Democracy & Justice

European Union Institutions: Roles, Duties, Operational Mechanisms

The European Union's framework is comprised of seven main institutions. Created by Article 13 of the Lisbon Treaty, collectively they form an integrated system that carries out the EU’s decision-making process and provides inter-institutional oversight.

by Eleanor Brooks

What are the European Union Institutions?

The European Union is often accused of being too complicated for ordinary citizens to understand how it works, and understandably so. Creating a supranational system of governance that would allow for joint decision-making between 27 member states (and counting) was never going to be simple. To demystify the Brussels bubble, we've put together an explainer on the EU’s 7 main institutions. Collectively, they form an integrated system that carries out the EU’s decision-making process. This institutional framework, created by Article 13 of the Lisbon Treaty, is a well-oiled machine. Each institution performs specific functions, and crucial responsibilities, such as law-making or budget management, are shared. While it may be convoluted, the constellation of EU institutions is designed to create inter-institutional checks and balances and ensure power is not overly concentrated in any single body.

The EU’s administrative functions are carried out by 4 decision-making and law-making institutions:

- The European Parliament (Brussels/Strasbourg/Luxembourg)

- The European Council (Brussels)

- The Council of the European Union (Brussels/Luxembourg)

- The European Commission (Brussels/Luxembourg/Representations across the EU)

To ensure they fulfill their duties properly and in accordance with EU law, they are supported by three further institutions:

- The Court of Justice of the European Union (Luxembourg)

- The European Court of Auditors (Luxembourg)

- The European Ombudsman

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European Council

The European Council is made up of the heads of government of each EU member state, as well as the President of the European Commission (currently Ursula von der Leyen), and it is headed by the European Council President (currently Charles Michel).

Meeting on average four times per year, the role of the European Council is to lay out the EU’s political direction and define foreign and security policies. For example, in 2019 the European Council set out the EU’s five-year strategic agenda and long-term priorities for the coming five years. It is also responsible for assigning important EU roles and is supported by an administration of civil servants.

During these quarterly meetings known as summits, the European Council defines issues that need to be addressed and actions that should be taken, which are then adopted as conclusions. The decision-making process is fairly straightforward - a consensus must be reached in order for a conclusion to be adopted, meaning no member opposes the decision. In certain circumstances defined by EU treaties, decisions are reached by taking a vote; however, neither the European Council President nor the Commission President is involved.

The European Council, which is distinct from the Council of the European Union, has no law-making capacity; however, it can request the European Commission to propose laws.

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Council of the European Union

The Council of the European Union, or the Council for short, is composed of the ministers of state of each of the 27 EU member states. Alongside the European Parliament, the Council plays an integral role in EU decision-making and law-making, and is responsible for the Union’s key functions.

There is no single appointed president of the Council; rather, there is a rotating presidency held by member states for 6 months at a time. The ministers who populate the Council are authorized to assure their government’s commitment to the undertakings determined during meetings. However, not all ministers attend every meeting. Instead, meetings are held in 10 unique ‘configurations,’ each one addressing a specific policy area and bringing together the relevant ministers.

The Council can only vote if all members are present. The voting system used (simple majority, qualified majority, or unanimous) is determined by the issue under discussion.

Typically working in coordination with the European Parliament, the Council negotiates and adopts EU law based on proposals submitted by the European Commission. The EP and Council also team up to adopt the EU annual budget. The Council is responsible for coordinating the policy agenda of member states in specific areas, such as economic, fiscal, and employment policies. Based on the guidelines outlined by the European Council, the Council determines and enacts the EU’s security and foreign policy. The EU’s humanitarian aid, trade, and defense policies fall under this umbrella.

The Council authorizes the Commission to negotiate international agreements with third countries and international organizations on behalf of the EU. Once the negotiations are finished, the Council is responsible for concluding the agreement.

European Commission

As the EU’s executive, the European Commission is responsible for overall governance. It is made up of 27 Commissioners, one for each member country, and is led by a President. The Commissioners are similar to government ministers, each responsible for their own division. Together, the Commissioners and the President form the College of Commissioners. They meet weekly for a decision-making session referred to as the oral procedure.

The Commission’s primary role is to enforce EU law by taking action against member states, businesses, or individuals following violations. It is also the sole EU institution responsible for proposing new laws, which are then sent to the European Parliament and Council of the European Union. Additionally, the Commission oversees the bloc’s internal policies, drafts the annual budgets, and keeps tabs on how EU money is being spent. The Commission, in particular, the Commission President, is regarded as the face of the EU and represents the EU in negotiations with countries or supranational bodies, such as NATO or the UN.

The roles of the Commissioners are divided as follows: eight vice-presidents (three of which are executive vice-presidents), high representative of the Union for foreign affairs and security policy, and the remaining 18 Commissioners head their own department. These departments, also known as Directorates-General (DGs), focus on a specific issue. For example, there is the DG of Communication, DG of Economic & Financial Affairs, and the DG of Environment. When working on each issue, the role of the Commissioner is to represent the needs of the EU in its entirety, rather than the interests of their particular member state.

