The European Union

The European Union (EU) is a politico-economic union of 28 member states that are located primarily in Europe. It operates through a system that combines supranational institutions, which have the power to pass legislation and make legal rulings over member states, and intergovernmental negotiated decisions agreed to by the member states.

The main institutions are:

  • European Commission
  • Council of the European Union
  • European Council
  • European Parliament

The aim of the EU is to benefit its members through enabling free movement of people, goods, services, and capital, applying common standards of justice, and maintaining common policies on trade, agriculture, fisheries, and regional development. Examples of EU policies and institutions which aim to bring these benefits include the abolition of passport controls within the Schengen Area, the introduction of the monetary union (the euro), and the European Court of Human Rights.

The EU is founded on the principle of ‘conferral of competences’:

  • Exclusive competence: There are some areas where the EU alone is able to make laws (e.g. agriculture, employment conditions and trade)
  • Shared competence: Areas where power is shared between the EU and member states (e.g. culture, environment, foreign affairs, transport and social policy)
  • No competence: Areas where the EU has no scope, (e.g. defence, education, tax and welfare).

The EU needs to balance both the rights and needs of the Union as a whole, and of the individual member states. The unique institutional set-up is intended to achieve this:

  • the EU's broad priorities are set by the European Council, which brings together national and EU-level leaders
  • directly elected MEPs represent European citizens in the European Parliament
  • the interests of the EU as a whole are promoted by the European Commission, whose members are appointed by national governments
  • governments defend their own country's national interests in the Council of the European Union.

This is a difficult balance to achieve, and not everyone agrees that the EU achieves the right balance of power between individual member states, and between members states and the Union as a whole.

How the EU works


The European Parliament

The European Parliament, together with the Council of the EU, makes up the legislative arm of the EU. It consists of 751 Members of the European Parliament who are directly elected every five years (in the UK, MEP elections often coincide with local council elections). The number of MEPs representing each member state is roughly proportional to its population. One MEP is elected President, and they represent the Parliament to other EU institutions and internationally.

The European Parliament has similar functions to the UK Parliament: it passes EU laws, together with the Council of the EU, it sets the EU budget, and it retains democratic scrutiny of all EU institutions.

The European Council

The European Council consists of the heads of all member states, the European Commission President, and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs & Security Policy. The Council is convened and chaired by its President, who is elected by the European Council itself for a once-renewable two-and-a-half-year term. The President represents the EU to the outside world.

The Council decides on the EU's overall direction and political priorities – but does not pass laws. It sets the EU’s common foreign and security policy, and deals with sensitive or complex issues that cannot be resolved at a lower level. It represents the highest level of political cooperation between EU countries.

The European Commission

The European Commission is the EU's politically independent executive arm. It consists of team of Commissioners, one from each member state, led by the President. The presidential candidate is put forward by national leaders in the European Council, taking account of the results of the European Parliament elections. He or she needs the support of a majority of members of the European Parliament in order to be elected.

The Commission is alone responsible for drawing up proposals for new European legislation, and it implements the legislative decisions of the European Parliament and the Council of the EU. It also sets EU spending and policy priorities, and represents the EU internationally.

Together with the Court of Justice, it ensures that EU law is properly applied in all member states.

The day-to-day running of Commission business is performed by its staff (lawyers, economists, etc.), organised into departments known as Directorates-General, each responsible for a specific policy area. These are analogous to UK government departments.

The Council of the European Union

The Council of EU is the voice of EU member governments, and is where government ministers from each member state meet to discuss, amend and adopt laws, and coordinate policies. Its makeup is not fixed, but changes according to the policy issues under consideration. Together with the European Parliament, the Council is the main legislative body of the EU. The Council’s role is to:

  • Negotiate and adopt EU laws, together with the European Parliament, based on proposals from the European Commission
  • Coordinate EU countries' policies
  • Develop the EU's foreign & security policy, based on European Council guidelines
  • Conclude agreements between the EU and other countries or international organisations
  • Adopt the annual EU budget - jointly with the European Parliament.

Each EU country holds the Council Presidency on a six-month rotating basis.

The information in this very brief overview is taken from the Europa website, where you will find much more information, and is copyright of the European Union. In the guide to Engaging with the European Union you can find advice and information about how to work with EU officials and politicians.