Source: Europa , November 2001

Institutions of the European Union

The European Union is built on an institutional system which is the only one of its kind in the world.

The Member States delegate sovereignty for certain matters to independent institutions which represent the interests of the Union as a whole, its member countries and its citizens. The Commission traditionally upholds the interests of the Union as a whole, while each national government is represented within the Council, and the European Parliament is directly elected by citizens. Democracy and the rule of law are therefore the cornerstones of the structure.

This "institutional triangle" is flanked by two other institutions: the Court of Justice and the Court of Auditors. A further five bodies make the system complete.

European Parliament

Elected every five years by direct universal suffrage, the European Parliament is the expression of the democratic will of the Union's 374 million citizens. Brought together within pan-European political groups, the major political parties operating in the Member States are represented.

Parliament has three essential functions:

  1. It shares with the Council the power to legislate, i.e. to adopt European laws (directives, regulations, decisions). Its involvement in the legislative process helps to guarantee the democratic legitimacy of the texts adopted;
  2. It shares budgetary authority with the Council, and can therefore influence EU spending. At the end of the procedure, it adopts the budget in its entirety;
  3. It exercises democratic supervision over the Commission. It approves the nomination of Commissioners and has the right to censure the Commission. It also exercises political supervision over all the institutions.

Council of the European Union

The Council is the EU's main decision-making body. It is the embodiment of the Member States, whose representatives it brings together regularly at ministerial level.

According to the matters on the agenda, the Council meets in different compositions: foreign affairs, finance, education, telecommunications, etc.

The Council has a number of key responsibilities:

  1. It is the Union's legislative body; for a wide range of EU issues, it exercises that legislative power in co-decision with the European Parliament;
  2. It coordinates the broad economic policies of the Member States;
  3. It concludes, on behalf of the EU, international agreements with one or more States or international organisations;
  4. It shares budgetary authority with Parliament;
  5. It takes the decisions necessary for framing and implementing the common foreign and security policy, on the basis of general guidelines established by the European Council;
  6. It coordinates the activities of Member States and adopts measures in the field of police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters.

European Commission

The European Commission embodies and upholds the general interest of the Union. The President and Members of the Commission are appointed by the Member States after they have been approved by the European Parliament.

The Commission is the driving force in the Union's institutional system:

  1. It has the right to initiate draft legislation and therefore presents legislative proposals to Parliament and the Council;
  2. As the Union's executive body, it is responsible for implementing the European legislation (directives, regulations, decisions), budget and programmes adopted by Parliament and the Council;
  3. It acts as guardian of the Treaties and, together with the Court of Justice, ensures that Community law is properly applied;
  4. It represents the Union on the international stage and negotiates international agreements, chiefly in the field of trade and cooperation.

Court of Justice

The Court of Justice ensures that Community law is uniformly interpreted and effectively applied. It has jurisdiction in disputes involving Member States, EU institutions, businesses and individuals. A Court of First Instance has been attached to it since 1989.

Court of Auditors

The Court of Auditors checks that all the Union's revenue has been received and all its expenditure incurred in a lawful and regular manner and that financial management of the EU budget has been sound.

European Central Bank

The European Central Bank frames and implements European monetary policy; it conducts foreign exchange operations and ensures the smooth operation of payment systems.

Economic and Social Committee

The European Economic and Social Committee represents the views and interests of organised civil society vis-à-vis the Commission, the Council and the European Parliament. The Committee has to be consulted on matters relating to economic and social policy; it may also issue opinions on its own initiative on other matters which it considers to be important.

Committee of the Regions

The Committee of the Regions ensures that regional and local identities and prerogatives are respected. It has to be consulted on matters concerning regional policy, the environment and education. It is composed of representatives of regional and local authorities.

European Investment Bank

The European Investment Bank (EIB) is the European Union's financial institution. It finances investment projects which contribute to the balanced development of the Union.

European Ombudsman

All individuals or entities (institutions or businesses) resident in the Union can apply to the European Ombudsman if they consider that they have been harmed by an act of "maladministration" by an EU institution or body.