Detailed explanations about the Institutions of the European Union

The institutional organisation of the European Union (EU) is unique and differs radically from the institutions of its 28 Member States. There is no single president, nor any European prime-minister, and not even a single European government in charge. Every institution has its own structure, members and specific place among the other European institutions.

There are seven EU institutions :
The European Council
The Council of the European Union (also "the Council")
The European Commission
The European Parliament
The Court of Justice of the European Union
The Court of Auditors
The European Central Bank
These institutions are assisted by two advisory bodies :

  • The Economic and Social Committee (ESC) : its main purpose is to stand for the interests of the various economic and social groupings of civil society (ex. employers, workers, farmers, liberal professions, etc.). The ESC must be consulted on a large number of topics (ex. social issues, public health, the environment...) and can also be consulted by the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the Counsil of the European Union. It can also give its opinion on its own initiative. There are 353 members coming from the various 28 Member States, depending on the demographic weight of each State.

  • The Committee of the Regions (CoR) : its main purpose is to represent the interests of the regional and local authorities of the Member States of the European Union. Its consultation is mandatory in certain domains (ex. education, culture, trans-european networks, etc.) and can also be consulted freely by the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the Council of the European Union. Just like the ESC, the Committee of the Regions may also take the intiative to issue opinions in cases deemed appropriate. There are 353 members coming from the various Member States, depending on the demographic weight of each State.

Being a European institution grants, above all, legal powers (aside from the prestige). The title "institution" gives, for instance, the right to petition the Court of Justice of the European Union in the case of failure by any EU institution concerning the respect of rights and obligations defined at the community level. Also, it is the institutions and not the bodies that adopt legal acts (regulations, directives, decisions, recommendations and opinions) necessary for the exertion of the European Union's power.

However, not having the "institutional seal" does not mean being without importance:

The European Investment Bank (EIB), for instance, grants credits and gives guarantees for the financing of investment projects, which contributes to a balanced development of the European Union. This bank, seated in Luxembourg, finances projects of common interest in several Member States, a substantial task which has become increasingly important since the introduction of article 4B of the Maastricht Treaty, which considerably raises the status of the European Investment Bank by placing it officialy among the major organs of the EU.
The EIB, located in Luxembourg, has already supported several projects of the EU Member States, such as the construction of a health science campus in Belgium, the construction of a bio-ethanol factory in Poland, the development of the TGV network in France, etc.

The next part will be dedicated to the detailed study of the main EU institutions that take part in the deliberation and creation of European legislation.

The European Council

The idea of creating the European Council dates back to 1974. By its founding, the Community's Heads of State or Government wanted to create an informal forum for top-level political discussion.
The Single European Act (SEA) officially stated the existence of the European Council, but did not clearly define its role or its competences. It was in 1993, in the Treaty of Maastricht, that its role was finally defined: "it gives to the Union the necessary impulses for its development and it defines the general political orientations". (Treaty of Maastricht, art.D).

The European Council has been an offical institution of the European Union since the Treaty of Lisbon, on the 1st of December 2009. The president of the institution (currently the former Prime Minister of Poland, Donald Tusk) is elected by a qualified majority of the members of the European Council for a term of two-and-a-half years, with the aim of giving a face and a voice to the Union. The president is charged with presiding over and coordinating the meetings of the Council. Another one of his other roles is to represent the European Council abroad, for the relevant matters of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), without limiting the responsibilities, however, of the High Representative of the Union regarding foreign affaires (a position created by the Treaty of Lisbon in order to promote the activity of the European Union at international level).

The European Council consists of the Heads of state or government of the Member States, alongside its own President and the President of the European Commission. The Head of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (Federica Mogherini from Italy) also takes part in the activities of the Council.

The role assumed by the European Council is of crucial importance to the functioning of the European Union. It is actually up to the members of the European Council to decide on the future political occupations of the EU. For instance, it was during the Summit of Madrid in 1995, that the European Council definitively adopted the principle of the introduction of a common currency by the 1st of January 1999. It was during the European Summit in Brussels in June 2007 that the the European Council decided to relaunch the institutional process of the Draft Treaty, which sought to establish a Constitution for Europe in 2005 in spite of the standby "No" of the French and the Dutch. It is therefore not surprising that the media pays special attention to meetings of the European Council.

