Note: I drafted the following text for a website funded by the European Union, trying to make it as clear and accessible as possible. It does, however, not reflect the official position of the EU’s institutions, but my personal understanding and interpretation. The text has the following sections:
What is the European Union?
- Why was the EU founded?
- What are the main historical steps of the EU?
- Which countries are members of the European Union?
How does the European Union work?
- For which policy areas is the EU responsible?
- The main EU Institutions
- Political priorities of the Juncker Commission
- Other important EU institutions
How are laws made in the EU?
- The ordinary legislative procedure
- Special procedures
Practical decision-making in the EU
The European Neighbourhood Policy
- Which countries are part of the ENP?
- How does the ENP work?
- The 2015 ENP review: Neighbourhood relations today
European Union for journalists
- Finding EU information from outside Brussels
- EU media contacts
- EU accreditation
- The Commission’s midday briefing
- Think Tanks
- Lobby organisations
- Follow the money: Finding funding opportunities and recipients of EU financial support
- Specialised EU media
What is the European Union?
The European Union, the EU in short, is a closely-knit group of currently 28 countries on the European continent, with a combined population of about 510 million, which puts it roughly on par with North America. In June 2016, the United Kingdom decided in a referendum to leave the EU – a first in the 65-year history of the European project.
The EU unites large countries such as Germany with a population of 81 million, or France with 66 million, with small ones such as Malta (420.000) or Luxemburg (550.000). It ranges from the Mediterranean Sea in the south to the Arctic Circle in the north, and from the Black Sea in the east to the Atlantic Ocean in the west.
The cultural diversity of the EU is, inter alia, witnessed by its 24 official languages, which come on top of many more languages spoken by regional or migrant populations. 16% of EU citizens have German as their native tongue, followed by English and Italian (13% each), French (12%), and Polish as well as Spanish (8% each). The main everyday working languages of the EU Institutions are English and French.
With a gross domestic product (GDP) of around €14 trillion, the EU is in the same bracket as the United States, and accounts for 20% of global trade. It is the world’s biggest exporter, before China and the US.
The domestic single market is one of the key qualities of the EU. It means that goods, services, money, and people can move freely between EU Member States without restrictions – the often quoted “four freedoms”. Among other things, this allows for greater economic efficiency and a more diverse supply.
EU Member States share a body of common laws, rights, obligations, and court decisions usually referred to by the French term Acquis communautaire (common achievement). In principle, the EU Acquis supersedes national laws and regulations, and deals with all topics where the Member States have determined that action at EU level is more effective or more efficient than at national level.
Moreover, the EU has a binding Charter of Fundamental Rights, which enshrines inalienable human rights such as life, personal dignity, freedom of thought and expression, equality and inclusion, democracy, and the rule of law. Only countries which guarantee these fundamental rights in full can be, or can become, a member of the European Union.
Even as the EU does not have an official capital, Brussels de facto plays that role because it has the highest concentration of EU institutions. However, many other European cities host important EU institutions as well, among them Strasbourg, Frankfurt, and Luxemburg.
The EU’s finances rely primarily on a share of normally 0,7% of the Member States’ gross national incomes. Other sources of revenue are import duties, a small percentage of value added taxes, and contributions by third countries such as Norway. For 2016, the EU’s budget provided for commitments in the amount of €155 billion.
According to the current Multiannual Financial Framework, almost 86% of the EU’s budget gets spent on growth and jobs, competitiveness, regional cohesion, and agricultural policy. The growth agenda, which represents 47% of the budget, includes education, research and innovation, infrastructure, and the strengthening of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). This recognises that a prosperous economy needs a highly qualified work force and that, in turn, a vibrant labour market yields direct social benefits for Europe’s population as well. Moreover, all Member States and regions must be enabled to compete at eye level with the more highly developed geographical areas.
Agriculture, including fisheries, rural development and environmental policy accounts for another 39% of the EU’s budget, thereby making sure that a sufficient amount of high-quality food is produced without over-exploiting natural resources. Foreign policy, including the European Neighbourhood Policy, amounts to almost 6% of the financial framework, which is about the same as administration.
Why was the EU founded?
At its core, the European Union is a peace-building initiative. The motivation behind the EU originates from the experience of the devastating First and Second World Wars during the first half of the 20th century. These wars had been so catastrophic at many levels that a number of visionary politicians – the Founding Fathers, among them French foreign minister Robert Schuman, German chancellor Konrad Adenauer and British prime minister Winston Churchill – developed the concept of what was eventually to become the European Union.
The basic idea was that a very close and sustainable economic cooperation between European countries would make them interdependent to such a degree that they simply could not afford, nor manage, to fight each other anymore. For starters, the coal and steel industries would be put under collaborative oversight. This happened for two reasons: coal and steel were not only essential for the reconstruction of Europe after the war, but they were also key factors in the production of weapons. No country, and especially not Germany, which had started World War II, was supposed to be able to re-arm itself autonomously.
Another important driving factor was the reconciliation between Germany and France that was promoted by the first post-war chancellor of West Germany, Konrad Adenauer, who was also seeking a close integration with the western powers in the emerging Cold War.
From these beginnings, it became ever more obvious to the participating countries that they would collectively benefit from close cooperation and coordination in many more areas – starting with other crucial parts of the economy (such as agriculture), and extending to additional policy areas over time. Once enduring peace was firmly established, the economy, freedom, and human rights increasingly entered the spotlight.
What are the main historical steps of the EU?
With the Treaty of Paris in 1951, Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Luxemburg and the Netherlands founded the European Steel and Coal Community (ECSC). This was the first instance in world history where several sovereign states transferred part of their power to an outside organisation. Such a kind of supranational union had been pretty much inconceivable only a few years earlier.
The ECSC already laid the foundations for the governance of the European Union as it is today: It had an executive High Authority (which developed into the European Commission), a Common Assembly (later renamed into European Parliament) composed of members of parliament from the participating countries, a Special Council of the responsible national ministers, and a Court of Justice.
The momentum created by the ECSC soon inspired the creation of two more European institutions by the same set of countries: In 1957,the Treaty of Rome established the European Economic Community (EEC), and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). Both organisations shared the same Common Assembly and Court with the ECSC, but had their own executive branches, now called Commissions. While Euratom looks after the nuclear power market, the EEC laid the groundwork for the European Single Market by progressively reducing customs duties and setting up common policies in the areas of agriculture, transport, and employment.
The Treaty of Rome governs the European Union to this day. It was amended several times and is now officially called Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). One of its most important amendments was the Single European Act of 1986, which eventually enforced the European Single Market after a phase of only lacklustre progress. The act also gave real power to the European Parliament, allowed the Council to decide by majority rather than unanimity voting in more policy areas, and initiated a coordinated European foreign policy.
The early 1970s saw the first enlargement of the European Communities. In 1973, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Denmark became members.
In 1979, the first European Elections were held. Rather than delegate members of national parliaments to the European Parliament, citizens since then elect dedicated Members of the European Parliament directly.
Greece joined the EU in 1981, followed by Spain and Portugal in 1986.
The late 1980s saw the disintegration and eventual collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the fall of the Berlin Wall, with the subsequent re-unification of Germany in 1990. The geopolitical change and the fact that the Single Market finally brought palpable benefits broke ground for the founding document of the European Union as we know it today: The Maastricht Treaty of 1992, also known as the Treaty on European Union (TEU).
The Maastricht Treaty had two main objectives: first, the signatory states extended the responsibility of the EU to many more policy areas than only the economy, among them law enforcement, asylum, civil judicial cooperation, and foreign policy. Second, the treaty created the Euro (€) as a single European currency and specified the Maastricht Criteria or Euro Convergence Criteria, which determine the conditions under which a country may adopt the Euro. The currency’s introduction from 1992 to 2002 established the Eurozone within the European Union.
After a process dating back to the mid 1980s, the Schengen Area was introduced in 1995, effectively abolishing passport controls at the borders between many European countries in exchange for stricter control of the external border and a common visa policy.
The Amsterdam Treaty of 1997 made major changes to the treaties governing the European Union. It gave the EU responsibility for all matters that concerned the free movement of persons, integrated the Schengen cooperation into the EU Acquis, established a Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), and assigned even more powers to the European Parliament. The Amsterdam Treaty was modified in 2001 by the Nice Treaty with the intention to improve the governance of the European Institutions ahead of the EU’s 2004 enlargement.
In 1995, Austria, Finland, and Sweden acceded to the European Union. In 2004, the biggest enlargement of the EU took effect as Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia acquired membership, now truly extending the union across the greater part of the European continent. Romania and Bulgaria followed in 2007, and Croatia in 2013.
In the early 2000s, initiatives emerged to create an even more integrated European Union that would have its own, genuinely European constitution rather than be based on agreements between Member States. However, the proposal for the constitution was rejected in referendums in France and the Netherlands and thus never adopted. Nonetheless, it paved the way for the latest substantial reform of the EU, the Lisbon Treaty of 2007.
The Lisbon Treaty’s intention was to foster the democratic foundations of the EU and to improve the coherence and efficiency of its policy making. The treaty enhanced the powers of the European Parliament once more, reformed voting rights in the Council to allow weighted majority decisions in many more policy areas than previously, made the Charter of Fundamental Rights legally binding, created a long-term office period for the President of the European Council (before, the presidency had been held by another Member State every six months), and gave more responsibilities to the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. For the first time, it also introduced the option for Member States to pull out of the EU.
In 2012, the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of its achievements for peace, democracy, and human rights in Europe.
In 2016, the United Kingdom held a referendum that led to the country’s decision to leave the European Union. At the same time, a number of countries are aspiring to join the EU. Montenegro, Serbia, and Turkey are currently in active negotiations, while Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo are in various pre-negotiation stages regarding their respective pre-candidacy status. Iceland has started but later stopped negotiations.
Which countries are members of the European Union?
The current Member States of the European Union are in overview:
How does the European Union work?
The European Union is a supranational union, which means that the Member States cede some of their sovereign rights to the EU and its institutions. Hence, Member States show a substantial amount of trust in the EU. They acknowledge that in many policy areas, it is ultimately more beneficial for all countries involved if decisions are made and actions taken with the interests of the entire Union in mind – even where doing so occasionally may run counter to the particular interests of any individual country. At least, that’s the ideal.
In order to make this work, a complex and well-crafted organisational setup is of the essence. This is why the essential treaties of the EU are in a constant process of amendment. The treaties are the operating instructions for the EU, give it legal personality (meaning that the EU can act in its own right and not only as a collective of Member States), and define its responsibilities, working methods, and legitimacy vis-à-vis the citizens. Accordingly, they always need to reflect the Member States’ agreement on the role of the EU and the constituency’s democratic ownership of the Union.
As a result, the treaties have defined three tiers of EU responsibilities:
- Exclusive competence, where only the EU can make laws and act on them;
- Shared competence, where the EU can only make laws and act in concert with the Member States; and
- The competence to provide support and coordination to the Member States.
The shared and support competences follow two basic tenets:
- Subsidiarity, which entails that the EU may only act if European-level action is better than action by the Member States; and
- Proportionality, which means that the EU must do what is necessary to achieve an objective, but not more – i.e., it must not overstep its boundaries.
The European Union employs some 55.000 public servants, which is, in fact, only slightly more than the City of Paris (about 50.000), and much less than, for instance, the number of people working at Frankfurt Airport (more than 80.000). In order to cope with its tasks, the EU therefore relies heavily on private-sector contractors. This ensures flexibility when framework conditions or demands change, and at the same time stimulates the economy.
For which policy areas is the EU responsible?
The EU has exclusive competence for the following policy areas, in which EU law overrules Member State law:
- Customs Union: The EU makes sure that all imports are treated equally and that they comply with European health, safety, and legal standards;
- Competition: The EU stops cartels, monopolies, and other manipulations of fair competition between businesses;
- Monetary policy of the Eurozone: The EU takes responsibility for the Euro (€) currency that is currently used in 19 Member States; and
- Common fisheries policy: The EU ensures the sustainability of fishery in EU waters, especially that fish are not over-harvested.
The EU is also entitled to conclude international agreements by itself if they are necessary to enact the exclusive competences.
