The European Union is a unique structure that does not fall into any other traditional legal category. From a historical perspective, its political system is unique and has continuously developed over a period of more than 50 years. The countries that make up the EU (its ‘member states’) delegate some of their decision-making powers to shared institutions they have created, so that decisions on specific matters of joint interest can be made democratically at European level. The policies and laws are produced by an ‘institutional triangle’ which includes: the European Parliament (EP) which represents the EU’s citizens, the Council of the European Union, which represents the national governments and the European Commission, an independent body which which seeks to uphold the interests of the Union as a whole.
The Council of the European Union
The Council of the European Union:
- adopts legislative acts (Regulations, Directives, etc.) in "co-decision" with the European Parliament;
- helps in the coordination of the Member States' policies;
- develops the common foreign and security policy, on the basis of strategic guidelines set by the European Council;
- concludes international agreements on behalf of the Union;
- it adopts the budget of the EU, together with the European Parliament.
The Council is located in Brussels, where it meets several times a month. Council`s meetings are held in Luxembourg in April, June and October.
The Council of the European Union is a single body; it meets in different "configurations", which are attended by the Ministers from the Member States and the European Commissioners responsible for the areas concerned. In the 1990s there were 22 configurations. The number of configurations was reduced to 16 in June 2000 and then to 9 in June 2002. Since the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon on 1 December 2009, there are ten configurations of the Council. All Council meetings are chaired by the relevant minister of the country holding the rotating EU presidency. since the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon, the Foreign Ministers’ Council has a permanent chairperson – the EU's High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy.
Decisions in the Council of the EU are adopted with a qualified majority as a general rule. A qualified majority is reached when a majority (sometimes even two thirds) of the 27 EU countries vote in favour; that is at least 255 of the total of 345 votes. From 2014 a system of 'double majority voting' will be introduced. For a proposal to go through, it will need the support of 2 types of majority: a majority of the countries (at least 15) and a majority of the total EU population (the countries in favour must represent at least 65% of the EU population).
The overall work of the Council is prepared or co-ordinated by the Permanent Representatives Committee (COREPER), comprised of permanent representatives of the Member States working in Brussels and their assistants.
The Presidency of the Council
The EU Member States take it in turn to chair the Council for a period of six months, during this period; the Presidency chairs meetings, proposes guidelines and draws up the compromises needed for the Council to take decisions. In order to maintain the continuity of Council work, the six-monthly presidencies work together closely in groups of three-Presidency teams and draw up a joint programme of Council work for an 18-month period.
The European Council
The European Council defines the general political direction and priorities of the European Union. With the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon on 1 December 2009, it became one of the seven institutions of the Union. The European Council meets twice every six months, usually in Brussels.
Its President is Herman Van Rompuy. The President's term of office is two and a half years, renewable once.
According article 15 of the Treaty on European Union (the first part of the Treaty of Lisbon), the European Council provides the Union with the necessary impetus for its development and defines the general political directions and priorities thereof. It does not exercise legislative functions.
The European Council consists of the Heads of State or Government of the Member States, together with its President and the President of the Commission. The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy takes part in its work.
Except where the Treaties provide otherwise, decisions of the European Council are taken by consensus. In some cases, it adopts decisions by unanimity or by qualified majority. The European Council elects its President by qualified majority.
The European Council was created in 1974 with the intention of establishing an informal forum for discussion between Heads of State or Government. It acquired a formal status in the 1992 Treaty of Maastricht, which defined its function as providing the impetus and general political guidelines for the Union's development.
The European Parliament
The European Parliament is the only body which is directly elected by the European Union. Together with the Council, the European parliament is one of the main institutions of EU for adoption of legislation. The work of the European Parliament is important since the decisions on new European laws in many policy areas,are made jointly by Parliament and the Council of Ministers which represent Member States.
The three main roles of the European Parliament are:
- To debate and pass European laws- with the Council
- To scrutiny other EU institutions in order to ensure that they are working democratically,
- To debate and adopt the budget of EU- with the Council.
The European Parliament plays an active role in drafting legislation in many areas such as: environmental protection, free movement of workers, capital, services and goods consumer rights, equal opportunities, transport. In some areas, such as the area of consumer protection and the environment, the Parliament works together with the Council to decide on the content of EU laws and adopt them. This process is called 'co-decision'.
