Institutions and other bodies
In the EU’s unique institutional set-up:
- the EU’s broad priorities are set by the European Council, which brings together national and EU-level leaders
- directly elected MEPs represent European citizens in the European Parliament
- the interests of the EU as a whole are promoted by the European Commission, whose members are appointed by national governments
- governments defend their own country’s national interests in the Council of the European Union.
Setting the agenda
The European Council (Consilium) sets the EU’s overall political direction – but has no powers to pass laws. Led by its President and comprising national heads of state or government and the President of the Commission. European Council meetings are essentially summits where EU leaders meet to decide on broad political priorities and major initiatives.
Typically, there are around 4 meetings a year, chaired by a permanent president.
The European Council meets in Brussels.
Who exactly is involved?
The European Council brings together the heads of state or government of every EU country, the Commission President and the European Council President, who chairs the meetings. The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy also takes part.
The European Council decides by consensus, except if the Treaties provide otherwise. The presidents of the European Council and Commission, and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy do not have a vote.
There are 3 main institutions involved in EU legislation:
- The European Parliament which represents the EU’s citizens and is directly elected by them;
Directly elected by EU voters every 5 years, members of the European Parliament (MEPs) represent the people. Parliament is one of the EU’s main law-making institutions, along with the Council of the European Union (‘the Council’).
The European Parliament has three main roles:
- debating and passing European laws, with the Council
- scrutinising other EU institutions, particularly the Commission, to make sure they are working democratically
- debating and adopting the EU’s budget, with the Council.
Parliament must also give its permission for other important decisions, such as allowing new countries to join the EU.
Parliament exercises influence over other European institutions in several ways.
When a new Commission is appointed, its 28 members – one from each EU country – cannot take up office until Parliament has approved them.
Parliament keeps check on the Commission by examining reports it produces and by questioning Commissioners. Its committees play an important part here.
MEPs look at petitions from citizens and sets up committees of inquiry.
When national leaders meet for European Council summits, Parliament gives its opinion on the topics on the agenda.
The European Parliament has three places of work – Brussels (Belgium), Luxembourg and Strasbourg (France).
Luxembourg is home to the administrative offices (the ‘General Secretariat’).
Meetings of the whole Parliament (‘plenary sessions’) take place in Strasbourg and in Brussels. Committee meetings are also held in Brussels.
- The European Commission, which represents the interests of the Union as a whole.
The European Commission is one of the main institutions of the European Union. It represents and upholds the interests of the EU as a whole. It drafts proposals for new European laws. It manages the day-to-day business of implementing EU policies and spending EU funds.
The 28 Commissioners, one from each EU country, provide the Commission’s political leadership during their 5-year term. Each Commissioner is assigned responsibility for specific policy areas by the President. The President is nominated by the European Council. The Council also appoints the other Commissioners in agreement with the nominated President. The appointment of all Commissioners, including the President, is subject to the approval of the European Parliament. In office, they remain accountable to Parliament, which has sole power to dismiss the Commission.
The day-to-day running of the Commission is taken care of by the Commission’s staff – administrators, lawyers, economists, translators, interpreters, secretarial staff, etc. organised in departments known as Directorates-General (DGs).
‘Commission’ can be used to refer to the 28 individual Commissioners, the permanent staff or the institution as a whole.
The Commission represents and upholds the interests of the EU as a whole. It oversees and implements EU policies by:
- proposing new laws to Parliament and the Council
- managing the EU’s budget and allocating funding
- enforcing EU law (together with the Court of Justice). As ‘guardian of the Treaties’, the Commission checks that each member country is applying EU law properly. The Commission has the right to refer an issue to the Court of Justice. The Court can impose penalties, and its decisions are binding on EU countries and institutions.
- representing the EU internationally, for example, by negotiating agreements between the EU and other countries.
- 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.
Also informally known as the EU Council, this is where national ministers from each EU country meet to adopt laws and coordinate policies.
What does it do?
- Passes EU laws.
- Coordinates the broad economic policies of EU member countries.
- Signs agreements between the EU and other countries.
- Approves the annual EU budget
- Develops the EU’s foreign and defence policies.
- Coordinates cooperation between courts and police forces of member countries.
The Council and Parliament share the final say on new EU laws proposed by the Commission.
Who are the members of the Council?
There are no fixed members as such. At each Council meeting, each country sends the minister for the policy field being discussed – e.g. the environment minister for the meeting dealing with environmental matters. That meeting will then be known as the “Environment Council”.
Who chairs the meetings?
The foreign ministers’ Council has a permanent chairperson – the EU’s High Representative for foreign and security policy.
All other Council meetings are chaired by the relevant minister of the country holding the rotating EU presidency.
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.
Other EU institutions
Two other institutions play vital roles:
- the Court of Justice of the EU upholds the rule of European law
- the Court of Auditors checks the financing of the EU’s activities.
The Court of Justice interprets EU law to make sure it is applied in the same way in all EU countries. It also settles legal disputes between EU governments and EU institutions. Individuals, companies or organisations can also bring cases before the Court if they feel their rights have been infringed by an EU institution.
The Court of Justice has one judge per EU country.
The Court is helped by nine ‘advocates-general’ whose job is to present opinions on the cases brought before the Court. They must do so publicly and impartially.
Each judge and advocate-general is appointed for a term of six years, which can be renewed. The governments of EU countries agree on whom they want to appoint.
To help the Court of Justice cope with the large number of cases brought before it, and to offer citizens better legal protection, a ‘General Court’ deals with cases brought forward by private individuals, companies and some organisations, and cases relating to competition law.
The ‘EU Civil Service Tribunal’ rules on disputes between the European Union and its staff.
The Court’s judgements are majority decisions and are read out at public hearings.
The Court of Justice is based in Luxembourg.
The European Court of Auditors audits EU finances. Its role is to improve EU financial management and report on the use of public funds.
It was set up in 1975 and is based in Luxembourg.
To ensure that EU taxpayers get maximum value for their money, the Court of Auditors has the right to check (‘audit’) any person or organisation handling EU funds. The Court frequently carries out on-the-spot checks. Its findings are written up in reports submitted to the Commission and EU national governments.
The Court of Auditors has no legal powers of its own. If auditors discover fraud or irregularities they inform OLAF – the European Anti-Fraud Office.
To do its job properly, the Court of Auditors must stay completely independent of the other institutions but remain in constant touch with them.
The Court has one member from each EU country appointed by the Council for a six-year term (renewable). The members elect one of their number as President for a term of three years (also renewable).
The Court of Auditors has approximately 800 staff, including translators and administrators as well as auditors. The auditors are divided into ‘audit groups’. They prepare draft reports on which the Court takes decisions.
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 Central Bank is responsible for European monetary policy
- the European External Action Service (EEAS) assists the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. He/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.
- 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 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