The EU shares competence with the Member States for the following policy areas:
- Internal market: The EU harmonises the Member States’ individual rules and regulations in order to achieve a fully integrated single European market;
- Social policy: The EU focuses on harmonising the Member States’ employment systems and supports worker mobility between countries;
- Economic, social, and territorial cohesion: Together with the Member States, the EU creates the preconditions for businesses and citizens to thrive anywhere in the Union, for instance through better transport and telecommunications infrastructures in rural or otherwise under-developed regions;
- Agriculture and fisheries: The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) makes sure that agriculture is economically and environmentally sustainable and produces safe foods;
- Environment: The EU supports a business ecosystem that is environmentally sustainable and helps Member States protect their natural resources;
- Consumer protection: The EU looks after the safety of products and makes sure that consumers can deal on equal footing with vendors in their own as well as in other EU Member States;
- Transport: Seeing that roads, rails, and air routes, or the emissions of transport, do not end at national borders and are essential for the single European market, the EU supports sustainable, compatible, and adequate transport networks across borders;
- Energy: The EU works toward a fully integrated European energy market that is, however, sustainable and environment-friendly;
- Freedom, security, and justice: The EU safeguards citizen’s fundamental rights, equality, and privacy, and coordinates the fight against serious crime as well as the protection against disasters;
- Public health: The EU promotes preventive programmes and coordinates cross-border health issues and health services;
- Research, technical development, and space: The EU complements Member States’ investments into scientific research and the development of innovative products;
- Development cooperation and humanitarian aid: The EU supplements and helps coordinate Member States’ activities in the area of international development cooperation.
The EU has supporting or special (extraordinary) competence in the following policy areas (among others), where it assists Member States:
- Foreign and security policy: The EU coordinates and implements Member States’ foreign policies wherever it makes more sense to speak with one European voice rather than national voices;
- Culture: The EU supports the creative industries, especially where it comes to cross-border cooperation, linguistic exchange, and the adaptation to the digital environment;
- Education, vocational training, and youth: The EU works to harmonise Member States’ educational systems as well as the mutual recognition of academic and vocational qualifications, and fosters the exchange of students and workers.
The European Union’s main institutions, which are involved in practically all policies and decision-making processes, are the
- Parliament, and
Even though the EU’s institutions are not directly comparable with national structures, it may be helpful to conceive of them like this:
- The Council collectively functions, at European level, similar to a national head of state or government, such as a prime minister, president, or chancellor. It reflects the opinion and strategy of the current governments.
- The Parliament represents the European citizens in pretty much the same way as national parliaments represent theirs, only that the European Parliament’s powers are limited to certain areas and co-decision mechanisms.
- The Commission is somewhat similar to ministries at national level. Like ministers, the Commissioners have specific portfolios and head up the European executive. The Commission works autonomously within its competences, and acts at the behest of the Council and Parliament to prepare new laws and regulations.
The Council is the representation of the governments of all EU Member States. It is, in turn, divided into two elements, which may easily be confused:
- The European Council, which is the assembly of the heads of state and government (i.e., prime ministers, presidents, chancellors) of the Member States; and
- The Council of the European Union, which is the assembly of government ministers of the Member States.
The European Council is composed of the heads of state and government, but also includes the President of the European Commission as well as the EU’s foreign minister, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security. Sometimes, the President of the European Parliament is invited to join as well. The European Council is chaired by a permanent President, who is elected for terms of 2.5 years; the position is currently held by Donald Tusk.
As a rule, the European Council meets 4 times a year to discuss recent developments and to set the strategic course of the European Union. However, its President calls for additional meetings whenever the situation demands it. Over the last years, there were many such extraordinary sessions, for instance related to the financial crisis in Greece or on the occasion of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom.
The European Council makes its decisions based on two procedures:
- Double majority; and
The double majority (or qualified majority) procedure is in place for most policy areas. It means that a decision is officially adopted if a majority of the Member States vote “yes”, and at the same time the “yes” votes represent a minimum of 65% of the European population. In practice, this means that a coalition of smaller EU Member States cannot easily outvote the large Member States such as Germany, France, or Poland. However, it also means that individual Member States – the large ones included – can be outvoted in the European Council, yet are still under the obligation to comply with the majority’s decision.
Unanimity, i.e., consent of all Member States, is required for policy areas of particular sensitivity or concern in the light of the national sovereignty of the Member States. These areas are taxation, social security and social protection, the accession of new countries to the EU, foreign policy, common defence policy, and operational police cooperation between EU countries.
However, the European Council is not directly involved in the European law-making process.
The Council of the European Union, in contrast, is the meeting of the Member States’ ministers or state secretaries concerned with the various specific policy areas, such as employment, foreign affairs, security, etc. This means that depending on the given topic, different Member States representatives come together each time – the various Council configurations.
Two configurations stand out: The General Affairs Council, which has an overall coordinating role and deals with institutional and administrative matters, and the Foreign Affairs Council. The latter has several configurations in itself, depending on whether foreign policy in general, security and defence, development cooperation, or foreign trade are discussed. This entails that the Foreign Affairs Council is composed of the Member States’ foreign, defence, development, or trade ministers, depending on the agenda.
While the meetings related to foreign affairs are always chaired by the permanent High Representative, all other thematic meetings are chaired by the so-called “rotating EU presidency”. This means that every half year, another Member State takes over the role to coordinate policy making in the Council of the European Union.
The Council adopts European laws and the EU’s budget on behalf of the Member States, and concludes agreements with other countries or international organisations. In concert with the European Parliament, it is the main decision-making body of the EU. Most decisions of the Council require a qualified majority (see above); however, a group of at least four Member States that represent no less than 35% of the EU’s population, may veto majority decisions. Like in the European Council, some topics require unanimity.
There are multiple specialised committees and working groups of experts that prepare the Council’s sessions.
Closely affiliated with the Council of the European Union is the Eurogroup, an informal meeting of the finance ministers of the countries where the Euro is the official currency. The Eurogroup coordinates the fiscal policy and economic policy of the Eurozone. It is chaired by a permanent President, currently by Jeroen Dijsselbloem. In order to retain transparency for non-Euro EU Member States, Eurogroup decisions are voted upon in the monthly meeting of the Financial and Economic Affairs Council, but with voting rights for the Euro countries only.
Note that the European Council and the Council of the European Union must not be confused with the Council of Europe, which is based in Strasbourg. The latter is an international organisation that has no direct relation with the EU and gathers many more member countries, including Russia. The Council of Europe is better known for its European Court of Human Rights.
The European Parliament is the direct representation of the EU’s citizens at EU level. Its members are chosen in EU-wide general elections every five years. Each EU Member State has a number of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) that is proportionate to the size of its population; however, small countries have at least 6, large countries a maximum of 96 MEPs. This is meant to balance power relations in the Parliament.
