EU Institutions and Structure

The European Union was established as a legal entity in 2010 under the terms of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) otherwise known as the Lisbon Treaty.

Its predecessor was the European Economic Community, later renamed the European Community (the EC) which was established in 1958 by the Treaty of Paris. The European Union (the EU) was formed in 1992 by the Maastricht Treaty, but it wasn't at first a legal entity, but instead consisted of three ‘pillars’:

The 2007 Lisbon Treaty, which came into force on 1 January 2010, abolished these three pillars.

There are two other key structures:

Current membership of the Schengen Area and EMU can be found in Wikipedia.

Key dates in the history of the EU can be found here.


For most purposes, there are five main institutions that influence the Union in various ways.

(UCL's European Institute published an excellent briefing paper describing the way in which the EU was approaching the Brexit negotiations. But it also includes a very helpful description of how the various institutions work together.)

1. The Council of the European Union is, with the Parliament, one of the two main law-making and decision-making bodies in the EU. It is often referred to as ‘The Council of Ministers’ and should not be confused with the Council of Europe, which was established after the Second World War with the aim of protecting Europe against totalitarianism.

The Council (usually together with the European Parliament) agrees legislation, budgets and other rules for most of the more familiar activities of the EU, such as the single market, common policies like those on agriculture and fishing, environmental protection, trade and the free movement of goods, persons, services and money.

In addition, the Council is the main EU institution responsible for intergovernmental cooperation on common foreign and security policy (assisted by the High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy) and on justice and home affairs.

The Council brings together representatives of all the Member State governments and is the forum in which these representatives assert their interests and reach compromises. These meetings happen regularly at a range of levels – expert officials from capitals, diplomats from the Permanent Representations (broadly speaking, member states' Embassies), Ministers and, at least four times a year, at the level of Presidents and Prime Ministers in the European Council. These summits are chaired by the President of the European Council.

Ministerial Council meetings (Environment, Competitiveness, Agriculture, etc.) take place between one and 15 times a year, depending on the Council. Each meeting is attended by the appropriate Minister from each Member State (or their permanent representative) and the relevant Commissioner. The Council is chaired by a rotating Presidency from amongst the Member States (of which more below) – changing every six months. Most of the work is done in the 300 plus working groups, which in turn feed into COREPER – the Committee of Permanent Representatives – and thence to Ministers. The Council is also assisted by permanent staff called the General Secretariat of the Council, not to be confused with the Secretariat-General of the Commission - see further below.

The member state that holds the Presidency of the Council has a key role. In order to provide consistency, and to support smaller member states, the Presidencies are divided into 18 month long blocks of three, known as ‘trios’. The next trio is due to begin on 1 July 2017 and is comprised of the UK (Presidency from 1 July) and its two successors, Estonia and Bulgaria. A further Presidency then begins on 1 January 2019. Each trio sets long-term goals and prepares a common agenda determining the topics and major issues that will be addressed by the Council over an eighteen-month period. On the basis of this programme, each of the three countries prepares its own more detailed six-month programme. Note, by the way, that the Presidency has the ability to stall progress in policy areas where it is in a minority.  

Confusingly (very confusingly!) however, the Lisbon Treaty created ...

Council Voting:- Most Council decisions are taken by Qualified Majority Voting (QMV). Your departmental experts will be able to tell you the current definition of a ‘qualified majority’ including the number of votes currently available to be cast by each member state.

2. The European Parliament (EP), which usually shares decision-making with the Council, is made up of directly elected representatives from the Member States, roughly in proportion to population. Most decisions are prepared in committees (usually in Brussels) and finally voted on in the regular plenary sessions (usually in Strasbourg).

The Parliament's principal roles are to:

As with national parliaments, the EP has specialist committees to deal with particular issues (foreign affairs, budget, environment and so on). Most of its work is in fact done through these committees.

It is well worth visiting the Parliament buildings in Brussels, if only to be astonished by their scale. There are also daily visits to the Parliament Chamber, with audio guides in the 24 (!) official EU languages - details from the Infopoint at the West entrance to the central of the three Parliament buildings.

3. The European Commission is headed by 28 senior figures, one from each of the member states, but formally (and very often actually) independent of national allegiance, making up the College of Commissioners. Each has a small group of officials – their cabinet – to assist them monitor and drive the development of policy. The President of the Commission usually chairs the College's weekly meetings. A staff of about 33,000 - divided between around 36 Directorates-General and Services (including the Secretariat-General, press and translation service) - support the College.

The European Commission does much of the day-to-day work in the European Union. In most areas of EU business it is the only body that can draft proposals for new legislation, which it presents to the European Parliament and the Council. The Commission makes sure that EU decisions are properly implemented and supervises the way EU funds are spent. It is also charged with ensuring that everyone abides by the European treaties and European law. With the major exception of competition policy, it doesn’t generally have a large role in actual implementation or enforcement on the ground – this is primarily a Member State responsibility. In certain areas (see the section on competence), the Commission also has the role of representing the EU in external (i.e. with non-EU countries) negotiations and meetings.

4. The Court of Justice of the European Union is the final arbiter of all questions of European law. The CJEU (also often referred to as the ECJ - its previous name) ensures the consistent and accurate interpretation of European law across the EU. If national courts are in doubt about how to apply EU rules they must ask the Court of Justice. Member States, certain EU institutions and individuals can also bring proceedings against EU institutions before the Court. Some less significant cases can also be heard by its subsidiary court, the Court of First Instance. The ECJ consists of one independent judge from each EU country.

The court sits in Luxembourg, and you must take care not to confuse it with the non-EU bodies, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

5. The European Court of Auditors, also located in Luxembourg, is the body that checks how EU money is spent, both directly by other institutions and, where appropriate, by Member States (for example agricultural subsidies or regional development aid).

These five key institutions are flanked by five other bodies of varying importance:

The European Central Bank (responsible for monetary policy and managing the euro);
The Economic and Social Committee (expresses the opinions of organised civil society on economic and social issues);
The Committee of the Regions (expresses the opinions of regional and local authorities);
The Ombudsman (deals with citizens' complaints about maladministration by any EU institution or body);
The European Investment Bank (helps achieve EU objectives by financing investment projects).

A large number of agencies (such as the European Medicines Evaluation Agency, European Food Safety Authority and so on) and other bodies complete the system.

Martin Stanley

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