The members of the European Council meet at least two times each semester, but the president of the Council can call for extraordinary meetings if necessary. Generally, the European Council decides by consensus of opinion, but it can also pronounce decisions by vote.
The Council of the European Union is the principal decision-maker of the European Union, the main legislative institution. Along with the European Parliament, it creates European laws by adopting the propositions submitted by the European Commission. It also exercises the budget function together with the European Parliament.
The Council of the European Union must not be confused with the European Council (see above), nor with the Council of Europe, an intergovernmental organisation based in Strasbourg, which, with its 47 member states, is in charge of the protection of human rights and parliamentary democracy.
The Council of the European Union has its headquarters in Brussels. The presidency of the Council rotates on a six-month basis among the 28 member states. The chairmanship is currently held by Italy and will be through December. From January 1st, 2015, Latvia will preside over the Council for six months, followed by Luxembourg on July 1st, 2015.

The Council of the EU is the institution representing the general interests of the member states of the European Union. It brings together the 28 ministers of the member states. The ministers do not meet systematically or on a regular basis, once a week or once a month. They meet according to the topics currently being discussed. If the topic of the day is an agricultural matter, the 28 ministers responsible for this subject meet in order to discuss it. If the subject on the agenda is transport, the 28 ministers responsible for this special domain will meet, etc.

The minsiters of the Council come together to negociate and adopt community legislation (regulations and directives for instance). A Committee consisting of permanent representatives of the 28 member states (the COREPER) assists the Council, being in charge of the preparation of the items of its agenda (proposals, drafts, preparation of the sessions, etc.).

For decision-making within the Council of the European Union, there are three main processes:
  • Voting by simple majority : requires 15 votes of 28. The simple majority vote is used very rarely, principally when no other voting system is stipulated in the treaties.

  • Voting by qualified majority : Most of the decisions are taken by qualified majority. Voting by qualified majority in the Council of the European Union is defined as being equal to at least 55% members of the Council (comprised of at least fifteen of the Members States) and representing at least 65% of the population of the European Union.
    A blocking minority requires that at least 4 countries vote against the proposal.

  • Voting by unanimity : The voting procedure applied to a certain case depends on the topic currently being discussed. For rather "sensitive topics" such as common foreign and security policy, or justice and home affairs co-operation, voting by unanimity is employed.

The seat of the Council of the Union is located in Brussells. The Council has a rotating Presidency among the EU member countries for a period of six months. After 2007, the Council installed a three-part presidency, comprised of the three member states who will succeed one another as the President of the Council during an 18-month period that must conform to a common program and common objectives. The most recent three-part presidency of the Council began the first of July 2014 with Italy, it will continue with Latvia during the first half of 2015 and will finish with Luxemourg's term, beginning the first of July 2015. In addition to defending basic European rights and affirming the EU as a global actor in the quickly changing world, these three countries named the following objectives of their presidency: to overcome the economic crisis and to revive economic growth and employment in Europe.
The European Commission is responsible for a large part of the practical tasks of the Union. It can indeed be considered as the central administrative machinery of the Community. About 30.000 European Commission agents work on European law proposals which are to be submitted to the Council of the EU and to the European Parliament for a vote. Hence, these people are known as the "eurocrats" or "techonocrats."
It is the European Commission which, in a large number of domains, holds the monopoly on initiative at the community level. It plays an essential role in the preparation and execution of European politics. Before submitting a legislative text, the Commission conducts preliminary interviews with the governments of the member states, the representatives of industry and unions, and other experts, to take into account their interests in its initiatives.
The workforce of the Commission is mainly located in Brussels (about 18.000 agents), yet another 2.500 agents are working in Luxembourg. Research centers are also to be found in Ispra (Italy), Geel (Belgium), Karlsruhe (Germany) and in Petten in the Netherlands.

But the European Commission is not only an "administator," nor an initiator in the decision-making process, it also has several other functions :

  • It ensures that Community legislation is properly implemented ("guardian of treaties")
  • It is in charge of the implementation of the common budget of the Union
  • It represents the interests of the European Union on a world-wide basis (following instructions given by the Council of the Union, notably concerning the establishment of commercial agreements with third countries or the negotiation of international agreements).

Today, the President of the European Commission is the former Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Jean-Claude Juncker. He was appointed to this position in 2014 and will preside for 5 years . This nomination was approved by the European Parliament.

The work of the Commission is carried out by a "college" of 28 people, called Commissioners. Each member state has only one Commissioner, whose term is for 5 years.

Each Commissioner is in charge of very specific domains such as education, transports, health, etc.

