The Basics of the EU

The Three Pillars

The expression “the 3 pillars of the European Union” is used to illustrate how the various forms of cooperation are built up within the EU depending on which policy area and which part of the treaty provisions is involved. Each of the three pillars represents a different policy area, all three pillars being held together with a common roof and common foundations.

pic25The first pillar represents supranational cooperation. It is this cooperation which is derived from the EC Treaty, and it is within this cooperation that the EU can issue legislation, which directly binds EU member states and citizens. In other terms, in the first pillar, unlike the other two, member states have given up some of their sovereignty and EU institutions can act independently of the national governments.

Pillars 2 and 3 each contain a different type of intergovernmental cooperation. Pillar 2 represents foreign and security policy, while pillar 3 represents intergovernmental cooperation relating to police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters.

In the roof over the three pillars are the provisions that are common to the three policy areas, i.e. the provisions relating to the EU’s institutions – the Council, the Commission, etc. – which apply regardless of which policy area is concerned. The foundations for the three pillars are the provisions concerning amendment of the treaties, the admission of new members, etc.
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The EU Treaties and Institutional Reforms

(c) European Commission

(c) European Commission

After the failure of the proposed European Constitution, the Treaty of Lisbon was officially signed by EU heads of state and government in Portugal on 13 December 2007, under German Council Presidency.

This treaty is extremely difficult to read as it is basically constructed as a list of amendments to the previous treaties. It does however introduce some major changes at various levels.

From an Institutional Perspective

  • New voting rules in Council, from 2014 with a transition period till 2017: from 2014 onwards, Council needs to reach a double threshold for legislation to pass by qualified majority in Council, namely 55% of member states and 65% of the EU’s population. There is however a transition period till 2017, during which additional provisions based on the so-called “Ioannina clause” make it easier for a minority of member states (that do not even constitute a blocking minority) to delay or block a decision.
  • Appointment of a permanent Council President chairing EU Summits for a two-and-a-half years renewable term and of a High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy replacing the current EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Javier Solana and the External Relations Commissioner.
  • Reduction of the number of Commissioners (from 27 to 15 by 2014 but with little clarity on how the transition is handled) and of MEPs (maximum of 750, with a minimum of 6 and a maximum of 96 per country, and an extra MEP squeezed in by Italy, hence the expression “750 plus one”).
  • “Orange card” given to national parliaments, allowing them to raise objections against draft EU legislation as a reinforced control mechanism for the principle of subsidiarity.

The introduction of a single EU legal personality and an exit clause for Member States wishing to leave the EU.

From a Policy Perspective:

  • Extension of the number of areas requiring qualified majority (instead of unanimity) to 40 areas, including asylum, immigration, police cooperation and judicial cooperation in criminal matters.
  • Introduction of new opt-in/out provisions for the UK regarding some new policy provisions, such as policies on border checks, asylum and immigration, judicial co-operation in civil matters, judicial cooperation in criminal matters and police co-operation.

Next Steps:

The Reform Treaty is set to come into force as soon as all 27 member states have ratified it. While most countries will try to have the new EU Treaty passed through their national parliaments, some countries have come under pressure to hold public consultations. This has led to the “No” referendum result in Ireland, a result likely to be reviewed by a new referendum to be held in Ireland in 2009.

Texts of the Treaties

Treaties, Conventions and other instruments

From this page you can access the basic legal texts on which the European Union and the European Communities are founded: the founding Treaties (original versions and later updates), the amending Treaties, and the Accession Treaties for each of the six enlargements, plus other essential documents.


The Amsterdam Treaty: a Comprehensive Guide

The Treaty of Nice (signed in Nice on 26 February 2001)

Treaty of Lisbon (signed in Lisbon on13 December 2007)

European Convention on Human Rights

For other Council of Europe legal texts click here.

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