Guide to EU Institutions
The Main EU Institutions
- The European Council - Brings together the Heads of State or Government from each Member State at least twice a year, to provide overall strategic direction and general political guidance. The European Council does not exercise legislative functions.
- The Council of the European Union (often referred l of Ministers) - Represents the EU Member States and is comprised of national Ministers. It has its seat in Brussels, where it meets several times a month in different ‘formations’, depending on the policy area in question. (Some meetings are also held in Luxembourg).
- The European Parliament – Comprised of Members of European Parliament (MEPs), who are directly elected to represent EU citizens. Its full meetings, or ‘plenary sessions’, are held in Strasbourg or Brussels.
- The European Commission - An independent political body which represents the European interest common to all Member States. The College of Commissioners is supported by a multinational staff, referred to as the Commission services, the ‘civil service’ of the EU. The Commission has offices in Brussels and Luxembourg.
Other European Institutions
- The Court of Justice of the European Union - The European Court of Justice (ECJ) is based in Luxembourg and employs one independent judge from each Member State. The ECJ ensures that EU legislation is interpreted and applied in the same way in all EU countries, and overlooks its implementation in EU Member States and institutions.
- The General Court - The General Court, which is attached to the Court of Justice, was created to help the Court of Justice cope with the large number of cases brought before it, and to offer citizens better legal protection. This Court is responsible for giving rulings on certain kinds of cases, particularly actions brought by private individuals, companies and some organisations, and cases relating to competition law.
- The Court of Auditors - The Court of Auditors checks that EU funds are properly collected and that they are spent legally, economically and for the intended purpose.
- The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) – The EESC is an advisory body to the Council, the Commission, and the European Parliament representing employers, trade unions, farmers, consumers and the other interest groups.
- The Committee of the Regions (CoR) – The CoR is a body composed of representatives of Europe’s regional and local authorities, which advises the Council, the Commission and the European Parliament in matters relevant to the regions.
- The European Investment Bank (EIB) – The EIB is based in Luxembourg, it finances projects to inter alia develop the EU’s less developed regions, help make small businesses more competitive, and projects of common interest to several Member States which are of such a size or nature that they cannot be entirely financed by individual Member States.
- The European Central Bank (ECB) – The ECB is based in Frankfurt, it is responsible for managing the Euro and the EU’s monetary policy.
The European Commission
The European Commission is the EU's executive body and its main roles are:
- to initiate proposals for EU policy and legislation (i.e. exercising the right of initiative);
- to represent the general interest of the European Union;
- to be the executive body of the Union responsible for managingseeing its implementation – including managing the Union's annual budget; and
- depending on the policy area, the Commission also acts as the EU’s external representative, (e.g. negotiating international trade and cooperation agreements).
College of Commissioners
The European Commission is led by a grouprently one per Member State. Commissioners are appointed for a five-year term. This group (known as the ‘College of Commissioners) formally constitutes ‘the Commission’. However, ‘the Commission’ is also frequently used to refer to the permanent apolitical administration known as the Commission services. Normally Commissioners are politicians (often former ministers) or high-ranking officials from Member States. Candidates are put forward by their respective Member State and must be approved by all the Member States jointly, and by the European Parliament. Commissioners are supported by their ‘cabinet’ or private office.
The College of Commissioners includes the new ‘High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy’ created under the Lisbon Treaty. This function merges the earlier two posts of Secretary General of the Council/High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy and Commissioner in charge of External Relations. The High Representative is also a Vice President of the Commission and chairs meetings of the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council (rather than the six-monthly rotating general Presidency of the Council – see below). The current High Representative is Lady Catherine Ashton (UK). The Commission is led by the President of the Commission whose role is to guide and advance the Commissioners’ work and the European Commission as a whole. The President can assign responsibility for specific activities to the Commissioners, and has the power to reallocate responsibilities to Members of the Commission or to ask them to resign. The President also represents the Commission to other European institutions, for instance in the European Council, and in major debates in the European Parliament. In addition, the President is the face of the European Commission in meetings outside the EU, for instance at G8/G20 meetings. The President of the Commission is appointed by the governments of the Member States, and must then be formally elected by the European Parliament. Like the Commissioners, the President of the Commission serves a five-year term. The current President of the Commission is José Manuel Barroso (Portugal), who was re-appointed for a second five-year term in late 2009.