Some examples Commissioners 2014-2019 :

Education, Culture, Youth and Sport : Tibor Navracsics ( Hungary)
Energy : Maroš Šefčovič (Slovakia)
Domestic Market and Public Services : Elżbieta BIEŃKOWSKA (Poland)
Health : Vytenis ANDRIUKAITIS ( Lithuania)
Transports : Violeta BULC ( Slovenia)
Financial Stability, Financial Services and Capital Markets Union: Jonathan Hill (Great-Britain)

Even if the Commissioners are in charge of very different domains, the European Commission always decides collectively (that is unanimously) on every file. The decisions are acknowledged by the majority of the members. The dsitribution of domains is undertaken by the president of the Commission at the beginning of the term of the Commissioners.

Before submitting new proposals, however, the European Commission proceeds by preliminary consultations with the governments of the member states, the representatives of the industry, the unions and/or other experts, so that their interests can be taken into account in its initiatives.

The members of the European Commission come together once a week in Brussels. Meetings taking place during the plenary session of the European Parliament are nevertheless held in Strasbourg, the official seat of the Parliament.

The commissioners are named by common agreement by the members states after a vote by the European Parliament. They are completely independent of their member states. The commissioners represent the general interest of the European Union and they collectively answer to the European Parliament (which can censure the Commission and force the commissioners to abandon their functions). In March 1999, the Commission chose to disperse itself after receiving an official censure from the European Parliament.
Like the college of commissioners, the president of the European Commission and the High Representative of the Union for foreign affaires and security matters (the commissioner and vice-president of the Commission) are also subject to a vote of approval from the European Parliament.

Concerning the president of the European Commission, a new electoral procedure was introduced by the Treaty of Lisbon. Since then, the European Council nominates a candidate by taking into account the majorities in the Parliament. This candidate must be approved by a majority of members of the European Parliament. If the MEPs reject the candidate, the Council has one month to put forward another.

The seat of the European Commission is located in Brussells, comprised of approximately 24 000 administrators. Meanwhile more than 4 000 administrators work in Luxembourg. These numbers do not include all those appointed by the Commission who perform research in various research centers, including Ispra in Italy, Geel in Belgium, Karlsruhe in Germany and Petten in the Netherlands.
The European Parliament allows the citizens of the EU to participate directly in European political affairs. The citizens of the 28 member states appoint their deputies in the national elections for a five-year period. These deputies are to represent the interests of their electors on a European level. The latest elections (by direct universal suffrage) took place in May 2014.
The Parliament is made up of 751 directly-elected members coming from the 28 member states. These Members of European Parliament (MEPs) represent the 508 millions citizens of the EU.The number of deputies from a given country does not always reflect the size of its population. For example, each German member of Parliament represents some 828.000 citizens, while his collegue from Luxembourg represents only about 82.000 inhabitants.

The deputies do not group together by nationality, but by political affinity. A total of seven political groups are represented in Parliament (including several non attached members-NI) and all the tendencies from the very right to the very left thus take part in the forum:
  • Group of the European People's Party (EPP)
  • Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament (S&D)
  • Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALD)
  • Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA)
  • European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR)
  • Confederal Group of the European United Left-Nordic Green Left (GEU/NGL)
  • Europe of Freedom and Demoracy Group (EFD)

To see the exact distribution of the seats of the deputies, have a look at the Members of the European Parliament.

The minimal number of deputies required to form a political group is 25 (elected in at least a quarter of the member states).

The European People's Party (EPP) and the Socialists (P&D) have the greatest number of members (219 and 191 deputies respectively - facts from the 5th of January 2015).

The European Parliament organises a large part of its work by means of parliamentary committees. These can be permanenet, temporary or of inquiry. 20 permanent committees exist, dealing with different topics such as budgetary and economic matters, institutional questions etc. Their principal task is to prepare for the plenary sessions of the Parliament. They are, for instance, in charge of the elaboration of the reports which are to be voted on during the sessions.

The head of the European Parliament is of course its president, appointed for two and a half year period. In July 2014, the German Martin Schulz was re-elected for a second term in office.

The seat of the Parliament is located in Strasbourg. All the plenary sessions, as well as the budgetary sessions, take place here. The additional sessions take place in Brussels, while the secretary of the Parliament is located in Luxembourg.

Since 1957, the role of the European Parliament has grown gradually:

The Parliament shares the budgetary power with the Council of the European Union. It has the right to modify (within certain limits) the distribution and the amount of non-compulsory expenditures (functioning expenditures of the EU institutions for instance) and to propose modifications of the compulsory expenditures corresponding to the commitments taken with the framework of the treaties (such as agricultural expenditures). The Parliament establishes the final Community budget. It can reject the entire budget if it has "important reasons" to do so (this has already happened several times).

