Here I have laid out the major institutions of the EU, outlining their purposes and powers. Although there are many other offices that make up the EU bureaucracy and are manned by a 40,000 strong staff, these are the ones where all the major decision making goes on.
“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” – europa.eu
European Council: The European Council is made up of the heads of government of the European Union and is the EU’s Head of State, bringing together the EU’s leaders at the national level. It is therefore an intergovernmental body. The Council serves as a forum to defend a member-state’s national interests, as well as a body to guide the Union’s overall direction. It has a large amount of power, setting the overall political agenda of the EU, negotiating new treaties and dealing with high-level issues that cannot be resolved in the lower levels of government. Particularly, this involves foreign and security policy. The Council also appoints high level roles, such as the Commission President (though the decision is now made by the Parliament, the President is technically still appointed by the Council) and the ECB President. It does not have the power to pass laws however. The Council meets twice every six months.
- Members: The Heads of state or government of EU countries, the European Commission President and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs & Security Policy
- President: Donald Tusk (Poland)
- Established in: 1974 (informal forum), 1992 (formal status), 2009 (official EU institution)
- Location: Brussels
- Website: European Council website
European Commission: The European Commission is the executive body responsible for all EU policy, promoting the interests of the EU, and is independent of the national governments. This makes it a supranational body. It effectively acts as the Cabinet of the EU governmental system as it is here that all EU policy originates, including directives, regulation and the budget. After initiating policies, the Commission then oversees their implementation and that the policies are kept to by member-states. It is the only institution that has the authority to table laws in the EU law-making system (known as the Ordinary Legislative Procedure). The Commission acts to protect the interests of the EU and its citizens on issues that can’t be dealt with effectively at national level, consult the public on experts to get the technical points of laws right, set EU spending priorities, draw up the annual budget to be passed by the Parliament and Council of the EU, and ensures that EU Law is followed in cooperation with the EU Court of Justice. The Commission also represents the EU on the international stage and negotiates agreements for the EU internationally. Despite having lots of responsibilities, the Commission does not have the power to actually pass any of its policies.
- Members: A team or ‘College’ of Commissioners, 1 from each EU country
- President: Jean-Claude Juncker (Luxembourg)
- Year established: 1958
- Location: Brussels
- Website: European Commission website
Council of the European Union: The Council of the European Union is made up of the government ministers of the EU, and acts as an Upper House in the EU decision making process. It is also an intergovernmental body. It also has a large amount of power, the ministers having the authority to commit their governments to the policies agreed on at meetings. Despite working together with the European Parliament in an effectively bicameral system, the Council has more power than the Parliament and is the main decision making body in the EU. The council debates, revises and implements laws based on suggestions put forward by the European Commission, coordinates the EU member-states policies accordingly, develops foreign policy based on directions set by the European Council and concludes international agreements between the EU and other states. The Council of the European Union also works out the budget, as proposed by the Commission and jointly debated and revised with the Parliament (from 2009 onwards).
- Members: Government ministers from each EU country, according to the policy area to be discussed
- President: Each EU country holds the presidency on a 6-month rotating basis
- Established in: 1958 (as Council of the European Economic Community)
- Location: Brussels
- Website: Council of the EU website
European Parliament: The European Parliament is the directly elected body of MEPs that represent the citizens of the EU at the European level. As part of the legislative procedure, it makes up the Lower House of the bicameral system. Being the only directly elected body in the EU system, it is a supranational body and works in concert with the Council of the EU and the Commission in order to debate and produce legislation. As well as debating and passing legislation, the Parliament debates international agreements, enlargements of the EU and reviews the work programme of the Commission, requesting proposals from it. From the signing of the Lisbon Treaty the Parliament gained powers to debate and pass the EU budget and since the last elections in 2014, it was able to elect the Commission President and approve the Commission as a body. The Parliament also scrutinises the work of all EU institutions, works with the ECB over monetary policy, holds the Council and Commission to account, sets up inquiries and committees over citizens’ petitions and approves the use of the EU budget. Despite this the Parliament is still by far the weakest institution in the entire system and still has no power to table legislation. Most of its real powers have been gained only in the last decade, before which it’s role in the procedure of government was minimal. It is elected every 5 years.
- Members: 751 MEPs (Members of the European Parliament)
- President: Martin Schulz (Germany)
- Established in: 1952 as Common Assembly of the European Coal and Steel Community, 1962 as European Parliament, first direct elections in 1979
- Location: Strasbourg, Brussels, Luxembourg
- Website: European Parliament website
Court of Justice of the European Union: The Court of Justice of the EU is the highest court in the EU, acting as its Supreme Court on all matters of EU law. When laws are passed, the Court interprets the legislation and determines how it should be implemented, ensuring that this is the same across the entire Union. It also settles legal disputes between member-states’ governments and EU institutions. In some cases individuals, companies or organisations can take matters to the Court if they think an EU institution has infringed their rights and therefore acts as a law-enforcer. Beyond these major areas, the Court also annul EU legal acts by any of the EU institutions or member-states if they are believed to be violating the Treaties, it can ensure that the takes action when EU institutions fail to act, and it can sanction EU institutions when they cause damages to a citizen or company of the Union.
- Court of Justice: 1 judge from each EU country, plus 11 Advocates General
- General Court: 1 judge from each EU country
- Civil Service Tribunal: 7 judges
- Established in: 1952
- Location: Luxembourg
- Website: CJEU website
European Central Bank: The European Central Bank is the central bank of the Eurozone; an area of the EU which has integrated to the extent of monetary union and uses the euro as it’s currency. It’s governing council is made up of the ECB President, Vice-President, 4 other members and governors of the national central banks of the Eurozone. Considering it is the only major institution that deals with economics, not only does the ECB maintain the stability of the euro, it also constructs and implements Eurozone economic policy, mainly through maintaining price stability (at an inflation target of near 2%) to support job creation and economic growth. To this end the ECB sets interest rates, manages foreign currency reserves, ensures the supervision by national authorities of financial markets and institutions, ensuring the sound running of the European banking system, producing euro notes and assessing the state of the Eurozone economy for its running and any potential external risks. The central bank has been seen as a very powerful institution, considering it is not accountable to any elected body (beyond discussions with the European Parliament) and has control over the direction of the 19 Eurozone economies.
- President: Mario Draghi (Italy)
- Members: ECB President and Vice-President and governors of national central banks from all EU countries
- Established in: 1998
- Location: Frankfurt
- Website: ECB website