The services of the Commission are divided into 44 Directorates-General (DGs) and services. DGs are headed by Directors General who oversee the general functioning of the service. DGs are further split into Directorates (which cover specific policy areas within the DG) and Units (which deal with specific issues within the policy area). Desk Officers in the Units deal with issues of policy development and implementation. Desk Officers come from all 27 EU Member States but do not officially represent their country’s interest.
DGs with particular relevance to the environment are:
- DG Environment (DG ENV)
- DG Climate Action (DG CLIMA)
- DG Agriculture and Rural Development (DG AGRI)
- DG Maritime Affairs and Fisheries (DG MARE)
- DG Policy (DG REGIO)
- DG Research (DG RESEARCH)
- DG Mobility G MOVE)
- DG Energy (DG ENERGY)
The Secretariat General is responsibleal ohe Commission's work and its relations with the other institutions, as well as for coordination between the various Commission departments.
The European Parliament
The European Parliament is the democratic arm of the EU as its members are directly elected by the people of the Member States. Through the Members of Parliament (MEPs), the EU’s citizens can be involved in the making of EU policies and laws that affect their daily life. Each revision of the Treaties has seen an increase in the power of the European Parliament in relation to the other institutions. Today the European Parliament is firmly established as a co-legislator and is involved in finalising EU Directives, Regulations and other policy. The powers of the Parliament depend on the decision-making procedure used (see below). Most importantly, the Parliament:
- can ask the Commission lative proposals for laws to the Council and Parliament;
- plays an important role in creating new laws, espece ordinary legislative procedure (previously known as co-decision) where it has equal power to the Council. It also examines the Commission’s annual programme of work;
- approves Commissioner appointments;
- has the power to force the Commission as a whole to resign by a motion of censure;
- can consider petitions submitted by citizens on any issue within the sphere of EU activity
- can bring the Commission or Council before the Court of Justice if they fail to fulfil their obligations; and
- amends and can reject entirely the EU’s annual budget.
How the European Parliament is organised
Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) cted by the citizens of Member States every five years, in the only international elections in the world. The last election was in June 2009 and 736 MEPs were elected. Under the Lisbon Treaty, the overall size of the European Parliament is capped at 751 MEPs. An amendment to the Lisbon Treaty is currently being negotiated to increase the number of MEPs to 754 until the end of the current term of the European Parliament in 2014. This amendment became necessary after the June 2009 elections were held under the Nice Treaty, which limited the number of MEPs to 736. Germany has also been allowed to keep its current total of 99 MEPs until 2014, when the number will be cut to 96 as foreseen by the Lisbon Treaty. The number of MEPs per Member State is allocated roughly in proportion to its population. The President represents the European Parliament externally and is elected for a renewable term of two and a half years. The whole Parliament normally meets twice a month in plenary sessions in Strasbourg and Brussels. The meetings are open to the public.
The European Parliament has a special structure where MEPs are grouped by political group rather than nationality. There are currently seven political groups in the European Parliament. The largest is the centre right European People’s Party, followed by the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. The European Parliament is assisted by a Secretariat located in Luxembourg and Brussels. The political groups also have their own staff, and MEPs have parliamentary assistants.
The preparatory work for Parliament’s plenary sessions is carried out in 20 specialised standing committees of MEPs. Committees of special interest to the environment include:
- ENVI: Environment, Public Health and Food Safety
- AGRI: Agriculture and Rural Development
- PECH: Fisheries
- REGI: Regional Development
- TRAN: Transport and Tourism
- ITRE: Industry, Research and Energy
- BUDG: Budgets
The Parliament can also set up sub-committees and special temporary committees to deal with specific issues. For example, the Policy Challenges Committee (SURE) has been set up to prepare the Parliament’s position on the post-2013 Multi-Annual Financial Perspective.
The work of the Parliamentary Committees
The Parliamentary Committees advise the Parliament as a whole on issues relating to their specialist area. Their main activity is to consider Commission legislative proposals and Council amendments to them, and, where necessary, draw up reports with recommendations and amendments to be presented and voted on in the plenary assembly attended by all MEPs. The Committee with the lead role on a Commission proposal appoints a Rapporteur, who coordinates the Parliament’s response and drafts its report. The Committees meet once or twice a month in Brussels and the debates are held in public.
The European Parliament also has special delegations for relations with countries outside the EU which help to further develop Europe’s influence abroad.