The current European Parliament was elected in 2014 and has 751 members. It elects a President for a 2,5-year term; the current office holder is Martin Schulz.
Even though election campaigns for the European Parliament mostly play out on Member State level, MEPs form trans-national political groups. A group must represent at least one quarter of the Member States and have at minimum 25 members. There are currently 8 such groups:
- European People’s Party (EPP) with 215 members;
- Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) with 189 members;
- European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) with 74 members;
- Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) with 70 members;
- European United Left – Nordic Left (GUE/NGL) with 52 members;
- Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA with 50 members);
- Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) with 46 members; and
- Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) with 39 members.
Another 16 MEPs are not attached to a political group.
The European Parliament passes EU laws and adopts the EU budget together with the Council of the European Union, has a say in international agreements and enlargement of the EU, and holds the European Commission as well as all other EU institutions accountable on behalf of the citizens.
The Parliament elects the President of the European Commission and approves his or her selection of Commissioners. To this end, the Parliament conducts hearings, first with the candidate for President of the Commission, and later with all Commissioner candidates. However, MEPs can only approve or disapprove the entire college of Commissioners at once. Hence, if only a single Commissioner candidate does not meet the EP’s standards, the entire Commission cannot assume office. During the Commission’s term in office, the Parliament can make a motion of censure, and thereby force the Commission to resign at any time.
Legislative work and the related negotiations with other EU Institutions are conducted by thematic Committees, such as for international trade, regional development, budget control, and so on. Most of this goes on in Brussels, whereas plenary meetings are held on a monthly basis in Strasbourg, which is the second seat of the European Parliament.
The Parliament takes decisions by absolute majority, i.e., more than half of the votes must be in favour of the proposal.
The European Commission is the executive branch of the European Union. It is composed of the President of the European Commission and a college of 27 Commissioners. Every Member State delegates one Commissioner. The college of Commissioners takes all decisions collectively, no matter what subject area is concerned.
While the President is elected by the European Parliament, it is the President’s task to negotiate with the Member States about the individuals who will be dispatched as Commissioners. Ultimately, the Member States decide about the person they delegate, while the President has the final word assigning thematic portfolios to them and structuring the Commission.
The Juncker Commission, which is in office since November 2014, has a First Vice-President in charge of fundamental policy matters, as well as five Vice-Presidents who coordinate cross-cutting issues, namely economic growth policy, budget, energy, the digital single market, and financial stability and the Euro. The remaining 19 Commissioners have specialised thematic portfolios. A special position is held by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, who is a Vice-President of the Commission and at the same time member of the Council.
The European Commission has four main responsibilities:
- It manages and implements the EU’s policies, including the required budgets;
- It enforces EU law and holds Member States accountable for non-compliance;
- It drafts and proposes new laws; and
- It represents the EU internationally, especially in the areas of trade and humanitarian aid.
However, when people mention “the Commission”, most of the time they refer to the administrative body which reports to the Commissioners and is in charge of day-to-day practical implementation of all EU policies. By far most interactions of citizens, businesses, organisations, national and foreign authorities, and contractors with the European Union are actually with the various departments of the European Commission. The Commission is divided into
- Currently 33 Directorate-Generals (or departments), which are in charge of the EU’s policy areas; and
- Currently 12 Services, which take care of administrative, legal and audit issues, or perform special overarching tasks.
There is no parallelism between Commissioners and Directorate-Generals (DGs) or Services; several departments may report to a single Commissioner, and some departments in fact also report to more than one Commissioner at a time.
To name only a few Directorate-Generals by way of example:
- Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations (NEAR);
- International Cooperation and Development (DEVCO);
- Communications (COMM); not to be confused with
- Communications Networks, Content and Technology (CNECT);
- Mobility and Transport (MOVE);
- Migration and Home Affairs (HOME);
- Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs (GROW).
Political priorities of the Juncker Commission
Jean-Claude Juncker, the current President of the European Commission, at the beginning of his term in office set out ten political priorities:
- Jobs, growth, and investment: public support to boost private investments into the real economy, i.e., into areas that produce something tangible or deliver services that meet a demand in daily life or business, rather than merely financial investments;
- Digital Single Market: enabling the seamless exchange of digital goods across European borders to match the single market for physical goods;
- Energy Union and climate: using the EU’s geographical variety and energy transport infrastructure to reduce everybody’s dependency on fossil fuels and fuel import, and thereby reducing negative environmental and climate impacts;
- Internal Market: strengthening the manufacturing sector and cross-border trade, and working against tax evasion strategies as well as tax fraud;
- A deeper and fairer Monetary Union: learning lessons from the 2009 European debt crisis and fiscal issues of some Member States to establish better control and mitigation mechanisms;
- A balanced EU-US Free Trade Agreement: reaping the economic benefits from free trade with the United States of America, better known as TTIP, without sacrificing European consumer protection standards;
- Justice and Fundamental Rights: fighting against corruption, cross-border crime, and terrorism, and establishing better data privacy standards;
- Migration: managing the refugee situation and irregular migration in a humanitarian and security-conscious fashion, and establishing a common European policy on legal migration;
- A stronger global actor: strengthening cooperation between Member States in defence as well as military procurement; and
- Democratic change: improving democratic and political governance in the EU as opposed to perceived technocratic decision-making.
Other important EU institutions
Next to Council, Parliament, and Commission, the European Union has a number of further official institutions, which contribute to its objectives.
Like the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the European External Action Service (EEAS) assumes an intermediate and overlapping position in the EU’s grand scheme of things. As the EU’s own diplomatic service and foreign policy coordination office, it is neither part of the Council, nor the Commission, but collaborates with both institutions very closely. The EEAS also runs the EU’s Delegations, which are essentially the Union’s embassies around the world.
The European Central Bank (ECB) manages the Euro and the related monetary policies, while the European Investment Bank (EIB) supplies businesses with low-interest loans in order to pursue projects that are in the EU’s interest.
The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) is an advisory body that unites workers’ and employers’ organisations in order to make sure that the interests of both sides are reflected in EU laws and policies in a balanced and fair fashion. The Committee of the Regions (CoR) fulfils the same function for local and regional governments across the EU.
Last, but not least, the EU has several institutions tasked with oversight, mediation, and the settlement of disputes. They are the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), the European Court of Auditors (ECA), the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS), and the European Ombudsman. The latter is a body where any person or business can lodge a complaint about incorrect or unfair actions of the European Institutions, and which helps resolve justified grievances.
On top of those institutions, the EU also has a number of specialised agencies. The European Police Office (EUROPOL) or the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) are widely known examples. Others include the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), the European Banking Authority (EBA), and the Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). Agencies are located in places all over the European Union.
How are laws made in the EU?
The European Union has three kinds of legislation:
- Regulations: Laws that take effect in all EU Member States directly and without any local adoption or ratification. They supersede national laws and typically relate to matters where the EU has exclusive competence.
- Directives: Laws that specify a result or objective that is mandatory for all Member States and essentially define a minimum threshold. It is up to the Member States to transpose directives into national law, and work out how they are best implemented, as long as they do not fall below the thresholds set by the EU. Directives are typically related to matters where the EU has shared competence.
- Decisions: Executive decisions by the responsible EU authorities that relate to the implementation of existing European law. They take direct effect.
The EU can also issue recommendations and opinions, but without any binding effect.
The ordinary legislative procedure
Most EU laws are made through the ordinary legislative procedure. Upon request of the Parliament or the Council, or on its own initiative, the European Commission drafts a proposal. This proposal is usually informed by a complex consultation process, where the Commission draws on the expertise of the relevant stakeholders, i.e., individuals, organisations, governments, or businesses which will be affected by the eventual law. In many cases, the European Economic and Social Committee or the Committee of the Regions provide input as well.
The draft law is then discussed by the Parliament – or rather by the responsible Committee, which usually proposes amendments that reflect the Parliament’s political intentions. After endorsement in a plenary session, the amended draft law is forwarded to the Council, which can either adopt the law as is, or suggest changes of its own. In the latter case, the draft law goes back to the Parliament, and the same process starts anew. If there is still no agreement between the Parliament and the Council, a conciliation committee is formed with the aim to negotiate a mutually acceptable compromise for the law in question. Subsequently, both legislative bodies, Parliament and Council, must adopt or reject the compromise proposal according to their respective voting rules. If rejected at this stage, the law is off the table for good.
Of course, the parliaments of EU Member States are kept in the loop of the European law-making process as well so they can voice their opinions, raise concerns, and double-check that the subsidiarity principle is applied.
In a very limited number of areas, there are exceptions to the standard law-making procedure. When exemptions from internal market or competition laws are concerned, the consultation procedure takes effect. This means that the Council is obliged to ask for the Parliament’s opinion, but is not bound by it.
In the consent procedure, the Parliament cannot make amendments to a law, but only approve or reject it wholesale. This is the case, for instance, when negotiations about international treaties were concluded by the Commission. The Parliament’s decision is final either way and cannot be overridden.
Practical decision-making in the EU
Even though the Commissioners are delegated by the Member States’ governments, and the Commission’s staff is composed of citizens of the Member States, the institution is obliged to have solely the common European interest in mind. In many cases, this leads to disagreements with the Member States. As a consequence, the Commission negotiates or consults with its relevant counterparts in the national governments and administrations.
In keeping with its remit, the Commission is frequently rather technical and strict; however, the current President, Jean-Claude Juncker, advocates for a more political Commission.
In the Council, several hundred committees and working groups hash out the fine print on any issue before the ministers (in the Council of the European Union) or heads of state or government (in the European Council) discuss and decide on it. All Member States are represented by subject-matter experts at the working level who may negotiate for extended periods of time. In the Council, the founding members of the EU – Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxemburg, and the Netherlands – tend to take the initiative on many topics; it is often their negotiation skill that makes or breaks a decision.
The Council is about finding an equilibrium between the Member States’ interests. Every time a Member State government changes, the Council changes as well and its power balance shifts.
The European Parliament is a sounding board for a broader political spectrum in the EU. That is because, other than the Council, it is not only made up of representatives of the ruling parties in the various Member States, but also of national oppositions. True to its role, it is the most public of the EU’s institutions and tends to be preoccupied in particular with social and cultural perspectives on the European Union. The Parliament’s committees are the places where consensus is created; it often depends on the chairperson’s skills and tenacity how productive they are.
Since the political groups in the Parliament consist of similarly-minded political parties from various Member States, national perspectives play a smaller part than in the Council.
In all, the constellation of Council, Commission, and Parliament, all with their different tasks and characteristics, has proven to be a powerful mechanism to reach consensus even on highly contentious topics, and imposes well-functioning checks and balances on the European Union. That this is hard and takes time goes with the territory. Still, despite the long history of treaties seeking to improve the EU’s governance, the current status should not be seen as final. Member States and citizens’ preferences and demands change (as witnessed by the UK’s 2016 referendum to leave the Union); at the same time, geopolitical or global economic developments may require that the EU positons itself anew.
At times, the frustration or impatience of some governments with the EU’s opinion-forming and decision-making processes leads to their bypassing the Union with direct arrangements between the governments of Member States outside the framework of the EU. In many cases, though, such inter-governmental actions eventually make it into the EU proper, such as most prominently the Schengen Agreement.
The EU also faces a lot of criticism as a matter of course. Perhaps the most important barrier to discussing and resolving such criticism is that it is very difficult to communicate the European Union appropriately to its citizens. The many different languages stand in the way of a shared and unified understanding, even as proficiency in the bridge language English keeps increasing. Moreover, all Member States have their own public spheres which are largely independent from each other, while there is hardly any European public. In fact, there are also no mainstream media that address the EU as a whole, only a handful of specialised publications.
Accordingly, many policy and opinion makers tend to focus on their national audiences and to pass off responsibility for any unpopular measures to “Brussels” – even as their own governments in the Council and their own Members of the European Parliament agree to the relevant EU law or regulation. This often leads to a gap in public perception between national and EU-level policy making, and thus to a lack of ownership which, in turn, may slow down or obstruct the Union’s progress.
The European Neighbourhood Policy
The European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) was launched in response to the 2004 EU Enlargement, which moved the Union’s external borders to the east and south, and thereby also changed the EU’s very notion of neighbouring countries and external borders. While most of the previous direct neighbours of the EU had had a short-term perspective for EU membership and eventually acceded, the new neighbours were much more diverse and had different aspirations for the future.
The ENP enjoys a special position in the context of the European Union’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). It aims to deepen existing political and economic relations, and to help countries in crisis in their efforts to foster stability and to respond to current economic, social, and security challenges. That said, values such as democracy, the rule of law, and human rights form the basis for the EU’s engagement.
