What are the central decision-making institutions of the European Union? (1/4)

The political world is a complex one, and European climate policy is no different. Filled with different committees, voting stages, and legislative packages, there is a lot for any person to unpack. So to help you, the outdoor community, better understand the institutions and processes that determine the fate of our beloved outdoor spaces, we give you “EU Policy 101”. This four-part series narrows down the playing field, offering some fundamental basics towards understanding EU climate policy. We hope you will tune in and learn a little more about the politics shaping our natural world’s future. After all, you can’t solve the problem until you ask the right question.

The European Commission, the European Parliament, the European Council, and the Council of the European Union

The four legislative institutions that vote on and determine climate legislation within the European Union are the Commission, Parliament, Council, and Council of the EU. These institutions collectively provide the EU with policy direction and play different roles in the law-making process. But who does what, and which is the most important? Let’s take a look.

The European Commission

The European Commission is made up of 27 commissioners (one from each member state). It is responsible for initiating and enforcing EU laws and managing EU policies. 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, currently Ursula von der Leyen. EU Commissioners do not directly represent their countries.

The Commission meets weekly to adopt proposals, finalise policy papers, and make decisions via a simple majority vote. All in all, the Commission has four main functions:

– Legislation; the Commission makes proposals for laws sent to the European Parliament and Council of the European Union for approval.
– Upholding EU law; the Commission can take action against businesses or states 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 Parliament

The European Parliament is part of the EU’s law-making process. However, most proposed laws must be approved by the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union to become law. (Note: this differs from the European Council we will discuss in the next section.) 

The Parliament has 705 seats, and elections to fill these seats are held every 5 years in all member states. The number of MEPs for each member state is loosely based on population; no country can have fewer than 6 members or more than 96. The European Parliament is the only directly elected body within the EU. 

Unlike most national parliaments, the European Parliament cannot initiate legislation. The European Commission is the only EU institution with the power to create new laws. However, the Parliament can ask the Commission to create laws. All in all, Parliament has three main functions:

– Debates legislation; the Parliament can pass or reject laws and make (certain) amendments. However, laws must also be passed by the Council of the EU 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.
– 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.’
– Establishes an EU budget; together with the Council of the EU.

The European Council

The European Council consists of the heads of government from EU member states, the European Council President, and the President of the European Commission. The European Council sets the EU’s political direction and priorities. It does not make laws and is a separate institution from the Council of the European Union.

The Council meets a minimum of four times a year. Conclusions made at these meetings via consensus set the EU’s position on key policy matters. No member opposes the decision (except those outlined in specific EU treaties). The European Council has several important functions, including:

– Deciding on the political and policy direction of the EU.
– Setting the EU’s foreign and security policies.
– Nominating and appointing important EU roles, including the President of the European Commission and its commissioners (after they have been consented to by the European Parliament).
– Having a formal role in the EU’s European semester process, used to coordinate the budgets and economic plans of EU member states.
– Asking the European Commission to propose laws.

The Council of the European Union

The Council of the EU, informally also known as the Council, is where government ministers from each EU country meet to discuss, amend and adopt laws, and coordinate policies. The ministers have the authority to commit their governments to the actions agreed on in the meetings. Together with the European Parliament, the Council is the main decision-making body of the EU.

There are no fixed members of the EU Council. Instead, the Council meets in 10 different configurations, each corresponding to the policy area being discussed. For example, when the Council meeting on economic and financial affairs is held, it is attended by each country’s finance minister.

Again, The Council of the European Union is different from the European Council. It has several important functions, including:

– Negotiates and adopts EU laws, together with the European Parliament, based on proposals from the European Commission.
– Coordinates EU countries’ policies.
– Develops the EU’s foreign & security policy, based on European Council guidelines.
– Concludes agreements between the EU and other countries or international organisations.
– Adopts the annual EU budget – jointly with the European Parliament.

How They Tie Together

The way these EU institutions function together is similar to the process of checks and balances in the United States. “Institutional balance” implies that each EU institution must act according to its specific assigned duties. The European Commission is like the executive branch, running negotiations, drafting legislation, and spending authorised money.

On the other hand, the voting on and scrutiny of legislation takes place in a two-house system with the European Parliament of directly elected MEPs and the Council of the European Union (national ministers). With this system, approval is required from both before legislation is officially adopted.

As a general overview, the Commission proposes new laws, and the Parliament and Council of the European Union adopt them. Then the member countries implement them, and the Commission ensures that the laws are properly applied. You can read more on each institution, as well as their complementary bodies and institutions over on the EU’s website.


Up Next…
So now you have the basics of EU legislative structure, but what do their voting, decision-making, and legislative processes look like? Click here to find out!

The information in this post was collected directly from an official website of the European Union and Citizens Information, an Irish agency dedicated to educating the public on important, national and EU-wide issues