The supranational institutions of the EU

The supranational institutions of the EU are the European Commission, the European Parliament, the European Council, the Council of the European Union, the Court of Justice of the European Union, the European Central Bank and the Court of Auditors. What follows is a concise description of these institutions and their role within the EU.

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European Council

  • Composition:
    • Heads of state or government of each member state.
    • President of the European Council (elected for 2.5 years by majority vote). Since December 2014 this is Donald Tusk from Poland. His predecessor was Herman von Rompuy, who served two consecutive terms (2009-2014).
    • President of the European Commission.
  • Logistics:
    • The European Council meets at least twice every 6 months.
  • Decision making process:
    • Decisions by consensus (except where Treaties provide otherwise).
  • Tasks:
    • Sets general political agenda for the EU.
    • Sets budget for the EU.


European Commission

  • Composition:
    • One commissioner of each Member State, each with its own portfolio.
    • The European Council proposes a President of the Commission to the European Parliament, which the Parliament subsequently has to approve. Currently the President is Jean-Claude Juncker from Luxembourg.
    • The Member States propose the Commissioners, then the President of the Commission selects the Commissioners for a certain portfolio, after which the European Council and European Parliament have to approve.
    • There are 33 different Directorates General, that are responsible for the development of legislation and treaties.
    • In addition to the Directorates General there are the executive agencies – which play a role in the implementation and management of the developed EU programmes – , the decentralised agencies – which carry out technical, scientific or managerial tasks for helping the EU institutions with making and implementing policies – , and several other agencies and bodies.
  • Logistics:
    • Commissioners meet on a weekly basis.
  • Task:
    • The executive body of the European Union.
    • Initiates and develops legislation (sometimes at the request of the Council of the European Union or the European Parliament) and presents legislative proposals to the Council of the European Union and European Parliament.
    • Responds to the redrafting request of the European Parliament and Council of the European Union during the 2 or 3 ‘readings’ of the proposed legislation.
    • Implementation of legislation in Member States.
    • Upholds and controls the adherence to the EU treaties by the Member States. Can give official warnings, administer sanctions for non-compliance and can address an issue at the European Court of Justice if necessary.


European Parliament

  • Composition:
    • Comprised of 751 members, who fulfill 5 year terms. The European population directly elects these members, although the percentage of potential voters that actually voted has been declining over the years.
    • Within the European Parliament, 20 committees exist which all cover different topics and areas of expertise. The size of these committees varies from 25 to 71 MEPs (Members of the European Parliament) and the composition of each committee reflects the political layout of the plenary parliamentary assembly. 
  • Logistics:
    • The European Parliament has a seat in both Brussels and Strasbourg.
    • The parliamentary committees meet once or twice per month and their debates are public.
  • Task:
    • Supervisory role: The EuropeanParliament can request the European Commission to develop and present legislation on an issue. Furthermore the European Parliament can set up sub-committees or special temporary committees dealing with specific issues outside of the regular 20 committees’ domains. The European Parliament is empowered to establish formal committees of inquiry when suspicions or allegations of maladministration of EU law arise.
    • Legislative role: The European Parliament plays a role in approving legislative proposals drafted by the Commission. When the ordinary legislative procedure is followed, the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union share decision making power. The committees within the European Parliament discuss the European Commission’s legislative proposals pertaining to each committee’s field of expertise. The committees then propose amendments to the Plenary Parliament if needed and appoint a negotiation team to engage in negotations with the Council of the European Union on EU legislation.
      The Parliament’s legislative role has been greatly improved through the Treaty of Maastricht (1992) and further expanded through the Treaty of Amsterdam (1997). Still, for special legislative procedures – often pertaining to more sensitive matters – the Council of the European Union has the final say and merely consults the Parliament.
    • Budgetary role: Since the Lisbon Treaty (2007) the European Parliament shares the power to decide on the entire annual budget of the EU with the Council of the European Union; the Parliament however has the final say.


