This is the scenario: you are a journalist working for a newspaper in Ankara, Cairo, Tel Aviv or Rabat. You have to write a story about how EU’s new European Neighbourhood Policy will affect relations with your country. What happens next? To understand exactly what ‘European Neighbourhood Policy” is and to be able to give an informed account of the potential changes in relations with your country and the European Union may need to know more about the workings of the EU (see ‘What is the EU?’) and its main actors.

Here we present a quick snapshot of the institutions and bodies which have the most impact on the European Union, followed down the page by a brief introduction to some of the main centres of power.

The institutions

Institutions

Advisory bodies

Inter-institutional bodies

Decentralised bodies of the EU (agencies)

Financial bodies

How do the EU institutions work?

Perhaps the place to begin is at the European Commission. The Commission is the only EU institution that can initiate legislation. However, before doing this it must consult with interest groups and experts to ensure that the Union’s citizens are being properly served. It meets regularly with committees of experts from national governments and their agencies, and also meets with European-level representative organisations from a wide range of sectors, including industry, public services, trades unions, consumer groups, regional organisations and NGOs. Many of these groups maintain a presence in Brussels to lobby the Commission, as they know that the best time to influence new legislation is before it becomes an official proposal.

Once the Commission has adopted a proposal for new legislation, this is then submitted to the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. They may either accept it as is, propose amendments, or throw it out altogether (though this is rare). In many cases, the Commission also consults the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions, the two ‘official’ EU advisory bodies, whose opinions are entirely non-binding.

The European Parliament has, to some extent, the task of supervising the 25 European Commissioners who are appointed by the Council of Ministers then approved by Parliament. Commissioners, whose job is to oversee the various activities (see below) of the European Union, appear regularly before parliamentary committees. Parliament has the power to dismiss the Commission en masse, but not individual Commissioners. This power has never been used, although it has been threatened on a number of occasions. In 1999, the Commission led by Jacques Santer resigned collectively before Parliament exercised this power, following allegations of mismanagement, and in particular nepotism, within the Commission. And in October 2004, the new Commission President, José Manuel Barroso, decided to withdraw his proposed team to prevent its potential defeat by the Parliament. MEPs objected to the choice of Rocco Buttiglione as Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security, among others. A revised college was proposed and Parliament voted to accept it on 18 November 2004.

The most common procedure for adopting EU legislation is known as ‘co-decision’, whereby the Council and Parliament share law-making power. First the Parliament then the Council carries out a first reading of legislation proposed by the Commission. If the position of both institutions is identical, the legislation is adopted directly. There are no time limits at this stage, so the Council may not complete its first reading for months or even years after the Commission makes its proposal.

Differing opinions

If there are differences of opinion, the proposal returns to the Parliament, then the Council, for a second reading. From here on, time limits are applied to the process. If at any stage both positions coincide, the legislation is adopted. Where differences remain, a combined ‘conciliation committee’ tries to agree upon a joint text which must then be confirmed separately by both institutions. The Commission participates throughout. If no joint text can be agreed, or if the joint text is rejected, no legislation will be adopted.

The Council aims to reach consensus, but decisions in many areas can be taken with a ‘qualified majority’ – whereby the number of votes a member state has is roughly proportional to its size. However, unanimity is required in some sensitive fields. In some cases, where member states have been reluctant to give power to the Parliament, the ‘consultation procedure’ is used. Here, Parliament is only entitled to give its opinion on the legislative proposal – but must be given the opportunity to do so – before the Council adopts legislation. In these cases, the Council is usually required to act unanimously.

In some cases, Parliament is required to give a simple ‘yes-no answer’. Known as the ‘assent procedure’, this is used, for example, to confirm the members of the Commission, or to approve an agreement signed with a non-member country.

Once adopted

Once EU legislation has been adopted, the Commission is required to make sure it is implemented properly and fully – and within any time limits set – in all member states. The Commission (or member states) may bring actions before the Court of Justice against member states for failure to fulfil their obligations under EU law. For example, the Commission brought an action in July 2003 against eight member states for not properly implementing waste disposal laws. The Court’s role is to sort out any differences that may arise between national and European laws, and to ensure that EU legislation is interpreted uniformly throughout the member states.

EU activities

Below, you will find the various EU activities divided into 30 subject areas. Each one presents European Union policy in a specific area from several angles. Clicking on the links will take you to the respective website hosted on the EU’s main server, Europa: 

Economy and Society

International Affairs

Institutional Affairs

Finance

The Commission

Commissioners sit for a five-year term. The Commission President is nominated by member states, on the basis of consensus, and then approved by Parliament. The President-elect and governments then agree on the remaining nominees. The College is approved as a body by the European Parliament, following ‘approval hearings’ before parliamentary committees. At present, there is one Commissioner from each member state, but until 2004, the largest member states had two.

The Parliament

Representing EU citizens, the European Parliament, or ‘Parliament’ as it is usually called, shares legislative power with the Council. In many fields, co-decision procedure means Parliament may block proposed legislation, although in some sensitive areas it may only give an opinion to the Council. Parliament has the final say on many areas of expenditure in the EU’s annual budget. Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), or simply ‘Members’, are directly elected every five years, in simultaneous national elections.

Representation is roughly proportional to national population, from Germany (99 MEPs) to Luxembourg (six). Committees, which usually meet in Brussels, cover specific subject fields and prepare Parliament’s opinions in detail. Sessions of the full Parliament are mainly held in Strasbourg, France. In principle, all meetings of committees and the full Parliament are held in public, although some sections of committee meetings are occasionally held in camera.

The Council

Representing the member states, ministers or officials from national government departments meet to debate specific subjects. Officially, it is known as the ‘Council of the European Union’, but it is sometimes called the ‘Council of Ministers’ and is better known as the ‘Council’. It shares legislative power with the European Parliament. For intergovernmental matters, such as foreign policy, the Council acts on its own initiative – here the roles of the Commission and Parliament are limited. Council meetings are held in private, except when ministers actually adopt legislation, at which time speakers from the meeting may be heard in the press room. However, since by this stage most details have already been agreed by officials in advance, such moments tend to reveal little.

Most meetings are held in Brussels; in April, June and October, however, it sits in Luxembourg. Very occasionally it may meet elsewhere, for example in the margins of UN or WTO meetings. The Council is chaired for a six-month period by each member state in turn – i.e. the ‘Presidency’, which sets the agenda. Prime ministers meet four times a year – as the European Council – setting overall directions for the EU.

The Council is an entirely separate body from the Council of Europe, which is mostly concerned with human rights and cultural matters, and sits in Strasbourg.

Current EU Presidency

2006 - 1st half year : Austria
2006 - 2nd half year : Finland

Planned future EU presidencies

1st half year 2nd half year
2007 Germany Portugal
2008 Slovenia France
2009 Czech Republic Sweden
2010 Spain Belgium
2011 Hungary Poland
2012 Denmark Cyprus
2013 Ireland Lithuania
2014 Greece Italy
2015 Latvia Luxembourg
2016 The Netherlands Slovakia
2017 Malta UK
2018 Estonia Bulgaria
2019 Austria Romania
2020 Finland  

Court of Justice

Based in Luxembourg, the Court of Justice of the European Union, or as it is sometimes known, the European ‘Court’, ensures that EU law is understood and interpreted in the same way in all member states across the European Union. In particular, courts in the member states are required to refer questions to the Court for rulings where national and EU legislation may conflict. It is also called upon to settle disputes between the EU’s different institutions and member states.

All significant rulings by the Court in recent years have reinforced the European dimension of laws on the environment, consumer protection, employment, and the free movement of goods and services across borders within the Union. The Court is therefore playing an increasingly important role as more and more legislation passes through the system and impacts on EU citizens.

Any European citizen or organisation may bring a case before the Court if it concerns a legal act which directly affects them (see also European Ombudsman). Although the ‘Court of First Instance’ was established in 1989 to ease some of the burden on the Court, cases are still subject to lengthy delays. The Court of First Instance also hears many cases brought by staff of the institutions against their employers.

Note that the Court of Justice is entirely separate from the European Court of Human Rights which is under the auspices of the Council of Europe, and sits in Strasbourg.

Court of Auditors

Also based in Luxembourg, the main task of the European Court of Auditors is to make sure the EU spends its money in the most efficient way possible. According to its website: "The Court examines whether financial operations have been properly recorded, legally and regularly executed and managed so as to ensure economy, efficiency and effectiveness."

It boasts of being the ‘financial conscience’ of the Union, as it keeps track of the EU budget and ensures that it has been managed properly by the European Commission. On the basis of the Court of Auditors' reports, the European Parliament gives the Commission final discharge for the execution of each annual budget.

European Economic and Social Committee

The European Economic and Social Committee (ESC or EESC) is sometimes known unofficially as ‘Ecosoc’ (but do not confuse this with the UN’s Economic and Social Council which is officially known by the acronym Ecosoc), and is a consultative/advisory body made up of various interest groups. Its 220 members are drawn from European organisations, such as consumer groups, farmers' and trades unions, as well as from employers’ associations. Member states each have a number of members (in proportion to their population).

During the EU’s legislative process, the Commission is required to ask for the Committee’s opinion on its proposals for new legislation in many areas. As with the Committee of the Regions (see next entry), the EESC’s opinions have no binding weight, but it examines around two-thirds of the proposals passing through the legislature.

Committee of the Regions

The Committee of the Regions (CoR) is the second ‘official’ advisory body to the Commission, the European Parliament and Council, representing local and regional communities at EU level, and bringing the Union (see also ‘Who speaks for my country/region?’) closer to its citizens. CoR aims to represent the voice of local and regional government to the EU institutions. Its members – the same numbers as for the ESC – are drawn from municipal and regional authorities in the member states. While the ESC has been around since the Community was set up in 1957 (Treaty of Rome), CoR was only instituted in 1994 following the 1992 Maastricht Treaty. The Committee is required to be consulted on any legislative proposal that could have regional consequences, especially in areas such as health, education, transport, employment and social policy.

As with the Economic and Social Committee, CoR opinions are not binding.

European Ombudsman is appointed by the European Parliament to hear complaints of misadministration by the European institutions. Any EU citizen, company or organisation based in the EU may ask the Ombudsman to investigate their specific case. The Ombudsman is based in Strasbourg.

European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF)

OLAF was set up initially as a unit within the Commission to fight fraud in the implementation of EU programmes and policies. It now operates as an independent office, although some outside observers believe it is still too close to the Commission to be truly independent. It aims to work closely with national anti-fraud and anti-corruption agencies, since much of the EU budget is actually administered by national agencies.

European Central Bank

The European Central Bank (ECB), based in Frankfurt, is the central bank for all euro area countries. It sets interest rates and is responsible for monetary policy. Its governing council consists of the governors of all national central banks in the euro area, plus the executive board. The board is made up of the Bank’s president, vice-president and four other members. Board members are nominated by the Council, and are responsible, in particular, for setting interest rates at their monthly meetings.