just as in the U.S. they are nominated by the president and confirmed by legislature. While the president of the U.S. can freely choose anyone to form his cabinet, the Commission President has to choose one person from every country from a list of people suggested by that country’s government. And while in the U.S. cabinet appointees are confirmed by the senate, in the EU they are confirmed by the European Parliament (our House) instead.
That’s not to say, however, that the U.S. senate has no equivalent in the EU. That questionable honour goes to…
The Council of the European Union vs. The United States Senate
The Council of the European Union could be said to be roughly equivalent to the United States Senate.
As the U.S. Senate’s members represent their states, the members of the Council of the European Union represent their countries. This also means that, just as with the senate, the Council of the European Union gives every country an equal number of representatives regardless of the size of their population.
While the U.S. Senate gives every state 2 senators, the Council of the European Union gives every country 1 representative. But there’s a twist.
While the U.S. Senate has 2 specific persons who act as senators for each state, the people who take up the slot of “representative” in the Council of the European Union, kind of like in a game of musical chairs, can be different from meeting to meeting depending on the topic the council discusses.
This is because the Council is comprised of each country’s ministers and each of these ministers have different portfolios. So if the Council is meeting on the topic of agriculture then all ministers for agriculture from the different EU countries will sit on the council. If on the other hand the Council is meeting on the topic of the environment then all ministers for the environment from the different EU countries will sit on the council itself.
So if America followed the European model, instead of having 2 senators for your state, you’d have 10 senators for your state but depending on the topic being voted on you would have only one of them participate in that meeting of the senate. You’d have a senator for agriculture who would vote if the senate was passing a law on agriculture, a senator for health who’d participate if the senate held a vote on healthcare, a senator for the fossil fuels lobby who’d participate if the senate were passing a law on the environment and… Forget that last one. Don’t sue me, daddy Chevron. You don’t have any corrupting influence on the U.S. senate whatsoever and you’re so strong and muscular. Pinky swear I won’t do it again, teehee.
Now, this also means that the process of how you become a member is different.
The U.S. senate’s members are directly elected by their constituents, the Council of the European Union’s members are elected but not directly to that position.
Since they are all ministers in their respective countries they are usually first elected as representatives to their national parliaments and then appointed to the position of minister by their country’s elected head of state (their president, chancellor or prime minister) and approved by the country’s legislature.
So like if your state’s governor, after being elected, appointed members from your state’s legislature as senators. This is, incidentally, not dissimilar to the system the U.S. used until the 17th amendment.
On the surface this system might not seem the best approach and… you’d probably be right. But as with many things in the EU this method of selection, as opposed to direct election, was a compromise made in order for national governments to retain as much of “muh sovereignty” as possible. Cut to Britain boohoohooing in the corner.
The final difference is the method of voting.
Both the U.S. Senate and the Council can pass or reject laws. However, in the case of the U.S. Senate a law needs only 51 votes (or 50 votes and the vice president’s vote or 60 to break a fillibuster) to pass into law. In the Council however a qualified majority is usually needed.
This means that at least 55% of the vote representing at least 65% of the EU population needs to vote for a law in order for it to pass. Except in some cases where unanimity is needed (generally for things that are central to the sovereignty of the countries in the EU).
In practice the Council usually attempts to reach unanimity before resorting to a qualified majority vote even on issues where unanimity is not strictly required. On top of this a 4 country minority (representing at least 35% of the EU’s population) can block any law.
Incidentally this means that in the EU’s version of the senate it is much harder to pass laws against the will of the minority, since the equivalent of 4 states (so long as they had at least 35% of the population collectively) could block any law.
Importantly, this system also means a minority in the Council can only block legislation but cannot pass new legislation against the will of the majority of the population either.
This avoids the sticky situation as it exists with the U.S. senate where a group of senators representing a minority of the U.S. population, so long as they represent at least 26 states, can pass laws against the will of the majority.
But now that we’ve talked (at great length, might I add) about laws and how they get enforced and how they get passed. How do they get interpreted and adjudicated?
