+44 (0)20 7799 6677

The EU institutions

PDF version


The EU is governed by bodies known collectively as the EU institutions. They are responsible for making EU laws, managing EU projects, distributing funds and deciding the future direction of the EU. They bring together elected representatives, members of national governments and European officials.

The EU Commission

The Commission is the EU’s permanent administration and is like the UK civil service. However, it is the only institution which has the power to propose EU laws and is also responsible for checking they are carried out.  It drafts the EU budget and distributes EU money to members.  It also represents all the members collectively in trade negotiations.

At the head of the Commission are 28 Commissioners, one from each member state (they are appointed every 5 years, within 6 months of European Parliament elections). Each Commissioner is responsible for setting and managing EU policy in a particular area such as environment, education or transport. The British Commissioner is currently Lord Hill. One Commissioner is nominated to be the President to give leadership to the work of the whole Commission. The current President is Jean-Claude Juncker. The work of the Commission is carried out by approximately 38,000 EU officials based in Brussels, Luxembourg and other locations in Europe.

The European Council

This institution is made up of the heads of state or government of the member states and the President of the Commission. Therefore Britain’s representative is David Cameron. It meets four times a year to set the direction EU policy and any controversial issues. The European Council also selects the President of the Commission, based on European Parliament election results.

The current President of the European Council is Donald Tusk, former Prime Minister of Poland. He organises the meetings of the European Council, reports to the European Parliament after each meeting and represents the EU on the world stage. The President must be a non-head of government and is elected by the European Council for a two and a half year term, which can be extended to five years.

The Council of the European Union

This is made up of government ministers from each member state.  It meets regularly to discuss new EU policies. Each country is represented by their minister in charge of the policy area to be discussed. The Council plays a central role in developing EU legislation. Alongside the European Parliament it examines the wording of laws proposed by the Commission and suggests amendments.

The Council can vote against proposals to stop them. In most cases, the Council votes on issues by qualified majority voting, meaning if 55% of member states or 16 out of 28 vote in favour (representing at least 65% of the total EU population) the proposal is supported. Proposals by the Commission can also be blocked by the Council if at least four Council members representing more than 35% of the EU population oppose it.

Although it cannot propose new laws, in some situations (especially in relation to justice, home affairs and taxation) the Council may adopt legislation proposed by the Commission without the agreement of the European Parliament. Member states’ governments take turns to act as President of the Council, when they chair ministerial meetings for six months. However, foreign affairs meetings are permanently led by the EU’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, currently Federica Mogherini.

The European Parliament

The European Parliament is the only directly elected EU institution. The Parliament meets in Brussels and Strasbourg. It cannot propose legislation. Instead, alongside the Council of the European Union it can discuss and vote on laws proposed by the Commission.  For a new EU law to pass, it must have the support of both the Parliament and the Council.

The Parliament also has the power to accept or reject Commissioners when they are nominated by member states, to question Commissioners on their policy area and to remove the entire Commission if two thirds vote to do so.

The European Parliament is made up of representatives who are elected every five years by the citizens of each member state. There are 751 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) – including the President who is currently a German, Martin Schulz. The number of MEPs each country has is based on its population. Britain has 73 MEPs.

The European Court of Justice

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) is the court that interprets and enforces EU law. The court is made up of 28 judges, one per member state, and meets in Luxembourg.

In areas that are covered by EU law, the ECJ is the highest court in all of the member states. National courts refer questions on the interpretation of EU law to the ECJ to decide.  Its rulings cannot be appealed and it outranks national Supreme Courts on EU matters. Its judgements can affect not only nations but also individuals. It also mediates between member states, institutions and individuals in cases relating to EU law. If a member state is not following EU law correctly the ECJ can instruct them to do so. If the member state does not comply the ECJ can impose a fine.

eu-institutions (1)