The Parliament plays a central role in the management of the European Union by the fact that it is participating directly in the passage of European legislation (in collaboration with the Commission and the Council of the EU).

In fact, no European law can see the day without the preliminary consultation of the Parliament, which has to be consulted about the legislative entity of any proposal. Today, the most common legislative procedure applied in the EU is the co-decision procedure, concerning more than 85 different domains, from free-passage for workers, to consumer protection, also counting the environment, non-discrimination on the basis of nationality, and the fight against the tax evasion. This procedure allows the European Parliament to collect legislative taxes, in the same way as the Council of the Union.
The Court of Justice of the European Union is the Union's only body of a legal nature. It is a sort of legislative watchdog in charge of verifing the interpretation and the application of community legislation.

This institution must not be confused with the European Court of Human Rights (based in Strasbourg), charged with protecting human rights, nor with the International Court of Justice (in the Hague, in the Netherlands).

The Court of Justice, which has its seat in Luxembourg, is composed of 28 judges (one judge per member state), as well as 9 advocates-general, appointed for a renewable six-year term, by agreement among the member states of the European Union. The judges are selected from "persons whose independance is beyond doubt" and who are legal experts of recognised competence.

Just like the judges, the advocates-general are appointed for six years by agreement of the governments of the member states. They are to respect the same criteria of independence and competence as the judges. The advocates-general are in charge of the public presentation of the conclusions of affairs submitted by the judges of the Court.

The Court can be petitioned by all parties - community institutions, member states, persons or entities - on the occasion of a dispute concerning a community act or an EU institution. A private person (having exhausted all the means of national appeals) then has the right to appeal to the Court of Justice to claim or to defend his or her rights at a European level.

The main forms of appeal are:

  • Appeal in neglect (in case of disregard of obligations introduced by the community law)
  • Annulment of binding acts (in case of non-legality of the community acts)
  • Proceedings for failure to act (in case of illegal activity of the community acts)

The decisions of the Court are pronounced by the majority of its members (28 judges). The rulings are to be applied immediately in the member states.

To ease the burden of the European Court of Justice, a Court of First Instance (made of 28 members) was set up in 1989 dealing with appeals introduced by persons and entities against decisions of the EU institutions. They are occupied with:

  • Administrative disputes within the EU institutions and their staff
  • Disputes due to competition cases (company concentrations, dumping, etc.)

The Court of Justice of the European Communities is often solicited with appeals concerning a wide range of matters. The best known judgements, however, concern the domestic market. Take, for instance, the case of "Cassis of Dijon" in 1979, concerning the principle of mutual confidence. In this judgement, the Court of Justice stated that any product legally manufactured in one of the member states of the European Union must be immediately admitted to any other market of the 28 member states. This judgement thus introduced the priciple of the free movement of goods, whenever they satisfy the essential European health and security requirements. The "Cassis of Dijon" judgement was an important contribution to the opening of a real, single European market.
The Court of Auditors is responsible for controlling the Community budget. It ensures the proper financial management of the European Union. Its role is to check that revenues are received and that expenditures are incurred "in a lawful and regular manner". It is thus up to the Court of Auditors to ensure that the European Union's financial affairs are managed legally and properly.

In order to organize its control activities, the Court of Auditors has 250 agents. They supervise the institutions of the Union, the member states of the Union, and the organisations that benefit from managing funds from the European Union. In member states, monitering is done in close collaboration with national audit bodies. However, the Court of Auditors does not have any judicial power of its own. Potential situations of irregularity or fraud are reported to the communitary organs in charge (especially the European Office of anti-fraud fight).

At the end of each year, the Court of Auditors publishes a financial report in the Official Journal of the European Communities. This report provides an efficient means to pressure the EU institutions and organs to ensure correct funds management. Throughout the year, the Court of Auditors is also called upon to comment or give opinions. The other institutions are obliged to consult it before adopting texts relating to financial regulation and resources on the community level. It is invited to give an opinion on all legislation (new or in effect) having a financial impact on the function of the European Union.

The Court of Auditors has its seat in Luxembourg. It is composed of 28 members (one member per Member State) appointed for a six-year period by the Council of the Union (by a qualified majority) after consulting the European Parliament, based on proposals made by the member states. The members proposed by the states must belong, in their respective countries, to an external audit organization or possess a particular qualification for this function.