The European Neighbourhood Policy is managed jointly by the European External Action Service (EEAS) and the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations (NEAR). The EU Delegations (i.e., the EU’s equivalent of embassies) to the Neighbourhood Countries play a key role in the ENP as well.
Which countries are part of the ENP?
The countries concerned are divided into two groups that differ in terms of both geography and culture: The neighbours in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region, namely
which are part of the Eastern Partnership (EaP), and the neighbours on the southern and eastern Mediterranean rim, which are simultaneously part of the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), namely
Within this roster of countries, Belarus is only involved in a very limited way. Russia is not part of the ENP, but engages in cross-border cooperation activities which are, in turn, an element of the ENP. At the same time, Libya and Syria are currently not in a situation to implement much, if any, constructive policy cooperation with the European Union.
The ENP is funded primarily through the European Neighbourhood Instrument (ENI), which pledges €15.4 billion for the period 2014-2020. The ENI has replaced the previous European Neighbourhood and Partnership Instrument (ENPI) that operated from 2007-2013.
Accordingly, the ENP is the policy that sets the strategic objectives of cooperation, while the ENI provides the tools and funds for implementation.
The ENI is divided into four types of actions:
- Bilateral programmes, i.e., direct cooperation between the EU and individual neighbourhood countries;
- Regional programmes, i.e., actions that address the entire eastern or southern neighbourhood, respectively;
- Programmes covering the entire EU Neighbourhood at once, such as the Neighbourhood Investment Facility (NIF), which supports the creation of water, power, and transport infrastructure, as well as Erasmus+, the renowned exchange programme for students, volunteers, and academic teachers; and
- Cross-border cooperation between individual EU Member States and neighbouring countries.
Aside from the ENI, the neighbourhood countries benefit on a case-by-case basis from the
- Development Cooperation Instrument (DCI), which supports actions to reduce poverty;
- European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), which supports the rule of law, democratic governance, freedom and fundamental rights; and
- Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace (IcSP), which is used to respond to crisis situations.
Typically, the EU seeks to agree with the ENP countries on Action Plans (in the south) and Association Agendas (in the east), in order to lay down a common agenda for 3-5 year periods. Currently, such plans are in place with all states involved, with the exception of Syria, Libya, Algeria, and Belarus.
With many countries (Algeria, Egypt, Georgia, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Moldova, Morocco, and Tunisia), the EU has already concluded Association Agreements, such agreements are under ratification (Ukraine; the agreement is already being applied provisionally), or in negotiation (Armenia, Azerbaijan). Libya and Syria are currently on hold because of the local conflict situations.
Association Agreements are the closest that a country can come to the European Union before, or instead of, becoming a candidate for EU membership. They provide for the partner country’s harmonisation process with the EU Acquis and include privileged trade relations – meaning that the country can more easily access certain sectors of the European Single Market. With Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, the EU has even agreed on more profound and more integrative Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas (DCFTA). DCFTAs are also in the works with Tunisia and Morocco.
Morocco had even applied to join in the European Communities back in 1987, but was rejected on the grounds that it was geographically not a European country. A few years later, the Copenhagen Criteria also introduced a set of political and economic preconditions which a country must meet in order to be considered for membership – essentially stable democratic governance, a market economy, and compliance with human rights.
Like for the EU’s foreign and development policies, responsibility for the ENP is shared between four actors: the Foreign Affairs Council, the European External Action Service (EEAS), the European Commission’s Directorate Generals International Cooperation and Development (DEVCO, also known as EuropeAid) and Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations (NEAR), as well as the European Parliament. Council and Commission are bridged by the special role of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, who is simultaneously a member of both institutions: Vice-President of the European Commission, and President of the Foreign Affairs Council (among other roles).
The Council makes the decisions on foreign and neighbourhood policies, and is ultimately responsible. The EEAS takes the role of the EU’s foreign ministry and diplomatic service, while the Commission’s Directorate-Generals NEAR and DEVCO manage the practical implementation and financing of the Neighbourhood Policy. The Parliament contributes to the policy-making process with resolutions and during the legislative procedure.
For instance, the project OPEN Media Hub is under the purview of DG NEAR. It is part of the OPEN Neighbourhood Programme, which, in turn, is the communication and outreach strand of the European Neighbourhood Instrument (ENI), the ENP’s funding source. The ENI was established by the European Council and Parliament through the regular legislative procedure based on the appropriate articles of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. The implementation of this project is also coordinated with the EU Delegations in the partner countries, which are part of the EEAS, and must be consistent with the EEAS’ work related to the region.
The 2015 ENP review: Neighbourhood relations today
Since the ENP’s launch, the region has seen a number of major developments that changed the landscape substantially, among them the Maidan protests and Russian military action in eastern Ukraine and Crimea, the uprisings of the Arab Spring and their aftermath, the violent conflict in Syria and Libya, and the rise of the so-called “Islamic State”, not to mention many domestic power shifts. In particular the southern countries are also affected in various ways by the current refugee crisis.
These developments called for a stocktaking and realignment of the European Neighbourhood Policy. In 2015, the EU conducted a consultation on the topic, which helped formulate the Review of the ENP. The document describes how the EU will respond to the changed environment and new challenges.
The old ENP had been modelled after the EU’s Enlargement Policy, which is designed successively to bring up the Candidate Country to the EU’s standards and practices across all policy sectors. This is a complex and long-term endeavour that requires strong commitment from the candidate, and the threshold to become an EU Member State is very high. However, while some EU neighbours do have a membership perspective, others do not – either because they are not interested in the first place for political reasons, or because their economy and governance is so fundamentally different from the European Union that the required degree of harmonisation is, at best, a vision for the distant future. Hence, it became clear that a more differentiated approach was called for.
The new ENP is therefore centred around the following key notions:
- Fostering economic and political stability as needed, especially in countries afflicted by crises (which, in one way or another, holds true for most of them);
- Differentiated degrees of cooperation and rapprochement, resulting in a stronger EU engagement with the partners keenest on such relations;
- More pragmatic policy-making on the basis of common interests related to concrete and pressing issues; and
- Promotion of universal values rather than the more specific values enshrined in the treaties of the EU and its Charter of Fundamental Rights.
As a consequence, five thematic policy priority areas are now emerging:
- Economic growth, employment, and economic modernisation;
- Energy supply security and sustainability, including climate change mitigation;
- Transport and infrastructures at the regional level;
- Management of migration and mobility, including the refugee crisis; and
- Security and the countering of radicalisation and terrorism.
These themes will apply to all participating countries in a differentiated manner, but at the same time always receive overarching, regional attention.
Up-to-date information on all areas of the ENP, recent and upcoming events, and publications can be found on the website EU Neighbourhood Information Centre.
European Union for journalists
The European Union is a highly complex system – for journalists no less than for citizens. However, the basic information provided in this short guide should already facilitate its navigation. One of the main things always to keep in mind is: Understanding the EU always requires background and awareness of the bigger picture, of the various interests and stakeholders at play. While some information is merely factual, other issues are politicised and thus cannot be taken at face value until one has heard multiple viewpoints.
As a multi-national bureaucracy with only a limited amount of native English speakers and many legal nuances, the EU’s language is not always very accessible for outsiders. This list of frequently used EU jargon helps understand official documents, and the EU’s legal database EUR-Lex also has a useful glossary.
Finding EU information from outside Brussels
In general, the various websites of the EU institutions offer a wealth of information: the latest press releases, working documents currently under debate, explanations of policy areas, and even material from the EU’s history. Everything starts with the Europa website, which eventually gives directions to anywhere else in the EU cosmos. If a query is more specific, it makes sense directly to go to the respective institution’s website, most importantly
- Parliament; and
The Internet addresses of many other institutions and bodies of the EU are listed elsewhere in this guide. Typically, the online offerings of the EU are available in multiple languages – all in English, some at least in English, French, and German, and many in all 24 official languages of the EU. If the contents relates to a third country, in many cases the information is also accessible in that country’s language; this is true in particular for the EU’s embassies, the EU Delegations.
Pro tip: It is not always easy to find things on the sprawling Europa website, not even with the site’s own search function. A good alternative option is using a customised Google search that is restricted to the domain europa.eu. Just enter the command “site:europa.eu” into Google’s search box, leave a space, and then enter the keywords you are searching for. This will only return results that are part of the EU’s official websites, and they are often ranked in a more useful way than Europa’s own search.
For journalists looking for a direct impression of what goes on at the EU, or who need audiovisual materials, the institutions maintain live streaming services and extensive repositories of audiovisual materials (videos, photos, and audio):
- The Audiovisual Service of the European Commission, also known as Europe by Satellite (EbS), offers live streaming of press conferences and events, as well as freely to use recorded material. The service also covers sessions of the European Parliament and some Council of Ministers press conferences, as well as many other current EU topics.
- The European Parliament’s audiovisual service EuroparlTV covers parliamentary sessions, committee meetings and press briefings live, and offers rights free recordings and background videos as well. Especially committee sessions may be interesting once a topic of interest heats up, because this is where thematic debates come to a head.
- Of course, the European Council has a live streaming service, too, where press conferences or public Council sessions can be watched. It also has a database of ready-made videos and photos to go with the live coverage, which are available for re-use by media.
All the materials are available in professional standards and free of charge for broadcasters, news agencies, written press, educational purposes, and anyone wishing to spread information on the activities of the European Union.
The EU Institutions also offer production support to audiovisual media, namely TV and radio studios, editing facilities, online streaming connections, various tools, and camera crews, so that broadcasters and journalists do not need to set up their own costly infrastructure for occasional reporting from Brussels and Strasbourg.
Naturally, the institutions proffer their press releases online as well. The permanently updated EU Newsroom is the ultimate source of official information of the European Union across all institutions and bodies. It is complemented by
- The European Commission’s news and speeches as well as its searchable Press Releases Database;
- The European Parliament’s newsroom; and
- The Council’s press releases and statements.
In most cases, it is possible to subscribe to all news releases, or to specific themes and subject areas, by email and RSS.
The EU’s statistics office, Eurostat, offers extensive quantitative information on all aspects of the European Union and its policies.
EU media contacts
Before launching into EU reporting, it is helpful to be aware of the ground rules that apply. “On the record” is straightforward: the speaker may be quoted verbatim and by name. If a conversation or statement is “off the record”, the speaker must not be quoted and cannot be identified as the source of the information. In such cases, it is customary to say something like “EU sources indicated…” or “sources familiar with the topic said…”. And finally, there are “background” conversations, which are not quotable nor attributable and serve only the journalist’s general understanding of a matter and its developments.
Accordingly, it is essential to be aware which briefings, statements, interviews, or conversations are on or off the record, or on background. When in doubt, it is advisable to ask expressly, because otherwise both the journalist and the source may face severe trouble.
All EU institutions have press officers whose job it is to answer journalists’ questions; however, it is sometimes difficult to get their attention, especially for smaller and non-EU news organisations. For the European Commission, contact information can be found on the website of the Spokesperson’s Service. Generally speaking, the spokespeople are the only officials apart from Commissioners and Directors-General in the Commission who are allowed to speak on the record on behalf of the institution. Civil servants working in the Commission’s Directorates-General (DGs) are not supposed to speak to the media. Nevertheless, once a working relationship has been established with an official, they can usually be quoted “off the record”, and can in any case give valuable background information.
The Council press officers do not give any regular briefings and they do not speak on the record – with the notable exception of the Spokesperson of the Secretary General of the Council. The press officers are, however, very knowledgeable about the particular subject they follow and can give valuable background and technical information.
Nevertheless, since the national governments which make up the Council all have their own interdepartmental press offices which are well in tune with journalists from their national press, they tend to be the main source of information. The view they give is often from a national perspective, but by talking to press officers and journalists from other member countries it is possible to get an idea of what is really going on. Spokespeople from the country holding the rotating presidency of the EU will also generally speak on the record about their plans and results in the Council during their six months’ term in office.
The European Parliament is the most open and accessible of the EU’s main institutions. All its meetings are held in public, and members, the MEPs, are usually eager to speak on the record to reporters, as it provides them with valuable exposure among their electorates. Journalists often forget that MEPs are their own best spokespeople. Some are highly knowledgeable, most are able to speak in sound bites, and all are eager to be quoted on the record. However, if you cannot get a response from a politician, try one of the Parliament’s press officers. They are an excellent source to explain the details of legislation being discussed or its background. Often, the MEP’s assistants can provide useful background material and information, too. Other avenues to information are the EP Committee’s Press officers, and the press officers of the main political groups.
