The European Union has four main institutions:
- The European Parliament
- The Council of Ministers
- The European Commission
- The European Court of Justice
1. European Parliament
Members of the European Parliament are elected every five years by the EU’s 450 million citizens. The next European Elections will be held in June 2009. Following the enlargement of the European Union in May 2004 to include 10 new countries and then two more in January 2007 (Romania and Bulgaria), the European Parliament has 785 Members.
Each revision of the European Treaties has seen an increase in the power of the European Parliament in relation to the other institutions. Today the European Parliament is firmly established as a co-legislator.
The Parliament shares with the Council the power to legislate and act as the EU’s budgetary authority. The Parliament is also tasked with exercising democratic supervision over the European Commission.
The Parliament scrutinises the activities of EU institutions, questioning both the Council and in particular the Commission. The Parliament also scrutinises the EU’s annual accounts. In 1999, Santer Commission was forced to resign after the Parliament refused to approve the accounts.
The number of MEPs from each country is representative of its population. Germany, as the largest Member State is represented by 99 MEPs and Malta as the smallest country has only five MEPs.
The UK currently has 78 MEPs who are each elected to represent one of 12 electoral regions of the UK. The number of seats for each country in the European Parliament is as follows:
- Austria - 18
- Belgium - 24
- Bulgaria - 18
- Cyprus - 6
- Czech Republic - 24
- Denmark - 14
- Estonia - 6
- Finland - 14
- France - 78
- Germany - 99
- Greece - 24
- Hungary - 24
- Ireland - 13
- Italy - 78
- Latvia - 9
- Lithuania - 13
- Luxembourg - 6
- Malta - 5
- Netherlands - 27
- Poland - 54
- Portugal - 24
- Romania - 35
- Slovakia - 14
- Sweden - 19
- Spain - 54
- UK - 78
For more information, the website of the European Parliament can be found here.
There are 20 parliamentary committees. The committees draw up, amend and adopt legislative proposals and own-initiative reports. They consider Commission and Council proposals and, where necessary, draw up reports to be presented to the plenary and voted on.
Typically, each MEP will be a full Member of one committee and a substitute on another. In numerical terms, committees generally represent the overall political Group structure so no committee can be dominated by one political Group.
Parliament can also set up temporary committees and committees of inquiry to deal with specific issues. The most recent committee of inquiry was on the collapse of Equitable Life. Recently, a temporary committee on Climate Change was established with a one year mandate.
For a full list of European Parliament committees click here.
Most MEPs sit as part of Europe-wide political groups, rather than in national delegations. The largest group in the European Parliament with 278 MEPs is the European People’s Party & European Democrats (EPP-ED). British Conservative MEPs and one Ulster Unionist MEP are allied Members of this group, forming the European Democrats (see below).
The Party of European Socialists (PES) have 216 MEPs (19 are British); the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) have 104 Members (12 British); the Greens/European Free Alliance have 42 MEPs (five British); the European United Left-Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) have 41 MEPs (one Northern Ireland); the Union for a Europe of Nations (UEN) have 44 MEPs (none British); the Independence/Democracy Group (Ind/DEM) have 24 MEPs (10 British and the Identity, Tradition and Sovereignty Group (ITS) have 23 MEPs (one British). There are a few Members who do not belong to a formal group, who are known as Non-Attached (NI) - there are 27 such MEPs, of whom three are British.
The European Democrats (ED) are allied Members of the EPP-ED Group under Rule 5 of the Group's Rules of Procedure. This rule states that: "Members of the European Parliament may become allied members of the Group if they subscribe to the basic policies of the Group of the European People's Party and European Democrats and if they accept the Rules of Procedure (European Democrats).
"The Members under this Article have the right to promote and develop their distinct views on constitutional and institutional issues in relation to the future of Europe". In addition, the ED is now represented on the Presidency of the Group by its own Vice-President. Members of Parliament who wish to join the EPP-ED Group can apply to join either the EPP or the ED section of it.
The ED is expressly committed to democracy, individual liberty, the rule of law, national sovereignty, free enterprise, minimal regulation, low taxation, private ownership, respect and security for every individual and a strong transatlantic alliance - this is set out in the ED Statement of Principles. You can read more about the ED at www.european-democrats.org.
MEPs divide their time between Brussels, Strasbourg and in the constituency they represent.
They travel to Strasbourg for four days a week, 12 times a year to debate and vote on legislation in plenary sessions. On top of this, Brussels holds six mini-plenary sessions a year.
For each report that is voted on, a debate is held where Members from the relevant committee will have a limited amount of speaking time to argue their point. Each debate is structured to ensure that Members from all political Groups who wish to speak are entitled to. Members must request speaking time prior to a debate in order to speak in the Chamber. During a key debate on a legislative report, a representative from the Council and Commission will be present.
Debates during plenary sessions are streamed live on the internet and can be viewed here.
Weeks in Brussels are spent scrutinising legislation in the committee and four weeks a year are set aside for MEPs to spend extra time in their constituency. The week prior to Strasbourg is spent preparing the political position within their political Group on each report.
2. Council of Ministers
The Council of Ministers is the EU’s main decision-making body. It is composed of Ministers from the national governments of each of the Member States. It meets most weeks in Brussels or Luxembourg to agree legislation and policy. On many issues, the Council exercises legislative power in co-decision with the European Parliament; and the two institutions also act jointly as the EU’s budgetary authority. The Council is also charged with taking decisions concerning the EU’s common foreign and security policy and with co-ordinating the activities of Member States and adopting measures in the field of police and judicial co-operation in criminal matters.
The website of the Council of the European Union can be found here.
3. European Commission
The European Commission is the EU’s administrative and executive body. It is headed by a President and its 27 Commissioners are appointed by the Member States and must be approved by the European Parliament. The Commission has the sole right to propose draft legislation and is responsible for implementing the legislation, budget and programmes adopted by Parliament and the Council. It also represents the EU on the international stage and negotiates international agreements, mainly in the field of trade and co-operation.
The website of the European Commission can be found here.
4. European Court of Justice
The Court of Justice has a judge from each Member State who sits for a term of six years. It adjudicates on all legal issues and disputes involving Community law and must ensure that Community law is uniformly interpreted and effectively applied. It deals with two main types of actions: those referred to it by national courts for rulings of interpretation of Community law; and those started by one of the other institutions.
The website of the Court of Justice can be found here.
5. European Court of Auditors
The Court of Auditors is responsible for checking that all the EU’s revenue has been received, that all its expenditure is incurred in a lawful and regular manner and that financial management of the EU budget has been sound. It presents an annual report to Parliament and also carries out special investigations into specific spending areas.
The website of the Court of Auditors can be found here.
6. European Ombudsman
The Ombudsman is appointed by the European Parliament to investigate complaints of maladministration against any of the EU institutions. All individuals or entities (institutions or businesses) resident in the EU can apply to the European Ombudsman if they consider that they have been harmed by an act of maladministration by an EU institution or body. The Ombudsman submits an annual report to Parliament.
The website of the European Ombudsman can be found here.
7. European Central Bank
The ECB is the central bank for the Euro Zone. It primarily frames and implements European monetary policy with the objective of achieving price stability in the Euro zone.
The website of the European Central Bank can be found here.
8. Committee of the Regions
The Committee of the Regions is a consultative body composed of 317 representatives of regional and local authorities (24 of whom are from the UK). It must be consulted on all EU matters concerning, for example, regional policy, the environment, transport and education.
The website of the Committee of the Regions can be found here.