How the EU works: who runs the EU?

Published: 22nd Apr 2016

The EU is run by five main institutions: the European Council, the Council of the European Union, the European Parliament, the European Commission and the Court of Justice.

The European Council, which is the meeting place for heads of state or government, sets the EU’s overall policy agenda and its priorities.

It meets at least four times each year, but more often when necessary.

The European Council is entirely different from the Council of the European Union, which is generally referred to as just ‘the Council’ or ‘the Council of Ministers’.

Laws are drafted by the Commission, then approved by the Council and European Parliament

The policy agenda set by the European Council will be carried forward through EU legislation. Here the main players are the European Commission, the Council and the European Parliament.

The European Commission will commonly propose new EU laws, after having consulted other EU institutions and interested parties. The draft laws are available on the EU website.

The draft EU law must then be approved by the Council, which is composed of government ministers, as well as by the European Parliament, which is made up of directly elected representatives from national constituencies. These members of the European Parliament, or MEPs, are organised into political groups rather than by nationality.

A draft law will commonly be amended by the Council and by the European Parliament. These institutions will normally discuss the draft with each other and with the Commission.  

There are limits on the laws that can be passed

In deciding whether and how to legislate, the EU is supposed to take account of what is known as ‘subsidiarity’: asking itself whether action at EU level is really required, or whether the issue could be dealt with adequately by member countries.

National parliaments can express views on this, and they can also bring a challenge in court if they do not agree that action is required at EU level.

The EU only has the powers given to it by the treaties that established it. Laws cannot be made unless permitted by a particular Treaty article allowing the EU to act on that topic.

The Commission and member countries put EU rules into practice

When EU law is enacted it must then be implemented.

The European Commission has the main responsibility for this, but it works closely with administrators in the member countries.

Implementation of many EU policies is therefore shared between the European Commission and member countries.

The EU court can invalidate EU laws, or force countries to follow them

The Court of Justice is also important in the running of the EU. Laws enacted by the EU can be challenged in court for a variety of reasons.

A challenge might be brought on the basis that a law went further than was allowed by the treaty article on which it was based. The Court interprets what the treaty articles mean, and what they do and don’t allow. Or it might be argued that the law was in some unintended way discriminatory.

If the court is convinced by such arguments the EU legislation can be declared invalid.

The Court of Justice can also give judgments about the member countries.

An individual might believe that something a country has done is contrary to that country’s obligations under EU law. If the court is convinced by these claims, it can rule that the national action is incompatible with EU law. If that happens, the member state must bring its behaviour into line with EU law.


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