The EU is a unique body. Its members are sovereign states that have pooled their sovereignty in some key areas of government. Like any government, the EU has a legislative and an executive branch and an independent judiciary.
The powers of the EU institutions are determined by the founding treaties that were negotiated and ratified by members. In policy areas not covered by the treaties, EU countries are free to exercise their own sovereignty.
The most important treaties are the Treaty of Rome (1957), which created what became known as the European Economic Community (EEC), and the Maastricht Treaty (the Treaty on European Union) which took effect in 1993. 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 treaty is the Treaty of Lisbon, which came into force on 1 December 2009 and amended some of the previous treaties.
EU interpreters work in all 23 official languages.
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.
Council of the European Union
This is the main decision-making body and therefore the most powerful of the three. It is the voice of EU members, and ministers from each country meet several times a month. It has both a legislative function, which it shares with the European Parliament, and an executive function, which it shares with the European 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 sensitive issues in areas like taxation, asylum and immigration, or foreign and security policy require unanimity.
The European Parliament building in Strasbourg.
The Commission is independent of governments, and represents the interests of the EU as a whole. It has two essential functions. One is to propose EU policies and legislation, and the other is to ensure that the terms of EU treaties and laws are respected. It is sometimes called the ‘guardian of the treaties’.
A new Commission is appointed every five years so that its term is broadly the same as that of the European Parliament. Commissioners – one from each country – are vetted by the European Parliament before taking office.
Like parliaments throughout history, the European Parliament has had to fight for its right to represent the people. It was first directly elected by EU citizens in 1979. The present Parliament, elected for five years in June 2009, has 736 members from all 27 countries.
The parliament’s principal function is to adopt the draft legislation submitted by the European Commission. The Parliament has the power to dismiss the European Commission through a vote of censure.
Heads of state and government from the EU member countries meet at least four times a year within the European Council. Additional meetings are convened by the President of the European Council as and when required. Meetings are intended to provide impetus and define political priorities. Decisions are usually taken by consensus.
The Council acquired EU institution status, together with an elected president, under the Lisbon Treaty.
The Court of Justice of the European Union makes sure that EU legislation is interpreted and applied in the same way in all EU countries.
The Court can also rule in legal disputes involving EU countries, EU institutions, businesses or individuals. The court, located in Luxembourg, is made up of judges from all the EU countries.
In addition to the big four, the European Union has six other main bodies with specific tasks: