Roberta Metsola

Europe in a nutshell

What is the European Parliament (EP)?

The EP is the institution of the European Union (EU) that represents the citizens of Europe. Its members are elected every five years. Each MemberState is represented by a number of members decided according to a formula that is tied on the country’s population. Following the entry into force of the Treaty of LisbonMalta has been allocated six seats.

The European Parliament is the only directly-elected EU body and one of the largest democratic assemblies in the world. Its 754 Members are there to represent the EU’s 500 million citizens.

The power of the EP has increased drastically since the creation of the European Union. Whereas for many years, it used to merely have a consultative role, the EP is now on an equal footing with the Council when legislating on a whole series of important issues including the free movement of workers, the internal market, education, research, the environment, trans-European networks, health, culture, consumer protection, etc. The European Parliament has the power to throw out proposed legislation in these fields.

The European Parliament must also give its assent to international agreements negotiated by the Commission and to any proposed enlargement of the European Union.

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What do MEPs do?

Members of the European Parliament – or MEPs – work within plenary sessions where Parliament meets up as a whole and approves motions put before it. They also sit on the 20 standing committees set up by the European Parliament to prepare work for plenary sittings. These are related to various sectors including but not only limited to: foreign affairs, development, international trade, immigration, education and more. They consider and propose amendments to the proposals for Community legislation drawn up by the European Commission, which are also referred to the Council of the European Union.

MEPs do not sit in national delegations but are grouped in transnational political groups according to their political ties. Members who represent the PN in the EP sit together with the EPP-ED group, the largest group in the European Parliament. Although the MEPs sit in party groupings the national interest is still safeguarded and often MEPs vote together on issues of national importance.

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When are MEPs elected?

The Members of the European Parliament are elected every five years. Voting systems vary, depending on the country. MEPs exercise their mandate independently and cannot be bound by instructions or receive a binding mandate. Although the voting system in Malta is the same as that for the general election (giving 1st, 2nd, 3rd etc preference to the candidate of your choice), for the EP elections every voter votes for the same list of candidates.


What is the Council of the European Union (Council of Ministers)?

This is the EU’s main deciding body also known as the Council of Ministers. Every Council meeting is attended by minister from each EU country responsible for the topic that will be on the agenda: foreign affairs, agriculture, transport, environment, justice and home affairs etc. Decisions are taken either by a simple majority vote, qualified majority vote or by unanimity depending on the subject that will form the substance of the Decision being taken. The EU Member States take it in turns to hold the Council Presidency for a six-month period. Malta’s will hold the Council Presidency for the first six months of 2017.

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What is the European Council?

The European Council meets on average four times a year. Heads of State of each country (either president or prime minister depending on the constitutional makeup of the MemberState) meet to discuss pressing international issues on which the EU speak with one voice. The European Council is chaired by the president or prime minister of the country holding the presidency of the Council of the European Union at the time. Malta is represented by the Prime Minister at the European Council.


What is the European Commission?

The European Commission is considered to be the ‘guardian of the Treaties’. Independent from any national government, its role is to ensure that the European laws adopted by the Council and Parliament are being implemented in the Member States. If they are not, the Commission can take the Member States to the Court of Justice for the Court to oblige it to comply with EU law.

The European Commission implements the decisions taken by the Council and manages the EU’s common policies, such as research and technology, overseas aid, regional development, etc. It also manages the budget for these policies

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When and how are Commissioners chosen?

Each Member State appoints one Commissioner. Commissioners are appointed for a five-year term and the Commission as a bloc is answerable to the EP.  The Commissioner from Malta is Dr Tonio Borg. He has been responsible for Health and Consumer Policy since 2012. Before Commissioners are appointed they must undergo a hearing in front of the European Parliament.


What is the European Court of Justice?

The European Court of Justice (ECJ), located in Luxembourg, is made up of one judge from each EU country (27 judges in all), assisted by eight advocates-general. They are appointed by joint agreement of the governments of the member states for a renewable term of six years. The Court’s role is to ensure that EU law is complied with, and that the Treaties are correctly interpreted and applied. Mr Justice Anthony Borg Barthet has been the Maltese judge in the ECJ since 2004.

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What is the Committee of Regions?

The Committee of the Regions (CoR) is made up of representatives of regional and local government proposed by the Member States and appointed by the Council for a four-year term. The Council and Commission must consult the CoR on matters of relevance to the regions, and it may also issue opinions on its own initiative.


What is Frontex?

Frontex, an EU agency based in Warsaw, was created as a specialised and independent body to coordinate the operational cooperation between Member States in the field of border security. It complements and provides particular added value to the national border management systems of the Member States.

Frontex focuses on six principal areas:

  • It carries out risk analysis, assessing threats, taking into consideration vulnerabilities, and weighing consequences to ensure the right amount of protection for the Member States
  • Coordination of operational cooperation between Member Sates in the field of management of external borders by strengthening border security through coordination of States’ actions in managing their external borders
  • Assistance to Member States in the training of national border guards, including the establishment of common training standards to enable the Integrated Border Security system to function better
  • Following up the development of research relevant for the control and surveillance of external borders strengthening border control capabilities of border guard institutions of the Member States keeping up to date with new technology
  • Assistance to Member States in circumstances requiring increased technical and operational assistance at external borders to readily respond to short-notice events
  • Providing Member States with the necessary support in organising joint return operations as well as seeking the best ways to acquire travel documents and removing illegal third country nationals.

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What is the European Asylum Support Office (EASO)?

EASO is an agency of the European Union that plays a key role in the concrete development of the Common European Asylum System. It was established with the aim of enhancing practical cooperation on asylum matters and helping Member States fulfil their European and international obligations to give protection to people in need. EASO acts as a centre of expertise on asylum. It also provides support to Member States whose asylum and reception systems are under particular pressure. EASO’s headquarters is in Malta.

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What is the role of the European Ombudsman?

The European Ombudsman investigates complaints about maladministration in the institutions and bodies of the European Union (EU). The institutions include, among others, the European Commission, the Council of the EU and the European Parliament. The European Medicines Agency and the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions are examples of Union bodies that he can investigate. Only the Court of Justice, the Court of First Instance, and the Civil Service Tribunal acting in their judicial role do not fall within his jurisdiction.

The Ombudsman usually conducts inquiries on the basis of complaints but can also launch inquiries on his own initiative.

The Ombudsman cannot investigate:

  • complaints against national, regional or local authorities in the Member States, even when the complaints are about EU matters. Examples of such authorities are government departments, state agencies and local councils;
  • the activities of national courts or ombudsmen. The European Ombudsman is not an appeals body for decisions taken by these entities;
  • complaints against businesses or private individuals.

The Ombudsman can however deal with:

  • administrative irregularities
  • unfairness
  • discrimination
  • abuse of power
  • failure to reply
  • refusal of information
  • unnecessary delay

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What is the Schengen Agreement?

This Agreement was primarily signed to facilitate the free movement of persons within the European countries.

The main measures include:

  • the abolition of checks at common borders, replacing them with external border checks;
  • a common definition of the conditions for crossing external borders and uniform rules and procedures for checks there;
  • separation in air terminals and ports of people travelling within the Schengen area from those arriving from countries outside the area;
  • harmonisation of the conditions of entry and visas for short stays;
  • coordination between administrations on surveillance of borders (liaison officers and harmonisation of instructions and staff training);
  • the definition of the role of carriers in measures to combat illegal immigration;
  • requirement for all non-EU nationals moving from one country to another to lodge a declaration;
  • the drawing up of rules governing responsibility for examining applications from asylum seekers;
  • the introduction of cross-border rights of surveillance and hot pursuit for police forces in the Schengen States;
  • the strengthening of judicial cooperation through a faster extradition system and faster distribution of information about the enforcement of criminal judgments;
  • the creation of the Schengen Information System (SIS) – and now SIS II – an information system so that the national authorities responsible for border controls and other customs and police checks carried out in their countries, authorities for the coordination of these controls, together with the judicial authorities of these countries, can obtain information on persons or objects.

Malta became a full member of the Schengen area on 31 March 2008.

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