The institutions and their roles:

How does the European Union work?

The European Union is a political and economic union of 28 sovereign Member States, covering over 4 million km² and with 503 million inhabitants. To coordinate any joint initiative, it needed a structure. This structure has evolved over time and is constantly changing.

The decisions are taken through a mixed of ‘’supranational’’ institutions (i.e. institutions to whom Member States have delegated their powers) and ‘’intergovernmental’’ negotiations (which concern areas in which Member States have not delegated their power, but make decisions together).

The main European Institutions are: the European Council, the European Commission, the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament. Other institutions include for instance the Court of Justice of the European Union, the European Central Bank, the European Economic and Social Committee, the Committee of the Regions and the European Court of Auditors. For more information on European institutions, refer to the official European Union website here.

The Heads of each Member State regularly meet together with the president of the European Commission to plan, stimulate and coordinate European Union policies and activities. They also meet to discuss key topics on which no agreement has been reached. These meetings are also called ‘’European Summits”.

The President of the European Council (following the Treaty of Lisbon) chairs the meetings. From 1 December 2014 until 31 May 2017 the President is the former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk.

European Council Website

The European Commission is the keystone of the European Union. It is in charge of proposing legislation based on the Treaties, executing the decisions taken by the Council and monitoring the implementation of existing rules, that is ensuring that Member States respect EU law.

The President of the Commission (currently former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker) is nominated by the Member States, and allocates the different Commissioner posts. There are 28 European Commissioners, one from each EU country, who together constitute the Commission’s political leadership. Each is assigned responsibility for specific policy areas. They are supposed to serve the European Union’s interests and not their national ones. They have a 5-year term.

Under each Commissioner are departments (Directorates-General or DGs), each headed by a Director-General. DGs are themselves divided into Directorates and Units. In total, the European Commission has around 30 000 employees.

European Commission Website

The Council (also referred to as the ‘’Council of Ministers’’) represents the Member States’ governments. It is the forum in which national ministers from each country meet to adopt law. For instance, if the topic to discuss is employment, then it will be the 28 national ministers for employment who meet.

The Council is a co-legislator with the European Parliament, the two institutions working together to adopt EU legislation. Decisions are taken by unanimity or a process called Qualified Majority Voting in which each Member State has a weighted number of votes.

The Council can meet in ten different configurations covering all the subject areas with which the Council is concerned. Under the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, the main responsibilities of the Council are to: ‘’act as the Union’s law-making body for a wide range of issues, exercising its legislative power mainly in co-decision with the European Parliament ; co-ordinate the general economic policies and the justice and home affairs policies of the Member States, make, on behalf of the EU, international agreements with other States or international organisations; together with the European Parliament, constitute the budgetary authority that adopts the Union budget.’’

The presidency of the Council changes every six months. It entails a coordination role. The presidency prepares the agenda meetings and facilitates the exchanges. Currently, the Presidency is occupied by Luxembourg until the end of December 2015, the future schedule of presidencies being as follows:

  • Luxembourg: July-December 2015
  • Netherlands: January-June 2016
  • Slovakia: July-December 2016
  • Malta: January-June 2017
  • United Kingdom: July-December 2017
  • Estonia: January-June 2018
  • Bulgaria: July-December 2018
  • Austria: January-June 2019
  • Romania: July-December 2019
  • Finland: January-June 2020

The work of the Council is prepared by ‘Working Groups’ in which Member States’ representatives make preparations and negotiate on behalf of their Ministers in advance of the Council meetings along with the Committee of Permanent Representatives (COREPER). Each Member State has a Permanent Representative who is effectively an ambassador to the EU. ‘’COREPER II’’ consists of Member States’ Permanent Representatives and ‘’COREPER I’’ is a meeting of the Deputy Permanent Representatives.

Council Website

The European Parliament (EP) is the only directly elected institution of the European Union. It has 751 Members of Parliament from the 28 European Union countries. They have been elected once every five years since 1979. However participation by some countries is often very low and the overall turnout at EP elections has fallen consecutively at each election, and has been under 50% since 1999. The turnout in 2014 was 42.54%.

Together with the Council of the European Union, the European Parliament has legislative power (preparing and adopting the EU laws) but no power to initiate legislation. It has strong control over the EU budget, and the European Commission, as the executive body of the EU, is accountable to the European Parliament.

The European Parliament organises its work at two main levels:

  1. Committee meetings, in which legislation is prepared. The Parliament has currently about 20 committees and subcommittees, each responsible for a particular policy area. MEPs are allocated to committees to prepare legislation.
  2. Plenary session, in which legislation is passed. All MEPs vote together to approve or reject a text prepared in committee.

The EP approves or rejects the appointment of the Commission as a whole. The European Parliament’s President at present is German Socialist Martin Schulz.

For a more in-depth look at the European Institutions and how they work, refer to the European Union’s website here.

European Parliament Website