The European Commission is the administrative and policy body of the EU. Its Commissioners and President are appointed by member states after scrutiny from the European Parliament. It drafts most legislative proposals and guides the pre-legislative research process. When member states do not implement Directives, it negotiates directly, and can take them to the European Court of Justice for failure to implement. The day to day work is done by a series of Directorates.
Council of the European Union
The Council of the European Union represents member states, each of whom have direct voting rights. It has the final say on European legislation, after drafts are considered and amended by the European Parliament. Voting is now generally subject to qualified majorities (ie, greater than simple majorities). The votes given to each state are set by treaty. They are designed to both reflect population size of each state, and give somewhat more weight to smaller states than population alone would grant them.
Member states are represented at Council meetings by their relevant government ministers, guided by departmental officials.
The European Parliament is the democratic, directly elected component of the EU. Each member state elects a delegation of MEPs. In the UK, there are 72. MEPs belong to a series of Parliamentary groups, including a left, centre and right groupings, as well as Euro-skeptics and Greens. However, voting is often on national, rather than party, lines.
The EP appoints a series of committees which examine legislation and make reports in order to influence the direction of European policy.
European Court of Justice
The European Court of Justice is the supreme judicial authority on EU law. It includes: the Court of Justice, the General Court and specialised courts. The main role of the ECJ is to ensure that the European law is interpreted and applied equally in the Member States and that the European businesses, institutions, countries and individuals respect the EU law.
Sources of law
The European Union has three sources of law:
Treaties are the founding documents of EU law, and all other legislation is subsidiary to them. They act as a "constitution" for Europe, laying out the structure and law-making powers of various institutions. Treaties include "founding" treaties such as the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) and the Treaty on European Union (TEU), "amending" treaties that altered the composition of the EU, such as the Treaty of Lisbon, and protocols attached to the treaties, such as those admitting new members.
One of the more important protocols is the European Charter of Fundamental Rights (EUCFR). First attached to the Treaty of Nice in 2001, the EUCFR became binding law with the passage of the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009. It acts as a binding "bill of rights" for the European Union, complimenting the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR); while the ECHR applies to individual states, the EUCFR requires the institutions of the European Union to obey basic rules regarding human rights when passing legislation or taking action.
Secondary law is subservient to the Treaties, and makes up the vast majority of EU law. It is divided into several categories; regulations, directives, decisions and recommendations. Regulations are legislative acts, passed by the European institutions and completely binding on the groups of people they effect. These (crucially) do not require implementation by the EU's member states, and come into force without any other action needing to be taken. Directives, on the other hand, which are subservient to regulations, must be implemented by the EU's member states before they become binding law; in the UK, this is done by passing a Statutory Instrument containing the text of the directive.
As well as these forms of law, which apply to groups of people, there are also Decisions, which apply to specifically targeted individuals or groups, and are completely binding without action from the Member States. International treaties, conventions and agreements are also a feature of EU law; since the Treaty of Lisbon was signed, the European Union has gained the ability to negotiate on the world stage in its own right - an ability used for, amongst other things, the negotiation of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA).
Impact on Digital Rights
The European Union has arguably more effect on many of our digital rights than national governments. In particular, it directly frames most telecoms, e-commerce, data protection and privacy regulations. Additionally, the EU has a strong impact on copyright, trade mark and patent legislation. It is also a major forum for invasive and unbalanced IP enforcement lobbying and measures.
At times, particularly the European Parliament has shown an appreciation of human rights issues and tried to protect them in legislation. Finally, its courts are expected to evaluate impacts on human rights when asked to do so, so has become a back stop for challenges to controversial legislation.
The Parliament's powers to accept or veto international treaties has given them the ability to scrutinise and block the ACTA treaty.