In accordance with the Lisbon Treaty, the range of policies covered by co-decision process has increased, giving the Parliament more power to influence the content of laws in areas including energy policy, agriculture, immigration and EU funds. Parliament must also give a permission for other important decisions, such as allowing new countries to join the EU.
The European Parliament influences other European institutions in several ways. When a new Commission is appointed, its 27 members cannot take up office until they receive Parliament’s approval. If the Members of the European Parliament disapprove of a nominee, they can reject the entire slate.
The Parliament scrutinizes the Commission by examining its reports and by questioning Commissioners, area in which committees have an important role. Members of the European Parliament review petitions from citizens and set up inquiry committees. The Parliament must provide opinion on the topics of the European Council summits of national leaders’ agenda.
The Parliament and the Council adopt the annual budget of the European Union. A special Committee of the Parliament monitors the manner on which the budget is spent, and every year adopts and opinion on the Commission's handling of the previous year's budget.
The 736 Members of the European Parliament who represent the citizen have a five years mandate and are elected by the voters of the 27 Member States of the EU. The Members of the European Parliament are grouped by political affiliation, not by nationality.
The European Parliament has offices in: Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg. Plenary sessions of the Parliament are scheduled in Strasbourg and Brussels; committee meetings are held in Brussels and the General Secretariat – the administrative offices are located in Luxembourg.
The European Commission
The European Commission is one of the main institutions of the European Union, is the EU's executive body which represents and upholds the interests of the EU as a whole. Commission drafts European laws, manages the activities for implementation of the EU policies and spending EU funds.
The Commission 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 of the EU,
- representing the EU internationally.
The European Commission is comprised of 27 Commissioners, one from each Member State of EU. Each Commissioner is assigned for specific policy areas by the President.
The President of the Commission is nominated by the European Council. The nomination of all Commissioners and the President is subject of approval by the European Parliament, which is authorized to dismiss the Commission.
The Commission has the right of initiative; it can propose new laws in order to protect the interests of the EU and its citizens. As guardian of the Treaties, the Commission checks whether each member country is applying the EU law properly.
The Council and Parliament, together with the Commission set broad long-term spending priorities in the financial framework of EU. The Commission also drafts an annual budget, which is approved by Parliament and the Council. The Commission supervises the manner of which the EU funds are spent by the agencies, the national and the regional authorities and also manages funding for EU policies and programmers The European Court of Auditors scrutinizes the Commission’s management of the budget.
The Commission speaks on behalf of all EU countries in international bodies and negotiates international agreements for the EU.
The Commission is located in Brussels and Luxembourg. It has offices in each Member State of EU and delegations in every capital of the states around the world.
The Court of Justice
The Court of Justice of the European Union was established in 1952. Its mission is to ensure that "the law is observed" "in the interpretation and application" of the Treaties.
The Court of Justice of the European Union reviews the legality of the acts of the institutions of the European Union, ensures that the Member States comply with obligations under the Treaties, and upon a request of the national courts and tribunals interprets the Acquis Communautaire.
The Court constitutes the judicial authority of the European Union. In cooperation with the courts and tribunals of the Member States, the Court ensures the single application and interpretation of Acquis Communautaire. The Court of Justice interprets EU laws in order to insure its application in the same manner in all Member States. It also settles legal disputes between EU governments and EU institutions. Individuals, companies or organisations can also bring cases before the Court if they consider that their rights have been violated by any EU institution.
The Court of Justice of the European Union is located in Luxembourg and consists of three courts: the Court of Justice, the General Court (established in 1988) and the Civil Service Tribunal (established in 2004).
The Court of Justice is comprised of one Judge from each Member State of EU, who are assisted by eight advocates-general whose job is to present opinions on the cases brought before the Court. The Judges and advocate-generals have a six years mandated and they can be re-elected on these positions.
The Court of Auditors
The European Court of Auditors, upon the Treaty of Maastricht, is recognised as one of the institutions of the European Union, which carries out the audit of EU finances. This court was established in 1975 and is located in Luxembourg.
As the external auditor of the EU, the European Court of Auditors contributes to improving EU financial management and acts as an independent guardian of the financial interests of the citizens of the Union.