Given the European Commission’s immense power, it is sometimes criticized because the College of Commissioners is not directly elected by members of the public. However, that’s not to say it is unelected. The European Commission president is nominated by the Council and approved by the Parliament, while EU commissioners are nominated by their member states. Each commissioner must then participate in a hearing in one of the European Parliament committees and is then voted in by a simple majority of MEPs.

Decision-making in the Commission happens by consensus only, with each of the commissioners having an equal say. Sometimes a vote is held, requiring a simple majority. Based on the outcome of the decision, the relevant Directorate-General (who heads the DG and is answerable to the Commissioner) writes up a draft legislative proposal, which is then returned to the Commissioners to be adopted.

European Parliament

The European Parliament is one of the EU’s lawmaking body, as well as having budgetary and supervisory responsibilities. It is composed of 705 MEPs who are directly elected by the public every five years, and is led by a President, currently Roberta Metsola.

Based on proposals made by the Commission, together with the Council of the EU, the European Parliament negotiates and passes EU laws. It is also responsible for overseeing the other EU institutions and ensuring they abide by democratic principles. In particular, it provides democratic legitimacy to the Commission as it is responsible for electing the President, approving the Commission cabinet, and it has the power to oblige the Commission to resign.

Member states are represented proportionally rather than equally in the Parliament, with the number of MEPs being proportionate to their population size. The minimum number of MEPs a country can have is six, and a maximum of 96. MEPs are affiliated with parties and represent the political program of their party.

The Parliament is composed of twenty committees and three subcommittees, each responsible for a specific policy area. Each committee considers proposals for legislation, votes on them, and considers amendments. Following this, a plenary session is held in which all MEPs are given the opportunity to vote on the proposed legislation and amendments.

Court of Justice of the European Union

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) is the EU’s judicial branch. Its role is to ensure that EU law is correctly interpreted and applied in the same way across the bloc.

The CJEU is made up of two courts: the Court of Justice and the General Court. The Court of Justice consists of one judge from each member state, in addition to eleven advocate generals, while the General Court is made up of two judges from each member state.

The courts hear cases and hands down judgments. As the EU’s judicial institutions, the CJEU hears cases taken by national courts to clarify the correct interpretation of a law, as well as cases assessing whether certain national laws are compatible with EU law. These preliminary rulings, which form EU case law, are legally binding and also applicable in other EU countries facing the same issue.

Other types of cases heard by the CJEU underline its pivotal role in preventing abuses of power and upholding democratic checks and balances. For example, cases can be initiated by the Commission or other EU countries against a national government for failing to comply with EU law. It also determines whether acts taken by EU institutions are in accordance with the law, hears complaints if they fail to take decisive action in certain circumstances, and can annul EU acts that violate EU treaties or fundamental rights.

The processing of cases happens in two stages: 1) the written stage, which sees both parties submit written statements to the Court. This is discussed at the general meeting and a decision is made whether a public hearing (oral stage) is necessary; 2) both sides present their case, the judges deliberate, and a verdict is issued.

European Court of Auditors

The Court of Auditors audits the EU’s finances. In layman’s terms, they keep an eye on EU finances and ensure that everything is correctly accounted for. As an independent external auditor, its duty is first and foremost to look after the interests of EU citizens by reviewing whether taxpayer’s money is spent properly, and we’re getting value for money. To ensure it remains independent, the Court is free to decide what it audits, how it audits, and when it presents its findings.

The Court of Auditors is made up of court members from each EU country which are divided into audit groups called ‘chambers,’ as well as a president (currently Tony Murphy). Each chamber prepares reports and opinions, which become official once adopted by the Court members.

By overseeing the EU’s financial management and reporting suspected fraud, corruption, and mismanagement, it aims to improve transparency. It also advises EU policymakers on how to better manage EU finances and improve its accountability to EU citizens.

European Ombudsman

The European Ombudsman makes sure EU institutions, bodies, and agencies carry out their work properly and addresses structural issues by investigating administrative complaints. Currently, Emily O’Reilly is the EU’s Ombudsman.

Complaints can be submitted by citizens, residents of EU countries, or associations or businesses based in the EU, and the Ombudsman’s office can also launch investigations on its own initiative. Crucially, it is an independent body and isn’t directed by any government or body.

Once an inquiry is concluded, the Ombudsman strives to find a solution for the complainant by working with the institution concerned. This might only require a straightforward response by informing the institution of the issue, or trying to find a compromise to address the complaint. If these initial attempts fail and the Ombudsman’s investigation finds that maladministration has occurred, recommendations can be submitted to the offending body. If the proposed recommendations aren’t accepted, the Ombudsman may submit a special report to the European Parliament.

One rather high-profile investigation conducted by the European Ombudsman looked into missing text messages between Commission President von der Leyen and Pfizer chief executive Albert Bourla. A journalist lodged the complaint after a freedom of information request to see the text exchange was refused. The subsequent investigation found that the Commission had made no attempt to find the text messages. The Ombudsman concluded that the incident constituted maladministration, as the messages were subject to EU transparency laws.

Further reading:

What Is the European Commission: Functions, Powers, Operation, Leaders

What is Crisis Response Mechanism and How Does it Work?

Rights Checklist: Liberties’ Advocacy Priorities for the Czech EU Presidency

Photocredits: Canva

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