Its important to understand the institutions which engage in the decision making and exercise power in the Community, and to consider the changes which have taken place in the interplay between them. It has suggested that the EU's achievements have been constrained by failings in its decision making and also that these need to be more democratic. Th five main institutions are the Commission, the Council of Minister, the European Parliament (EP), the Economic and Social Committee (ESC) and the Court of Justice.
While the main concern of economists is with policy outputs, it is important to understand the inputs which go into the decision making process. This is crucial not only for political scientists but for all those seeking to influence and participate in decision making. It is true that there has still not been the decisive transfer of identity and power towards the Community which was hoped for and the actors are still the nation states. Also, the political spillover brought about by European interest groups has so far not kept pace with the economic spillover of integration.
Nevertheless, over time more and more crucial decisions are being taken at the Community level, with far reaching implications both for citizens in the Community. The decisions which are taken are not imposed secretively by the bureaucracy in Brussels. The framework results in a very slow process of decision making-on average around three years before proposals are turned into law. Thus there are considerable opportunities for influencing policy making. The Commission is a small and open bureaucracy whose maximum authorise staff in 1989 was 16,306 employees.
Nearly two-thirds of the staff are based in Brussels with other significant numbers mainly in Luxembourg and at its research centres. The Commission is the Community's Civil Service and is able to minimise its staffing towards the comparable modest level of the Lord Chancellor's Department in the British Civil Service. This is possible since the Commission depends heavily upon national civil servants for implementing its policies such as the CAP. The Commissioners are appointed for four years, with the president being appointed for two years on the assumption that this will be renewable.
The president has to mould the team together and is an important figure. The president is assisted in his task by six vice-presidents. The Commission consists of two Commissioners from the larger countries and one from the smaller. There has been some concern about it becoming unwieldy as a consequence of enlargement, but proposals to appoint only one commissioner from each country have been turned down. Commissioners exercise influence according to their portfolios and their personal characteristics of charisma and drive.
Despite different political views, the national appointees have to work together effectively, transferring their allegiance to the Union. While naturally they retain close links back home, they are definitely not delegates following national instructions. They have to act impartially in the Union interest and occasionally in doing this they have incurred national criticism. The Commission takes several decisions routinely and other straightforward matters follow a written procedure; if no reservations are entered then the proposals are adopted.
For more important issues, majority voting is used. Where a vote is taken the Commission operates like a college and the minority abide by the collective decision. Each Commissioner is supported by the French form of private office, which helps to keep the Commissioner well-informed and is usually filled with his own personal choice of staff. The Commission embodies the ideals of the Community and carries out a range of political and administrative functions which can be classified in five main ways.
In the first instance, the Commission proposes new policies, since the Treaty establishing the EU was more of an outline. Secondly the Commission carries out executive powers to implement the policies in the treaties. It prepares decisions and regulations to implement the provisions of the Treaty, such as on trade and enactment's of the Council. The Commission also administers Community Funds and research programmes. Thirdly, the Commission acts as a guardian of the Treaties; it fulfils the watchdog role and investigates any action which it considers infringes the Treaties.
Fourthly the commission has the formal right to attend Councils meetings where it presents its views vigorously in order to pilot its legislation through. In addition to the functions outlined a final responsibility is to represent the EU in various international organisations and also in the Community's external relations with non-member countries. The Council was given only a minor role in the ECSC but has had a very important position to play in the EU and its power has grown in significance. Ministerial representatives from the member states along with their officials make up their Council.
Unlike the other EU institutions the ministers' mandate is to represent their own country. The most frequent visitors to Council meetings are the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and of Agriculture. Ministers of Finance also meet on a regular basis, whereas other ministers meet less frequently. Sometimes Ministers even from the same country may adopt contradictory positions; for example, Ministers of Agriculture have supported farming interests, whereas Ministers of Finance have been concerned to limit the financial expenditure on agriculture.
The Foreign Ministers have the most important responsibility since they are also expected to provide the general role of supervision and co-ordination. The Presidency of the Council is held by each member state on a rotating basis, and is held for a period of six months. The President has an important job in exercising political weight of mediation to try to secure agreement. Power resides in the Council of ministers since it takes decisions, but being least supranational of the Community bodies it has provided a brake on developments.
There has been some concern about the way in which decisions are taken; voting can be by unanimous vote or by absolute or qualified majority vote. Unanimity is generally needed for the intention of new policies and when the council is seeking to amend a Commission proposal against the Commissioners wishes. Majority voting usually applies where proposals are concerned with the operation of existing policies; and has applied to such matters as internal staffing and budgetary procedure. The Treaty of Rome laid down a voting procedure which, in the earlier years, required a unanimous vote for most decisions.
But in other areas such as agriculture a qualified majority vote was sufficient. France raised objections to Commission proposals in 1965 for a package deal to develop agricultural policies more completely and to move towards decision making by majority voting. In 1982, when the UK invoked the Luxembourg Compromise to veto a proposed increase in agricultural prices for which the usual price fixing package had not been agreed satisfactorily, it was voted down. Nevertheless, the Luxembourg Compromise can still be invoked where important national interests are involved.
A general reluctance to make wide use of majority voting slowed down the decision making in a search for compromise and consensus. It became obvious after the southern enlargement of the EU in the 1980's that changes were needed to bring about the greater use of majority voting, otherwise the Union was likely to grind to a halt in many fields. The SEA has made an important breakthrough by introducing majority voting for most aspects in the creation of the internal market. It thus embodies a significant step forward in improving the community' decision making process.
The Council's Rules of Procedure were formally amended in July 1987 in order to allow not just the president but any national representative and the Commission to have the right to call for a vote, and a vote must be held if the majority agree. Under the qualified majority voting system, the votes are distributed so that the 'big four' – France, Germany, Italy and the UK have ten votes each; Spain has eight votes; Belgium, Greece, The Netherlands and Portugal have five votes each; Denmark and Ireland have three votes each and Luxembourg has two votes.
From this total of 76 votes a qualified majority consists of 54 votes. The European Parliament is the third of the EU institutions. Its structure can be examined in two ways: the members of the EP can be divided either by their national membership or by their party political distribution. There were 410 MEP's after the fist direct elections in 1979 and since the southern enlargement of the EU the number has risen to 518. The MEP's are drawn from 72 national political parties, have come together into a small number of political groups.
The largest transitional group is that of the socialists, with MEP's belonging to it from every country including one from Ireland in the current parliament. The second largest group is the People's Party, with MEP's from all states. British MEP's have formed a more restrictive and largely national party group, the European Democrats. This fourth group is tightly knit and most coherent in its voting with very few dissidents. It has also been able to co-operate closely with other groups.
The Green's have become a larger group in the EP, its members reflecting concern for environmental interests, especially in Germany. The EP's role has been mainly consultative and advisory in non-budgetary matters, but since direct elections in 1979 it has tried to increase its powers based upon the strength of its democratic electoral support. With regard to the latter, in the Union as a whole voting turnout in EP elections has fallen slightly.
The normal functions of any parliament, apart from expressing views, are to legislate, to exercise financial responsibilities and to control government. It has been argued that the EP does not properly fulfil the traditional powers of a national parliament. This is partly because some of the traditional parliamentary powers lie with the Commission ands the Council. Parliament has sought to influence both these bodies, but in general has done so more effectively in the case of the Commission, since any accretion of the EP's powers is regarded as a direct challenge by the Council.