Council of the European Union / Council of Ministers / The Council

  • Composition:
    • One ministerial level representative from each Member State.
    • New president every 6 months.
    • Meets in 10 configurations of 28 ministers, depending upon the issues – but adopts decisions as a single Council.
    • Supported by 250 working groups/committees directed by the committee of permanent representatives (COREPER).
  • Logistics:
    • Several meetings a month in Brussels.
    • The Committee of Permanent Representatives (COREPER; ambassadors, civil servants selected by the ministers) meets weekly, dealing with more detailed matters than the actual country ministers do, and prepares the work and tasks for the Council.
  • Decision making process:
    • Qualified majority voting (weighted) in most areas (internal market, economic affairs, trade,  agriculture, fisheries, transport, structural funds, the entire budget). Together with Parliament.
    • Unanimity is required in some areas (foreign policy, defense, judicial and police, tax).
  • Task:
    • The Council of Ministers shares legislative power with the European Parliament. Legislation is proposed by the European Commission.
      • (1)Ordinary legislative procedure: In most areas where qualified majority voting is applied, consent from both the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament is required in order to adopt a law. The ordinary legislative procedure currently applies in 85 defined policy areas covering the majority of the EU’s areas of competence.
      • (2)Special legislative procedure: In (sensitive) areas where often unanimity is required, the Council of Ministers merely consults the European Parliament.
    • The Council of Ministers coordinates economic policy and decides on compulsory expenditures. The Council of Ministers shares budgetary control with the European Parliament over the EU’s budget allocation (+- 116,4 billion euro in 2014).
    • The Council of Ministers sets out guidelines for the Common Foreign and Security Policy.


Court of Justice of the European Union

  • Composition:
    The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) consists of the following two major courts and a specialized court:

    • Court of Justice: Highest court in the EU legal system. There are 28 judges (1 per member state) who are assisted by 11 Advocates General.
    • General Court: 28 designated judges (not the same as the ones from the Court of Justice).
    • Civil Service Tribunal: 7 judges.
  • Logistics:
    • The CJEU is located in Luxembourg. Its working language is French.
  • Decision making process:
    • The CJEU’s authority is built upon direct effect and supremacy. This means that decisions by the CJEU supersede national laws and court rulings of individual member states. But the CJEU can only act within the framework of EU Treaties. More on how the CJEU functions can be found here.
  • Task:
    • By collaborating with member state courts, the CJEU aims to enforce European Union law.
    • Gives preliminary rulings on European Union law at request of member state courts and tribunals.
    • Ensures member states respect the Treaties.
    • The CJEU can provide clarification on how to interpret Treaties and regulations.
    • The CJEU provides rulings on the cases brought before it. The five most common types of cases are:
      • Requests for a preliminary ruling –when national courts ask the Court of Justice to interpret a point of EU law.
      • Actions for failure to fulfil an obligation – brought against EU governments by the European Commission for not applying EU law.
      • Actions for annulment – against EU laws thought to violate the EU treaties or fundamental rights.
      • Actions for failure to act – against EU institutions for failing to make decisions required of them.
      • Direct actions – brought by individuals, companies or organizations against EU decisions or actions.

Different articles of European Treaties sometimes conflict with each other. It is then up to the CJEU to decide which interests weigh heavier. For instance, Article 168 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU (TFEU) states that a high level of human health protection shall be ensured in the definition and implementation of all Union policies and activities. However, sometimes public health interests conflict with other Treaty articles, e.g. the free movement of goods and the internal market (article 26 to 29). For specific examples, one could have a look at the DocMorris case in Germanyand several cases of the tobacco industry disputing packaging regulations as being a breach of intellectual property rights. The economic and social interests of Europe and its citizens sometimes collide. This is where the CJEU steps in and provides guidance on how to interpret and prioritise certain Treaty agreements.

European Central Bank

The European Central Bank (ECB) is the central bank of the economical and monetary Union. The ECB’s most important objective is to safeguard and maintain price stability in the Eurozone. The Eurozone consists of 19 EU member states which use the Euro as their currency. The capital stock of the ECB is owned by the central banks of all 28 EU member states.

Court of Auditors

  • Composition:
    The Court of Auditors has one member from each EU country. Each member is appointed by the Council of Ministers for a six-year term.
  • Logistics:
    The Court of Auditors is based in Luxembourg since it was founded in 1975.
  • Decision making process:
    The Court of Auditors functions independently from other institutions.
  • Task:
    • The Court of Auditors’ role is to improve EU financial management and report on the use of public funds.
    • The Court of Auditors presents the European Parliament and the Council with an annual report on the previous financial year.
    • The Court of Auditors gives its opinion on EU financial legislation and fights financial fraud.
    • The Court of Auditors inspects EU institutions, member states and countries receiving EU aid.