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(L-R) European Council President Charles Michel, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Parliament President Roberta Metsola. Alamy
Holy Trinity

The EU is confusing - here's how all its bits work together

Here’s everything you need to know about what the main EU political institutions are and how they work.

WHEN READING ANYTHING about the European Union (EU), it doesn’t take long for the questions to start. 

What exactly is the difference between the Commission, the Parliament and the Council? Which has the most power? How democratic are they? And how do they actually work? 

They show up in headlines a lot as watchdogs and enforcers; just last week, the European Commission imposed a massive €1.8 billion fine on Apple for breaking EU law over music streaming.

But what is not always clear is what these institutions actually do – which is especially relevant now considering their roles are in flux as the EU faces probably the biggest political challenges of its existence , such as enlargement and defence, since its establishment after World War II.

So, once and for all, here’s everything you need to know about what the main EU political institutions are and how they work.

European Council and Council of the EU

the-justus-lipsius-building-headquarters-of-the-council-of-the-european-union-in-brussels-belgium The European Council and the Council of the EU are both located in the Lipsius building in Brussels, Belgium (pictured). Alamy Alamy

Confusingly, the European Council and the Council of the EU are separate institutions housed in the same building in Brussels, Belgium.

So, what are they? Put simply, the European Council is the agenda setter of the EU. It’s the first rung on the long ladder that is the Union itself.

The group is made up of the leaders of the 27 member states – so, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Órban, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and so on, as well as the President of the European Council, who is currently Belgian reformist politician Charles Michel.

brussels-belgium-27th-oct-2023-european-council-president-charles-michel-and-ireland-prime-minister-taoiseach-leo-varadkar-pictured-during-a-meeting-on-the-second-day-of-the-european-council-at-t European Council President Charles Michel jokes with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at a European Council summit last October. Alamy Alamy

The group meets four times every year in Brussels to set the direction and agenda of the EU.

News reports will often show Varadkar and other European leaders speaking to reporters as they go into these meetings to discuss the latest affairs of the bloc.

The European Council usually makes decisions by consensus, meaning none of the leaders oppose the adoption of a policy or conclusion on the agenda.

In certain specific cases, where the Council must decide of the adoption of legal acts, the European Council decides by vote, which is usually initiated by the President.

This is carried out in one of three ways:

  • Unanimity: When no states oppose the adoption
  • Qualified majority: When 55%, or 15 states, agree to the adoption
  • Simple majority: When 50%, or 14 states, agree to the adoption

The European Council will vote by a qualified majority when establishing the roster for the Council of the EU or when proposing a new MEP or Commissioner and by a simple majority to adopt procedural decisions within its own meetings.

This can frequently cause friction or discohesion between member states when differing views are held by different governments. 

A recent example of this was seen when Hungary’s Viktor Órban vetoed a €50 billion aid package to Ukraine, a move which was denounced by other leaders. You can find out why here.

The Council of the EU is at the other end of the ladder. It comprises the relevant ministers from each state (e.g. Finance Ministers, Ministers for Foreign Affairs, etc) who, alongside the Parliament, debates, decides and discusses legislative decisions.

The group is required to meet a few times each month, but it is not always the same group of people.

The aforementioned roster, set by the European Council, will set which ministers will meet with each other, what policies will be discussed and when will the meeting take place.

New regulations on EU climate policy? Ireland will send its Minister for the Environment.

New directives for financial policies? The Minister for Finance is on the way. Some of these meetings take place during summits, when the ministers meet in person in Brussels, while the rest are held virtually.

brussels-belgium-09th-sep-2022-minister-eamon-ryan-during-a-eu-energy-ministers-meeting-to-find-solutions-to-rising-energy-prices-at-the-eu-headquarters-in-brussels-belgium-on-sept-9-2022-cre Minister Eamon Ryan speaking to media during an EU energy ministers summit in September 2022 at the Council of Ministers. Alamy Alamy

Because of this, the Council of the EU is oftentimes referred to as the Council of Ministers – probably to avoid confusion.

The group is chaired by a member state’s government for six months at a time. Currently, Belgium hold the Presidency of the Council of Ministers.

The Presidency has to ensure that all relevant changes that must be made in member states as a result of the decisions made are being completed.

Ireland last held the presidency in 2013 and quickly tabled talks to set up EU trade arrangements with the United States, finalised the previous European budget and pushed for development aid to be sent to Mali, among other things.

European Commission

Going down one rung from our imaginary EU ladder, is the European Commission. The Commission drafts laws, directives and regulations relating to the agenda set by the leaders of the member states. 

The Commission – which is seen as a chamber of Ministers to the EU – is comprised of 27 Commissioners, one from each member state, and a President.

