European Union 101: EU Institutions

This 101 series on the European Union (EU) has so far examined how the EU came into being throughout history and what type of actor it is. This third article in the series will take a closer look at the apparatus that allows the EU to function on a day-to-day basis. The following articles of the European Union 101 series will explore the EU's normative power, and lastly the EU's role in global environmental governance. This essay will highlight the five major institutions of the EU, namely the European Commission, the Council of the EU, the European Parliament (EP), the European Council and the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

The European Union 101 is divided into five chapters:

  1. European Union 101: Historical Development

  2. European Union 101: What is the EU?

  3. European Union 101: EU Institutions

  4. European Union 101: Norms in Europe and Beyond

  5. European Union 101: Environmental Governance

Simonds, D. (2019, July 8). Why the European Union should not ditch bilateral investment treaties [Illustration]. The Economist.

To begin, one of the central institutions of the EU is the European Commission, which was established in 1952 through the Treaty of Paris under the name of 'The High Authority'. The duty of the European Commission is to promote the general interests of the EU. The Commission also proposes legislation to be adopted by the EU. The Commission can decide on its own initiative to commence the legislative process and propose legislation, or it may be invited by another institution of the EU to do so. For example, the Council of the EU, the European Parliament or the European Council may send a request to the Commission to draft legislation.

More recently, a new path has been created, to allow citizens to directly access the policymaking process at Union level. One million European citizens, from at least seven member states, may request that the Commission submit a legislative proposal. This initiative was introduced in order to strengthen the democratic legitimacy of the EU, which has been questioned for a long time. The Commission must also ensure the external representation of the Union in negotiations and international agreements, and act as a guardian of the founding treaties; ensuring that the provisions of the treaty and the measures taken by the institutions are applied. Regarding the composition of the Commission, there is a president, a vice-president and 27 commissioners - one per member state. The commissioners are completely independent in the performance of their duties, meaning that they cannot take or seek instructions from any member state of the EU or from any other body of the EU. The work of the Commission is organised in directorates, who tackle different policy areas, such as agriculture, climate action, or energy.

The Council of the EU, along with the European Parliament, exercises legislative functions, namely adopting legislation proposed by the Commission. Generally, the Council of the EU decides on proposed legislation by a majority voting system, which was introduced in the 1986 Single European Act to ensure that coalitions cannot be blocked. For a decision to be adopted through a majority vote, at least 55% of council members, comprising of at least 65% of the population of the union, must vote in favour. Unanimity (meaning that all states must agree) is another decision-making method, though it is considerably less common than a majority vote. The council consists of a minister of each member state, who votes and acts on behalf of that state. The presidency of the EU's Council rotates, and is held by the representative of each member state for six months. In order to ensure some continuity between the presidencies, troikas (a group of three people working together, especially in an administrative or managerial capacity) are organised. A troika, within the EU, consists of three member states cooperatively holding the presidency.

European Parliament. (2008). There’s a first time for everything. . . [Photograph]. European Parliament.

The European Parliament is arguably the most democratic institution within the EU because, since 1979, the members of the EP are elected every five years through European elections. Currently, after Brexit (i.e., the United Kingdom leaving the EU in 2020), there are 705 members of the European Parliament (MEPs) who are organised in to seven political groups. The EP, jointly with the Council of the EU, exercises legislative and budgetary functions. The EP must also give consent before a new state can join the EU, and similarly must give consent before the withdrawal of a member. One of the most important functions of the EP is that it can give a vote of censure to the European Commission, whereby the commission has to resign in its entirety. It should be noted, however, that a vote of censure has never been used, to this day.

Next, the European Council is a relatively new institution, being created in the 1980s. Nonetheless, it was formalised as an official institution in 2009, with the Treaty of Lisbon. The main task of the European Council is to define the general political direction of the Union, however, it is important to state that the European Council has no legislative functions, as opposed to the Council of the EU. The European Council consists of the heads of state, or heads of government, of the member states, the president of the European Council, the president of the Commission, and the high representative for foreign affairs and security policy.

The last key institution of the European Union is the Court of Justice (ECJ). The ECJ is comprised of 27 judges, one for each member state, who are appointed for a term of six years. The ECJ is responsible for reviewing the legality of the acts of the European Union, and ensuring that the member states comply with the obligations as stated by treaties. The ECJ may also be requested by national courts to interpret European Union law. The ECJ is very active in upholding EU law, by providing clarifications and interpretations of such laws. The ECJ's judgements often shed light on various provisions, principles, and rules, and, in this way, it can also be considered a law-making institution, though it does not have legislative functions.


  • Court of Justice of the European Union. (2022). Court of Justice of the European Union. Retrieved January 19, 2022, from

  • European Commission. (2022). European Commission.

  • European Council. (2022). European Council. European Council. Council of the European Union. Retrieved January 19, 2022, from

  • European Parliament. (2022). European Parliament. Retrieved January 19, 2022, from

  • European Union. (2022). European Citizens’ Initiative. Retrieved January 19, 2022, from

  • The Council of the European Union. (2021, July 6). The Council of the European Union. European Council. Council of the European Union. Retrieved January 19, 2022, from

Image sources

  • Simonds, D. (2019, July 8). Why the European Union should not ditch bilateral investment treaties [Illustration]. The Economist.

  • European Parliament. (2008). There’s a first time for everything. . . [Photograph]. European Parliament.

Author Photo

Gilda Liana Mazilu

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