EU Institutions and Their Functions

The European Union is a unique entity. All the members are sovereign states that have united their sovereign powers in some key areas of governance. Like any other governance structure, the EU has legislative and executive bodies and an independent judiciary. What are the general functions of the main EU institutions?

The EU Treaties Define the Powers of the Institutions

The powers of the EU institutions are defined in the Treaties, which have been agreed and ratified by the Member States. In policy areas not covered by the Treaties, EU countries are free to exercise their sovereign rights. The most important treaties are the Treaty of Rome (1957), which established the European Economic Community (EEC), and the Maastricht Treaty, which entered into force in 1993 (Treaty on European Union). Other treaties: Single European Act (1987), which provides for the creation of a European single market, the Treaties of Amsterdam (1999) and Nice (2003). The most recent is the Treaty of Lisbon, which entered into force on 1 December 2009 and amended some previous treaties.

The responsibility for policy-making and decision-making lies with the following institutions: the Council of the European Union, the European Commission, and the European Parliament. The fourth very important institution is the EUCO that comprises the heads of state or government of the EU member states. This institution sets policies and priorities but has no legislative power.

Council of the EU

The Council is the main decision-making body and therefore has the most power of all three institutions. It is the voice of the EU Member States, and ministers from all countries meet several times a month. The Council has legislative power that is shared with the European Parliament, and executive power that is shared with the European Commission. Ministers of the relevant ministries meet to discuss external relations, economic and financial affairs, transport, energy, agriculture, and other specific policies. It is usually called the Council of Ministers or simply the Council. Most decisions are taken by majority vote, but very important decisions on taxation, asylum, immigration and the like require all the votes.

European Commission

The European Commission is independent of governments and represents the interests of the European Union as a whole. The European Commission has two main functions: to propose EU policies and legislation and to ensure that EU treaties and legislation are complied with. Sometimes this institution is called a guardian of contracts. A new Commission is appointed every five years so that its term of office is essentially the same as that of the European Parliament. The nominations of the Commissioners, one from each country, are examined by the European Parliament before approval.

The European Parliament

The European Parliament has had to fight for its right to represent the people. It was first directly elected by EU citizens in 1979. In the current Parliament has members from all EU countries. The main function is to adopt legislation proposed by the European Commission. Parliament has the power to dismiss the European Commission by a vote of no confidence.


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