The Council of the European Union
The Council of the EU (also referred to as the Council of Ministers) directly represents the Member States in negotiations and has a central role in the EU legislative process.
The Council meets in ten different ‘formations’ depending on the subject and is attended by appropriate national Ministers and the European Commissioners responsible for the areas concerned. Each formation meets several times throughout the year, in formal and informal meetings. Council formations with particular relevance to the environment are:
- Agriculture and Fisheries Council
- Environment Council
- Transport, Telecommunications and Energy Council (TTE)
The Presidency, or chair, of the Council rotates every six months between Member States (new Presidencies start in January and July). A list of past and future Presidencies can be seen below. Member States responsible for three successive Presidencies are organised into groups and adopt an 18-month work programme setting priorities and objectives across the three Presidencies. The Presidency is responsible for chairing the meetings under the different Council formations (apart from those of foreign ministers which are chaired by the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy) and can to some extent influence the agenda of the Council. Member States tend to use their Presidency as an opportunity to promote particular priorities and interests, often using informal Council meetings as an opportunity to focus upon these. To some extent as Chair of the Council’s meetings, the country officials from the Presidency can dictate the speed and nature of discussions and take a leading role in negotiating compromises where there are disagreements between Council members.
Member States holding the Presidency of the Council,
2010 - 2020
|Year||1st half||2nd half|
Activities of the Council
Before decisions are taken in the Council formations the dossier is prepared by the Permanent Representatives Committee (COREPER), supported by some 250 technical working groups comprising of experts from the Member States. COREPER meets in two different formations: COREPER II is made up of the Member States' Permanent Representatives (Ambassadors) to the European Union, and considers external and financial affairs. COREPER I consists of their Deputies, and covers sectoral policies such as for instance agriculture, fisheries, and the environment.
Voting in the Council
The Council takes decisions by unanimity, simple majority or qualified majority vote (QMV), depending on the legal basis of the proposal. Under QMV Member States’ votes are weighted very roughly according to the size of their populations, in a way which protects the interests of the smaller Member States by giving them more voting power than they would be entitled to purely on the basis of their population – see table below.
Distribution of votes for each Member State
|Germany, France, Italy, United Kingdom
Belgium, Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Portugal
Austria, Bulgaria, Sweden
Denmark, Ireland, Lithuania, Slovakia, Finland
Cyprus, Estonia, Latvia, Luxembourg, Slovenia
A qualified majority is currently 255 votes out of the total 345 (73.9%) cast by a simple majority of Member States. A Member State may ask for confirmation that the votes in favour represent at least 62% of the total population of the EU.
The Lisbon Treaty introduces a double majority voting system requiring the assent of 55 per cent of Member States (i.e. 15 Member States in a Union of 27) and 65 per cent of the EU population. A blocking minority must include at least four Member States. Double majority voting will only be applied from 2014, with a transition period from 2014 to 2017 during which a Member State can ask for the old QMV system to be used. A special clause also makes it easier to build a blocking minority during the transition period.
QMV has become the standard procedure for environmental measures, with the requirement for unanimity retained only for provisions primarily of a fiscal nature; town and country planning; land-use (with the exception of waste management); the quantitative management of water resources; and measures significantly affecting a Member State’s choice between different energy sources and the structure of its energy supply.
The European Council brings together the Heads of State or Government from each Member State, the President of the Council and the President of the Commission to provide strategic guidance to the EU institutions and contribute to the general political direction of the EU as a whole. There are two meetings of the European Council during each Presidency term, held in Brussels. The President of the Council may also convene special meetings of the European Council when necessary.
The Lisbon Treaty provided for the election of the first permanent President of the European Council. The President is elected by the European Council by qualified majority vote for a two and a half year term (renewable once). The responsibilities of the President as set out in the Treaty are to chair and drive forward the work of the European Council, ensure preparation and continuity of the work of the European Council, facilitate consensus within the European Council, and present a report to the European Parliament after each meeting of the European Council. The scope and influence of the role will to a large extent be set by its first incumbent - Herman Van Rompuy (Belgium).
Herman Van Rompuy's responsibilities are to chair and drive forward the work of the European Council, ensure continuity of the work of the European Council, facilitate consensus within the European Council, and present a report to the European Parliament after each meeting of the European Council. On the face of it, the post appears to be little more than a chairperson of European Summits. Scope and influence of the role will to a large extent be set by its first incumbent. President and the President of the Commission. The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy takes part in its work.