The European Union is a unique political entity, whose sovereign member countries pool authority in key areas of government in order to reach shared goals. Every national of a member country is also an EU citizen, giving them the right to participate in the democratic life of the Union.
The powers of the EU institutions have been laid down by founding treaties negotiated and ratified by member countries. In policy areas not covered by the treaties, national governments are free to exercise their own sovereignty.
The two most important treaties are:
EU interpreters work in all 24 official languages.
Others are the Single European Act (1987), which launched the European single market, and the Treaties of Amsterdam (1999) and Nice (2003). The most recent is the Treaty of Lisbon (2009), which amended some of the previous treaties.
Three institutions are responsible for making policy and taking decisions:
A fourth institution, the European Council, defines political directions and priorities but does not have a legislative function.
The European Parliament building in Strasbourg.
The European Parliament was set up to represent EU citizens directly. Like parliaments throughout history, Parliament has had to fight to expand its rights. It was first directly elected by EU citizens in 1979. The current Parliament was elected for five years in June 2009 and has 766 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from all 28 countries.
Parliament’s principal function is to adopt, jointly with the Council, draft legislation put forward by the Commission. Another function is control and approval of the EU budget. Parliament also exercises democratic supervision of the Commission, which includes the power to dismiss the Commission through a vote of censure.
Heads of state or government from EU member countries meet at least four times a year within the European Council. The Council President can convene additional meetings as and when required. Meetings are intended to provide impetus and define political priorities. Decisions are usually taken by consensus.
The Council acquired the status of an EU institution, together with an elected president, under the Lisbon Treaty.
Council of the European Union
It is the voice of EU national governments, where ministers from each country meet several times a month. It has both a legislative function, which it shares with Parliament, and an executive function, which it shares with the Commission. Relevant ministers meet to discuss specific policy on external relations, economic and financial affairs, transport, energy, agriculture, etc. It is commonly called the Council of Ministers, or just the Council.
Most decisions are by majority vote, although numerous issues in areas like taxation, asylum and immigration, or foreign and security policy require unanimity.
The Commission is independent of national governments, and represents the interests of the EU as a whole. It has four essential functions:
A new Commission is appointed every five years, following the elections to the European Parliament. Commissioners – currently one from each country, including the Commission President and Vice Presidents – are vetted by Parliament before taking office.
The Court of Justice of the European Union makes sure that EU legislation is interpreted and applied in the same way in all member countries.
The Court can also rule in legal disputes involving EU countries, EU institutions, businesses or individuals. It is located in Luxembourg and made up of judges from all EU countries.
The EU has 8 other main bodies with specific tasks: