Overview of EU institutions
The European Union has 7 main decision-making institutions. Each institution has functions that have been set out in the Treaty on European Union.
The legislative, or law making, function of the EU is carried out by 3 institutions:
The overall policy direction and priorities of the EU is decided by:
The judicial wing of the EU, responsible for settling disputes and enforcing EU law is:
There are many other specialised EU institutions that are briefly described in ‘Other EU institutions’ below.
The European Parliament
The European Parliament is part of the legislative, or law making, process in the EU.
Most proposed laws must be approved by the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union before they can become law. You can read more about how EU law is made in our document, ‘EU law’.
The Parliament has 705 seats and elections to fill these seats are held in all member states every 5 years. The European Parliament is the only directly elected body within the EU.
The Parliament elects its own president, along with 14 vice-presidents for a term of 2.5 years. The president represents the Parliament to other EU institutions.
What does the European Parliament do?
The European Parliament has 3 roles:
- It debates legislation. It can pass or reject laws, and it can also make amendments (but not in all cases). Laws must also be passed by the Council of the EU in order to become law. If the law is about EU budgets, the Parliament can only advise on it – it does not have the power to reject the law. You can read more about how EU laws are made.
- It supervises EU institutions and budgets. The president of the EU Commission must be approved by Parliament, and the Commission must answer written or oral questions during Question Time.
- It establishes an EU budget (along with the Council of the EU).
Unlike most national parliaments, the European Parliament cannot initiate legislation. The European Commission is the only EU institution with the power to initiate (or start) new laws. The Parliament can ask the Commission to initiate laws.
The Council of the European Union
The Council of the European Union shares decision-making power with the European Parliament, particularly in the areas of law-making and budget approval.
The Council consists of the government minister of each state who is responsible for whichever topic the Council is discussing. For example, if agriculture is being discussed, the Council will be made up of the ministers with responsibility for agriculture of each member state (the council of ministers).
The presidency of the Council rotates every 6 months.
What does the Council of the European Union do?
The Council has the following functions:
- Legislative– The Council has the power to pass laws. This is a power that it shares with the European Parliament. In many cases, legislation must be passed by both the Council and the Parliament to become law. You can read more about how this works.
- Economic – Every year, the Council drafts guidelines for the economic policies of member states.
- Policies – the council develops the EU’s foreign and security policies.
- Negotiation – the Council has a supervisory role and the final say when the EU is negotiating international agreements with other countries and international organisations.
- Budget – The Council adopts the EU budget together with the Parliament.
The European Commission
The European Commission is the executive of the EU. This means that it is responsible for initiating laws, enforcing the laws of the EU and managing the EU’s policies.
It is made up of 27 commissioners (one from each member state) and is based in Brussels. Each member state nominates a commissioner, but the nominated candidates must be approved by the European Parliament. The Parliament must also approve the President of the European Commission.
What does the European Commission do?
The Commission has the following functions:
- Legislation – The Commission initiates legislation. It makes proposals for laws that are sent to the European Parliament and Council of the European Union for approval. You can read more about how EU laws are passed.
- Upholding EU law – The Commission can take action against businesses or states that are failing to comply with EU law.
- Policy – The Commission is the executive of the EU. It manages policies and drafts budgets.
- Representation – The Commission represents the EU in negotiations with other countries or organisations.
The European Council
The European Council is a separate institution to the Council of the European Union.
The European Council consists of the heads of government of each EU member state, the European Council President (currently Charles Michel) and the President of the European Commission (Ursula von der Leyen).
The Council meets at least twice every 6 months in Brussels. It does not have the power to initiate or pass laws. Instead, it decides on strategies and policies.
The European Council appoints the president, vice-president and executive members of the European Central Bank.
The Court of Justice of the European Union
The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) is the judicial institution of the EU. This means that it deals with disputes between parties that involve EU law.
It is made up of the European Court of Justice, the General Court and some specialised courts.
The General Court is the court of first instance. The European Court of Justice is the highest court of the EU.
The Court of Auditors
The Court of Auditors audits the accounts and oversees the budgets of EU institutions.
It aims to improve financial management of EU money and to report to EU citizens on how EU money is used. Its annual report is published in the Official Journal of the European Union.
The Court of Auditors is based in Luxemburg and is composed of one member from each EU country. Each member state suggests a candidate who is appointed by the Council of the European Union in consultation with the European Parliament for a renewable term of 6 years.
The president of the Court of Auditors is currently Klaus-Heiner Lehne.
The European Central Bank
The European Central Bank (ECB) is the central bank for the euro area and is responsible for conducting monetary policy for the euro area.
The ECB is part of the European System of Central Banks, which also includes the national central banks of all EU member states, whether they have adopted the euro or not.
It is also part of the Eurosystem, along with the central banks of the countries from the euro area.
The current president of the European Central Bank is Christine Lagarde.
What does the ECB do?
The ECB has the following functions:
- It maintains price stability in the euro area by setting interest rates
- It manages the euro area’s foreign currency reserves
- It manages the regulation of financial services by national central banks
- It authorises the production of euro banknotes by countries in the euro area
Other EU institutions
There are a number of other EU institutions that have more specialised roles. They include:
- The European Ombudsman – Investigates complaints about poor administration by EU institutions.
- European External Action Service – Manages the EU’s diplomatic relations with countries outside the EU and conducts EU foreign and security policy
- European Economic and Social Committee – This is an advisory body that represents worker and employer organisations
- European Committee of the Regions - Advisory body that represents local authorities of regions and cities in the EU
- European Investment Bank – Provides funding for projects within the EU
- European Data Protection Supervisor – Oversees the processing of personal data by EU institutions