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Wednesday 29 March 2023 Dublin: 11°C
Christian Lutz
# Looking out for EU
How does the EU work?
And why should I care?

MORE AND MORE, decisions made in Europe impact the day-to-day lives of Irish people, but not many know how the system works.

The union represents 500 million people and employs around 37,000 people across the continent, mostly in Brussels, home of the European Commission and Parliament, though the Parliament splits sitting time with Strasbourg.

Many laws and directives passed in Europe affect Irish people. From farmers to consumers, EU rules on imports, trade and law are prevalent across Ireland.

However, the public perception of Europe is generally tinged with some cynicism, despite Irish adults feeling that the country has done well out of membership.

So, what is the EU?

The EU is a union of 28 sovereign member states.

It encompasses a number of agencies and bodies, but decisions are made through four separate bodies.

Its basic principles are around a single European market, with freedom of movement for goods, services, workers and capital.

The free movement of workers has become a contentious issue in the UK in particular, where the Conservative party is pushing for a renegotiation of their obligations to take in other members.


The European Council is seen as the most powerful arm of the EU.

It is where the policy direction of the EU is decided by the heads of state and government of each EU member. The council meets at summits and has its own permanent president, who is this man, Poland’s Donald Tusk:

Poland Prime Minister Alik Keplicz Alik Keplicz

The Council of Ministers is where ministers with the same portfolios meet to discuss issues both in the EU and abroad.

So, when you hear that Charlie Flanagan is meeting EU foreign affairs ministers in Brussels, he’s here.

France EU Christian Lutz Christian Lutz

They share legislative and budgetary power with the European Parliament, employ around 3,500 and has a rotating presidency that changes every six months.

Ireland held the presidency at the start of 2013, Italy holds it now and Latvia will take over in January.

The European Parliament is Europe’s directly-elected body. 11 Irish representatives, elected last May sit with 740 other MEPs from across European states.

The parliament employs 6,000 people and splits sitting time between Brussels and Strasbourg in France.

Its MEPs are aligned in groups, with the European Peoples’ Party, the Social and Democrats (S&D) and Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) in control.

The S&D’s Martin Schulz, a German politician, is the President of the Parliament. Another German, Klaus Welle, is the top civil servant or Secretary General.

European Commission Headquarters Stock Press Association Images Press Association Images

The European Commission is responsible for proposing and enforcing EU laws, monitoring the treaties and overseeing the day-to-day running of the EU.

It is split into 28 Directorates General (DGs), each of which has a Commissioner. Each member state is entitled to nominate a commissioner. Ireland’s Phil Hogan is the Agriculture Commissioner.

Other DGs cover employment, energy, trade and justice among other things.

The Commission is housed in the Berlaymont building in Brussels and former Luxembourg president Jean-Claude Juncker is its president.

Ireland’s Catherine Day is the Commission’s secretary general.

So how do they make laws?

In a complex battle of wills between the various arms, essentially.

Because the proposals come from the Commission and are filtered through the Council before they hit the Parliament, the process can be slow, as the legislation is debated and rewritten.

This is the official path to legislation:


What does the EU do?

Effectively, Europe’s biggest job is governing the single market. This covers customs, monetary policy, conservation of fish, a common commercial policy and setting a budget each year.

For context, the EU budget this year is about €142 billion.

They also have a social mandate, aiming to “correct the most glaring inequalities in European society”. It adheres to its own Charter of Basic Human Rights and uses financial aid and legislation to do this.

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