The Court of Justice of the European Union vs. The United States Supreme Court
Just as with the United States Supreme Court the Court of Justice of the European Union (or CJEU for short) is the at the top of the judicial branch and the final arbiter when it comes to the interpretation of the law. Just like the U.S. Supreme Court it also acts as a check on the power of government institutions. Although the whole thing is, say it with me: More complicated than that. Primarily in that it is a lot more complex and a little more decentralized.
Firstly, while the U.S. Supreme Court is a single, coherent institution which deals with both the interpretation of the law and checking government power, the CJEU is actually divides this responsibility among its two constituent parts: The European Court of Justice (yes, that’s a different thing from the Court of Justice of the European Union and yes it is confusing) and the General Court.
In true European fashion the General Court is comprised of 54 judges (a multiple of 27, guess why) instead of simply 9 as with the U.S. Supreme Court. Its members are appointed by the member states after being evaluated. Unlike Supreme Court Justices, members of the General Court don’t have that comfy lifetime membership but instead have 6 year terms, though they are renewable.
The General Court acts as a check on the power of other European institutions like the European Commission or the European Council. Just as American citizens can (eventually, if they have enough money) take a case about the government breaking the law to the Supreme Court (at least if thee court accepts it), if a European Institution makes a decision that is against EU law any person or member state can take them to the General Court and, if the court finds in their favour, they can reverse the original institution’s action in a similar way that the U.S. Supreme Court can reverse a government action it deems unconstitutional.
The second part of the Court of Justice of the European Union, the European Court of Justice or ECJ, instead deals primarily with the interpretation of EU law in the same way the U.S. Supreme Court deals with the interpretation of U.S. law.
However, while getting a judgement from the Supreme Court requires you to first go to a local court, then go to a district court and then finally ask to go before the Supreme Court to get a judgement, the ECJ is a little simpler. You heard that right folks, a European institution is actually simpler than an American institution for once. As for the ECJ it is the national courts which can, or sometimes must, ask the ECJ about what the correct interpretation of an EU law is. At which point the ECJ will render a binding judgement which the national court must follow.
As a sidenote, and somewhat confusingly, the ECJ also deals with lawsuits of EU institutions if they are started by other EU institutions and can be appealed to by people who did not like the judgement of the General Court (thus in effect putting it higher).
Just as the U.S. Supreme Court only interprets federal law and does not interpret state law, so does the ECJ only interpret EU law and not national law. Instead it is national constitutional courts which have the final word on interpretating national laws in the same way that State Supreme Courts have the final word on the interpretation of state laws.
While the U.S. Supreme Court is comprised of 9 justices, the ECJ is comprised of, you guessed it, the magic number of 27 judges. Once again with one judge coming from every EU country. Cases are generally not heard by all 27 judges however. Wouldn’t want to strain their poor little ears too much. Rather cases are generally heard by 3, 5 or 15 judges at once depending on the complexity of the case.
And that brings us, dear reader, to the end of the road. The test is tuesday, be sure to study hard and try not to confuse the European Court of Justice with the Court of Justice of the European Union or the European Council with the Council of the European Union or the Council of the European Union with the Council of Europe. I’m sure it’ll be a breeze.
In summary, I think we learned a little about how EU institutions compare to American institutions, and a lot about the importance of picking distinctive names.
A final note: Since the EU is a very complex beasty, and Europe in general loves complex rules and exceptions, some of the things I laid out here are oversimplifications of reality. This means that while they’re generally true they might have specific exceptions, there may be more to it than what I laid out, etc. If you want to find out more about these things, I’ll be putting some links to Youtube videos that go more in depth below. And if you want to leave “Well, teeeechnically” comments, go right ahead.
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Here are some good Youtube videos explaining some of the concepts in the article in greater depth.
- What Actually is the European Union
- The Council (of the European Union) explained
- The European Commission explained
- The Council (of the European Union) explained
- What is -The European Court of Justice (ECJ)
- How does the EU pass new laws
Copyright: The images used in this article are all in the public domain and/or free to use. Several of the images are from Wikipedia, several other images are from the website Pexels. The first image of the people carrying the European flag can be found here. The image of the U.S. military convey can be found here. The image of the European Commission building can be found here. The image of the outside of the European Parliament building can be found here. The stock image of the man near the scales of justice can be found here.