The President of the Commission, currently German politician Ursula von der Leyen, chairs the group and is in charge of ensuring all commissioners meet deadlines for their respective legislative laneways.

brussels-belgium-20th-june-2023-european-commission-president-ursula-von-der-leyen-speaks-during-a-media-conference-after-a-meeting-of-the-college-of-commissioners-at-eu-headquarters-in-brussels European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaking during a press conference in Brussels last June. Alamy Alamy

The European Council nominates candidates for the President and the Parliament votes for who should be the President from those nominees every five years. If a majority is not reached by the Parliament, then the Council has one month to propose a new candidate.

Following the appointment of the President-elect, the Commissioners are then appointed to the European Commission. This is done with agreement between the Council of the Ministers and the Commission’s President-elect.

The group can be viewed as a cabinet of ministers for the EU, as policies are tabled and proposed by often the most senior politicians in the bloc.

As a collective, the group is named the ‘College of Commissioners’. Ireland usually appoints a veteran TD or MEP for the role, which they can serve in before retirement – think Phil Hogan or Charlie McCreevy.

european-commission-president-ursula-von-der-leyen-right-speaks-with-european-commissioner-for-trade-phil-hogan-prior-to-an-extraordinary-meeting-of-the-eu-college-of-commissioners-at-eu-headquarter Ex-Commissioner for trade Phil Hogan (L) speaking with Ursula von der Leyen in January 2020. Alamy Alamy

The Commission can cause some conflict with the public, as laws that later are implemented into the member states were drafted by the only group of politicians who are unelected in the EU.

However, once the draft is sent to the Parliament, the group of MEPs can send it back to the Commission with as many amendments they deem necessary.

The recently passed AI Act, which seeks to regulate AI-generated material and the technology’s use, set the record of having the highest number of amendments sent to the Commission on one piece of legislation last year.

Once the Commission returns the draft to the MEPs in a way that pleases the majority, the elected members of the EU vote to adopt or reject the law. This backstop thwarts any attempt by a single commissioner to introduce any laws by themselves.

European Parliament

The European Parliament is the second largest parliament in the world and comprises 705 Members of European Parliament (MEPs) from 27 member states.

The number of seats will be increased in the next election in June to 720. Each country is allocated a minimum of six seats in the Parliament.

The remainder is divided up between member states based on the portion of the EU’s population that lives in the country.

Ireland currently has 13 MEPs representing its three European constituencies and will gain an extra seat for the elections in June, bringing the total number of Irish MEPs to 14.

general-view-of-the-hemicycle-of-the-european-parliament-in-brussels-belgium-with-the-flag-of-the-european-union-above-the-desk-of-the-president The number of MEPs will increase next year to 720. Pictured: European Parliament in Brussels. Alamy Alamy

Once elected, the MEPs join one of seven parliamentary groups which represent their domestic party’s values and are filled with like-minded politicians. 

Fine Gael is a founding member of the European People’s Party, a centre-right conservative group. Fianna Fáil is currently aligned and a member of the Renew Group (often also named ALDE) which is a pro-European, liberal group.

Sinn Féin and the Irish independent MEPs are aligned with ‘The Left in the European Parliament’, a left-leaning, socialist group. The Green Party are members of the Greens–European Free Alliance group, a green and regionalist party.

The parliament also votes for the next President of the European Commission and will form a coalition based on the parliamentary groups that mostly voted for the same candidate.

The MEPs seek to be nominated by their respective parliamentary groups to sit one of the Parliament’s committees, where suggested amendments, debates and scrutinisation of the draft rules and legislation takes place.

The chairs of the committee will appoint ‘rapporteurs’ who must then lead amendment negotiations. ‘Shadow rapporteurs’ are appointed to serve as the opposition.

commiteee room European Parliament committee room in Brussels, Belgium. European Parliament European Parliament

Once the amendments have been agreed and the committee has agreed to support it, the legislative rapporteurs bring the draft legislation to the parliament for the first time.

There are two types of bills which can be put forward to Parliament: a directive or a regulation

Directives act as instructions to member states that set goals for countries which must be completed by a given deadline.

A new directive, seeking to provide more protection to journalists and human rights advocates against unfounded legal cases, recently instructed Ireland to introduce new laws with a number of requirements, including the right for a defendant to request an early dismissal.

Regulations are much stricter and, once agreed, quite often become immediately enforceable and can come with hefty fines if not followed. These fines are usually imposed by the Commission and the relevant Commissioner.

Last week, Apple was handed a €1.8 billion fine by Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestagerover, over what the EU described as “abusive” App Store rules for music streaming app developers.

To avoid months-long debates over these bills, the Parliament and Council of Ministers hold marathon debates, known as ‘Trilogues’, and will not leave negotiations until they have come to an agreement. But more on that another time.

Once the laws have been agreed by both institutions at the trilogue and passed by a vote by the MEPs and ministers, the European Council steps in to make sure its member states are taking steps to implement them.

If the EU institutions sense there are some hesitancy or delays to implement the new rules, it can also move to fine the State through the European Court of Justice.

At the end of last month, a ruling said Ireland is to be fined €10,000 every day over delays in changing its online safety rules. The Commission, who will collect the fine, had warned the Government of these delays earlier last month

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This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work are the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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