The Court reviews and examines whether financial operations have been properly recorded and disclosed, legally and regularly executed and managed in order to ensure economy, efficiency and effectiveness.
The European Commission, the European Parliament, the Council as well as the Member States use the results of the Court’s work for improvement of the financial management of the EU budget. The Court promotes accountability and transparency and assists the European Parliament and Council in overseeing the implementation of the EU budget.
One of the Court's most important functions is to submit an annual report on the previous financial year to the European Parliament and to the Council. Before deciding whether or not to approve the way in which the Commission has handled the budget the European Parliament examines the Court’s report in details.
The Court is comprised of one member from each Member State of EU, appointed by the Council. The mandate of the members is 4 years. If auditors discover fraud or irregularities they shall inform the European Anti-Fraud Office-OLAF.
Other EU institutions and bodies
The European Economic and Social Committee Founded in 1957 under the Treaty of Rome, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) is a consultative body that gives representatives of Europe’s interest groups, such as employer organisations and trade unions, and other ‘organised civil society’ bodies, such as consumer associations, a formal platform to express their points of views on EU issues.
The members are nominated by the EU governments but they work in complete political independence. They are appointed for four years, and may be reappointed.
The Committee meets in plenary assembly, and its discussions are prepared by six subcommittees known as ‘sections’, each dealing with particular policy areas. It elects its President and two Vice-Presidents for a two-year term.
The Committee’s opinions are forwarded to the larger institutions — the Council, the Commission and the European Parliament. It must be consulted before decisions are taken on economic and social, regional and environment policy. It thus has a key role to play in the Union’s decision-making process. The EESC is a bridge between the Union and its citizens, promoting a more participatory, more inclusive and therefore more democratic society in Europe.
The Committee is based in Brussels.
The Committee of the Regions
The Committee of the Regions (CoR) was established under the Treaty on European Union and consists of representatives of regional and local government proposed by the member states and appointed by the Council for a four-year term. Under the Treaty, the Council and Commission must consult the CoR on matters of relevance to the regions, and it may also issue opinions on its own initiative.
The members of the Committee are elected members of, or key players, in local or regional authorities in their home region. They are nominated to the Committee by the national governments and appointed by the Council of the European Union for four years. Each country chooses its members in its own way, but the delegations all reflect the political, geographical and regional/local balance in their member state.
The role of the Committee of the Regions is to put forward the local and regional points of view on EU legislation. It does so by issuing reports, or ‘opinions’, on Commission proposals. Each year the Committee of the Regions holds five plenary sessions, during which its general policy is defined and opinions are adopted. There are six ‘commissions’ to consider different policy areas and prepare the opinions to be debated in the plenary sessions.
The Committee is based in Brussels.
The European Central Bank
The European Central Bank (ECB) is responsible for managing the euro - the EU's single currency, and safeguarding price stability for the more than two-thirds of the EU's citizens who use the euro. The ECB is also responsible for framing and implementing the EU’s economic and monetary policy. The European Central Bank was set up in 1998.
Under Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union, the objectives of the Union are achieving a high level of employment and sustainable development.
The main tasks of the Bank are:
- is to define and implement the monetary policy of the euro area,
- portfolio management in the countries of the euro zone,
- promotion of the payment system.
The European Central Bank is based in Frankfurt.
The European Investment Bank
The European Investment Bank (EIB) was set up in 1958 by the Treaty of Rome as the long-term lending Bank of the European Union. The EIB lends money to the public and private sectors for projects of European interest. The task of the Bank is to contribute towards the integration, balanced development and economic and social cohesion of the EU Member States. It helps make businesses more competitive. The EIB is a non-profit, policy driven bank. It raises substantial volumes of funds on the capital markets which it lends on favourable terms to projects furthering EU policy objectives. The EIB continuously adapts its activity to developments in EU policies.
The EIB is owned by the Member States of the European Union. They subscribe jointly to its capital, each country’s contribution reflecting its economic weight within the Union. The EIB does not use any funds from the EU budget. Instead, it is self-financing, borrowing on the financial markets
The Bank’s decisions are taken by the following statutory bodies: the Board of Governors, the Board of Directors and the Management Committee.
The European Investment Bank is based in Luxembourg.