European Union

Institutional affairs

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 bloc.

Similar to a state, the EU has a legislative branch (Parliament + Council), executive branch (Commission) and independent judiciary (Court of Justice).

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 2 most important treaties are:

  • Treaty of Rome (1958), which created what became known as the European Economic Community (EEC)
  • Maastricht Treaty (1993), also known as the Treaty on European Union.

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.

Institutional triangle

There are 3 institutions responsible for making policy and taking decisions:

  • European Parliament
  • Council of the European Union
  • European Commission.

European Parliament

The European Parliament was set up to represent EU citizens directly. Its powers have been extended through successive changes to the EU's basic treaties. It was first directly elected by EU citizens in 1979. The current Parliament was elected for 5 years in May 2014 and has 751 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 Commissioners en bloc, through a vote of censure.

European Council

Heads of state or government from EU member countries meet at least 4 times a year in the form of 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 – essentially a summit meeting – 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 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 and decide specific policy on external (foreign) relations, economic & financial affairs, transport, energy, agriculture, etc. It is commonly called the Council of Ministers, or just 'the Council'.

Most decisions are by qualified majority vote, although numerous issues in areas like taxation, asylum or immigration, as well as foreign & security policy require unanimity.

European Commission

The Commission is independent of national governments, and represents the interests of the EU as a whole. It has 4 essential functions:

  • proposing EU policies & legislation
  • ensuring the terms of EU treaties & laws are respected (‘guardian of the treaties’)
  • managing & implementing EU policies and the budget for them
  • representing the EU around the world in matters falling under the Commission's responsibility.

A new set of Commissioners is appointed every 5 years, following the European elections. The Commission President is elected by the Parliament, based on a proposal from the European Council. Commissioners – currently 1 from each country, including the President and Vice Presidents – are vetted by Parliament before taking office.

Upholding the law

The Court of Justice of the European Union makes sure 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.

Other institutions & bodies

The EU has 8 other main bodies with specific tasks:

For the detailed implementation of EU law in its many different fields, the EU has 40 agencies of different nature and size spread across the bloc.

Back to top