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This brief explains the basic features of five major EU institutions: the European Parliament, the European Commission, the Council of the EU, the European Council and the Court of Justice of the EU. It aims to help readers recognise and distinguish between the different bodies and their activities.

European Parliament

The European Parliament’s tasks – which have increased with each Treaty revision – revolve around legislation, the EU budget, and scrutiny. The UK currently has 73 of its 751 seats, for which there are elections every five years. Monthly ‘plenary’ meetings of the whole Parliament are supplemented by meetings of the 20 or so committees and of the political groups.

European Commission

The European Commission is the EU’s executive. It proposes the EU’s laws and budget, and makes sure EU law is applied. Its President and 27 other Commissioners (one for each EU Member State) are voted in by the Parliament for five-year terms, and meet weekly. They are supported by a large staff working in 33 Directorates-General.

Council of the EU

The Council of the EU is where government ministers and civil servants from the 28 Member States discuss and adopt EU laws and policies. Every six months a different Member State takes over the presidency to coordinate its work. Different ‘configurations’ of the Council meet regularly, with decisions increasingly made by qualified majority voting (weighted by population size). National civil servants also meet more frequently in various groups.

European Council

The European Council defines the EU’s overall political direction and priorities, but does not negotiate or adopt EU laws. Its 31 members include the Heads of State or Government of the 28 Member States, and they appoint their chair for two and a half years. The European Council usually meets quarterly and takes decisions by consensus.

Court of Justice of the EU

The Court of Justice of the EU is the EU’s justiciary, ruling on questions and disputes about compliance with EU law and Treaties. It is made up of three bodies that deal with different compositions of defendants and claimants; the best-known and largest of the three is the Court of Justice.

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