The EU Whoiswho has a directory of all of the Institutions’ personnel, which can be navigated by name or organisational entity. Especially the latter function can be quite useful to get a head start on cutting through the abundance of departments, bodies, agencies, etc., of the European Union.
Visiting journalists with national accreditation can attend EU press events by contacting the press room team by e-mail at least 24 hours in advance. Special accreditation is usually needed for specific events (such as major press conferences with increased security measures or European Councils) for security reasons.
Permanent accreditation to the European Commission entitles journalists, TV crews and photographers to an entry card which is also recognised by the Council and the European Parliament. It also makes accreditation to EU special events, e.g. summits, easier and quicker. Permanent accreditation requires proof of professional status as well as proof that the journalist has his/her main or secondary residence in or near Brussels.
The Accreditation Office of the Directorate-General for Communication has all pertinent information on its website, complete with a link to an online accreditation application form (login required).
The Commission’s midday briefing
The European Commission hosts the midday briefing for accredited members of the Brussels’ press corps. The midday briefing usually sees Commission spokespeople presenting the latest proposals or decisions adopted by the Commission and then fielding questions on them. Commissioners themselves will make an appearance when they have a major proposal to announce. The event is always streamed live.
The briefing provides an overview of the day’s press releases in summary. The midday briefing is also an excellent way of meeting journalists from other countries. Creating a network of well-informed colleagues gives everybody a more rounded view on a particular subject and the benefit of knowing what the story is in other EU countries.
Making sense of the European Union and its policies, the interdependencies between the EU and its Member States, the main positions in current policy debates, and in particular long-term developments is difficult, in particular when relying on official documents only.
However, there are plenty of so-called Think Tanks – research institutes and advocacy groups that analyse the EU’s policies and express their own interpretation of them, mostly including advice and commentary. While some EU think tanks are effectively neutral, others argue from the perspective of specific vested interests. So like with most other EU sources, it is usually unwise just to rely on one of them and take their word at face value.
The most useful entry point for information provided by EU think tanks is the Council Library’s Think Tank Review. Every month, the library publishes a thematically differentiated overview of the latest papers with a short summary and link to the original source. Perusing this digest and following up on the recommended publications often proves to be the fast track to understanding the European Union in depth and without too much jargon.
Think tank experts are also great interview partners in order to get a knowledgeable outside point of view, mostly on the record, but sometimes also off the record or on background.
Lobbies are organisations that represent the various industry sectors or other special interests vis-à-vis the European Union. Literally every business and policy sector has a lobby in Brussels.
In many cases, such lobbies are EU-level groups of national associations in the same sector. For instance, the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) has members such as the German consumer’s rights federation and the French organisation that performs quality tests of consumer products. The European Trade Union Confederation bundles the interests of national trade union associations. The same goes for highly specialised business areas such as the EU Vegetable Oil and Oatmeal Industry, the European Banking Federation, and many more.
Other lobby organisations are comprised of direct members across the EU. For instance, the Association of Commercial Television in Europe represents media companies in EU Member States and beyond, such as Sanoma in Finland, or Canal+ Group in France. The European Foundation Centre is composed of individual foundations in and around the EU. European Digital Rights is the Brussels arm of national organisations focusing on data privacy, freedom of expression, and copyright issues. And so on.
While lobbies obviously represent vested interests and therefore are biased by definition, their experts are nevertheless valuable and highly specialised information sources for journalists – as long as their statements are taken with a grain of salt and double-checked with other sources. Lobby spokespersons usually go on the record with their remarks, but may also share background information.
The EU’s Transparency Register provides a very useful comprehensive and easily searchable directory of lobbies and other advocacy groups. All registered groups state their goals, list their members or clients, inform about their budget, and provide contact information.
Follow the money: Finding funding opportunities and recipients of EU financial support
Many European Union policies are implemented with the help of third parties. This falls into two main categories: grants, which are non-repayable subsidies given mostly to not-for-profit organisations, and tenders, where the EU buys goods or services at market prices.
Such funding provides business opportunities to companies in Europe and the world, and allows non-governmental organisations of all stripes to work towards their objectives in accord with the EU. Accordingly, the EU’s projects in a country or thematic sector reflect its current priorities and activities, and reveal the amounts given to, as well as the names and contact details of, partners and contractors the EU chooses to work with.
Information is available in multiple places. The website of every EU Institution, Directorate-General, agency, or Delegation has a section on grants and tenders, usually accompanied by an archive of past calls. Similarly, the websites of all Delegations have a section on current and recently finished projects in the respective country.
The most comprehensive online source is Tenders Electronic Daily (TED), a huge central database of public procurement activities in the European Union and its Member States, containing pre-announcements, calls for tender (frequently including detailed terms of reference), and in many cases also award notices indicating who eventually won the contract.
Pro tip: TED is so sprawling and complex that it is, in fact, rather difficult to use and needs a lot of practice; however, it allows users to configure highly specific searches and to subscribe to related email and RSS updates. Once properly set up, this functionality allows anybody easily to keep an eye on everything that goes on in their area of interest. In addition, the eTendering section of TED lets users specifically filter EU procurements by department, date, and other criteria.
EuropeAid, the European Commission’s Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development, which, inter alia, deals with most funding opportunities related to the European Neighbourhood Policy, has its own searchable database for calls for proposals and calls for tender, where it is possible to filter, among other criteria, by country or region.
The EU’s Financial Transparency System is a key resource to identify the recipients of EU money in the recent past (from 2007 onwards), complete with amounts, the relevant EU programme, the responsible EU department, and the opportunity to ask for additional details.
And last, but not least, there is the European Union Open Data Portal, a repository of machine readable and exportable statistical and other information related to the EU’s policies and activity areas. Using the portal requires a bit of expertise, but then it allows anybody freely to download, sort, sift through, visualise, and process the available information. For example, both the abovementioned Transparency Register and TED are available for download.
There are a few media outlets which specialise in the European Union at a supranational level. However, they effectively address only the “Brussels bubble” of EU officials, Members of the European Parliament, lobbyists, think tanks, political observers, and PR companies. Since they are often even more into insider jargon than the official institutions, it may be hard to follow them. Still, they are a great indicator of current hot topics, controversial debates, and political scandals.
The most important EU media are:
- Politico Europe;
- New Europe; and
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