The European Union is governed by its institutions. Some of these institutions are essentially inter-governmental in character and represent the interests of the Member States and their governments. Other institutions are supra-national in character and represent the interests of the EU as a whole. Only one institution, the European Parliament, is democratically elected by the citizens of the Member States.
Confusingly for Americans accustomed to a clear separation of powers, executive authority and legislative authority in the EU are dispersed among multiple institutions. Set forth below are brief descriptions of the roles played by each of the EU's seven principal institutions, along with links to their respective websites.
The European Council functions as the EU’s collective presidency. The members of the European Council are the national leaders (either the head of state or head of government) of the 28 Member States; the President of the Council, who is appointed by the national leaders; and the President of the European Commission, who serves as a non-voting member.
Though it has no formal legislative powers, the European Council sets the EU’s policy-making agenda and is the primary venue for negotiating treaty changes, resolving policy disputes, and solving political crises. The European Council meets at least twice every six months. The national leaders who comprise the European Council collectively appoint the commissioners and the President of the European Commission, as well as the President of the European Central Bank.
The European Commission is the executive body of the EU responsible for the day-to-day running of the organization and for implementing EU legislation. It consists of 28 commissioners, one from each of the Member States. Commissioners are obligated to represent the interests of the EU as a whole, not those of their countries of origin.
The Commission operates as a supra-national executive cabinet, with one commissioner serving as President and each of the remaining 27 commissioners being responsible for a specific policy area. The President of the Commission allocates the cabinet portfolios among the commissioners. The European Council appoints each of the commissioners, including the President, subject to the approval of the European Parliament. In addition to its executive functions, the Commission also has the exclusive authority to initiate most EU legislation.
The European Parliament is the lower chamber of the EU’s legislature and represents the citizens of the Member States. Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are elected every five years on the basis of proportional representation. Elections are held simultaneously in each of the Member States, and seats are allocated by country roughly in proportion to its population. Once elected, MEPs organize themselves by political affiliation, not by nationality.
Unlike national legislatures, the European Parliament lacks the authority to initiate legislation, which must originate with the European Commission. The Parliament and the EU Council are jointly responsible for enacting legislation proposed by the Commission and for adopting the EU’s budget. The Parliament also provides democratic oversight of the Commission and must formally approve both the President of the Commission and the slate of 27 commissioners appointed by the European Council before they may take office.
The Council of the European Union (also known as the “EU Council” to distinguish it from the European Council) represents the national governments of the Member States and functions primarily as the upper chamber of the EU's legislature. The EU Council is composed of multiple configurations of 28 national ministers, one from each Member State.
The membership of the council varies, depending on the topic under consideration. For example, when discussing environmental legislation, the Council consists of the 28 national ministers whose portfolios extend to environmental matters. The Presidency of the EU Council rotates every six months among the Member States. Thus the EU Council is led by the ministers of the government of the Member State that currently holds the Presidency.
The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) is the collective name for the judicial branch of the EU. Its purpose, in cooperation with the national courts and tribunals of the Member States, is to ensure the uniform interpretation and application of EU law. The CJEU consists of three distinct judicial entities, the highest of which is the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which constitutes the EU’s final court of appeal.
Beneath the ECJ are two subordinate courts. The first is the General Court (formerly known as the Court of First Instance), which has original jurisdiction to hear cases at the trial level, subject to a right of appeal to the ECJ on points of law. The second is the Civil Service Tribunal, which was established in 2005 to resolve disputes between the EU and members of its civil service. Decisions of the Civil Service Tribunal may be appealed to the General Court on points of law and may, in exceptional cases, be subject to review by the ECJ.
The European Central Bank (ECB) determines and implements the monetary policy of the 19 Member States that have adopted the Euro as their common currency. Its role is analogous to that of the Federal Reserve System in the United States. The President of the ECB and the members of its Executive Board are appointed by the European Council, which is comprised of the national leaders of the Members States. In practice, only those members of the European Council whose countries are in the Eurozone participate in the appointment process.
The primary objective of the ECB is to maintain price stability and keep inflation low. Members of the ECB’s Executive Board are obligated to act in the best interests of the Eurozone as a whole, not for the benefit of any particular Member State or region. Other EU institutions and the national governments of the Member States are bound by treaty to respect the independence of the ECB.
Despite its name, the Court of Auditors of the European Union is not a judicial body, but rather an investigative agency whose primary purpose is to provide oversight of the EU’s budget. Its role is analogous to that of the United States Government Accountability Office. The Court of Auditors consists of 28 members, one from each of the Member States. Members are appointed by the EU Council, the upper chamber of the EU’s legislature, and serve for a renewable term of six years.
The Court of Auditors issues an annual report to the European Parliament outlining any irregularities in uncovers with respect to the expenditure of EU funds. Although the Court of Auditors has no enforcement authority of its own, it can refer matters to the EU’s anti-fraud office.