Setting the agenda
The European Council sets the EU's overall political direction – but has no powers to pass laws. Led by its President – currently Herman Van Rompuy – and comprising national heads of state or government and the President of the Commission, it meets for a few days at a time at least every 6 months.
There are 3 main institutions involved in EU legislation:
- the European Parliament, which represents the EU’s citizens and is directly elected by them;
- the Council of the European Union, which represents the governments of the individual member countries. The Presidency of the Council is shared by the member states on a rotating basis.
- the European Commission, which represents the interests of the Union as a whole.
Together, these three institutions produce through the "Ordinary Legislative Procedure" (ex "co-decision") the policies and laws that apply throughout the EU. In principle, the Commission proposes new laws, and the Parliament and Council adopt them. The Commission and the member countries then implement them, and the Commission ensures that the laws are properly applied and implemented.
Decision-making in the EU – more on EU law-making procedures
Other EU institutions
Two other institutions play vital roles:
- the Court of Justice upholds the rule of European law
- the Court of Auditors checks the financing of the EU's activities.
The powers and responsibilities of all of these institutions are laid down in the Treaties, which are the foundation of everything the EU does. They also lay down the rules and procedures that the EU institutions must follow. The Treaties are agreed by the presidents and/or prime ministers of all the EU countries, and ratified by their parliaments.
The EU has a number of other institutions and interinstitutional bodies that play specialised roles:
- the European Economic and Social Committee represents civil society, employers and employees
- the Committee of the Regions represents regional and local authorities
- the European Investment Bank finances EU investment projects and helps small businesses through the European Investment Fund
- the European Central Bank is responsible for European monetary policy
- the European Ombudsman investigates complaints about maladministration by EU institutions and bodies
- the European Data Protection Supervisor safeguards the privacy of people’s personal data
- the Publications Office publishes information about the EU
- the European Personnel Selection Office recruits staff for the EU institutions and other bodies
- the European School of Administration provides training in specific areas for members of EU staff
- a host of specialised agencies and decentralised bodies handle a range of technical, scientific and management tasks
- the European External Action Service (EEAS) assists the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, currently Catherine Ashton. She chairs the Foreign Affairs Council and conducts the common foreign and security policy, also ensuring the consistency and coordination of the EU's external action.