The institutions of the European Union

The institutions of the European Union

The European Union is run not by one body but by a series of institutions with their own remit. The following institutions were created in the 1960’s and have developed since. The European Commission has come in for criticism from those who oppose the European Union and many have criticised the apparent lack of national democracy as a result of the powers of these institutions in the European Union.

The most senior of these institutions is the Council of Ministers.

Other important bodies are:

The European Commission The European Parliament The European Court of Justice

The Council of Ministers

This is the European Union’s most powerful decision-making body. It is made up of the foreign ministers of member states. Other ministers from member states may have an input in topics relevant to their expertise.

The policies discussed and eventually decided on by the Council are largely developed by non-elected civil servants in member states and by the non-elected Commission. This has led to many complaints about how this system works in that 320 million people have decisions taken for them by elected ministers but these ministers discuss policies created by non-elected civil servants.

Before 1986, just one country represented in the Council could veto a policy but in 1986 Qualified Majority Voting was introduced. This is a system whereby each country has been given a block of votes dependent on its size. Britain, France and Germany as the largest member states have 10 votes each. Luxembourg has 2 votes. In total, there are 87 votes in the Council and 62 are needed to secure a majority.

A unanimous vote is required to enlarge membership of the Union. It would also be needed if there was a move towards a harmonisation of the tax systems of member states.

Britain has suffered rebuffs using this QMV system. Britain was overruled on the principle of a 48 hour week in 1993. In 1996, the Major government, in retaliation for the EU banning the sale of British beef as a result of the BSE scare, introduced a policy of non-co-operation with the EU. However, this was doomed to fail and was no more than gesture politics as the Council of Ministers did not need Britain’s 10 votes to push through policy.

This aspect of the Council alone has brought criticism from those against the EU in that the Council can impose a policy on member states even if they a) did not vote for it in the Council or b) simply, for whatever reason, did not participate in the work done in the Council on that policy. This ability to impose its will is all part of the supranational nature of the EU i.e. where member states ability to create domestic policy is inferior to that of the European Union.

The European Commission

The European Parliament

The European Parliament, based in Strasburg, is an elected body. Members of it are known as Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and they are elected by voters within a member state. However, turnout for MEP elections within Britain is low – much lower than for a national election. In 1999, the average MEP constituency vote was a mere 23% in the UK, comparing less than favourably with the average 60% in mainland European Union states.

The European Parliament is not a legislative body. It is consulted on issues and can influence changes to suggested policies but it cannot introduce them – this is only done by the Commission and it is the Commission that initiates the whole process. In this sense, what power does the European Parliament have?

The European Parliament has two theoretical powers but in reality it is unlikely to ever use both.

The Parliament can reject the annual budget of the European Union (which it did 6 times in the 1980’s) but now with a centralised currency, this would bring to a halt all the work the European Union does and bring the whole concept of a Europe working together into disrepute. The two bodies clashing would fundamentally weaken the whole fabric of the Union and give added ammunition to those anti the European Union.

The Parliament also has the theoretical right to dismiss the European Commission if two-thirds of MEP’s vote for this. This would cause huge chaos and simply will not happen. As the driving force behind policy initiative is the Commission, such an act would deprive the European Union, in many senses, of its modus operandi. However, it was pressure from the Parliament that lead to the resignation of all 20 commissioners in 1999.

The Parliament has 626 MEP’s and they are elected for 5 years. The more populated member states have been allocated a higher number of seats. When the Parliament sits, those who belong to a political party, tend to sit with all those from a similar party – i.e., the Socialists will all sit together regardless of which member state they are from; the environmentalists will also do the same etc. 

The European Court of Justice

This body is the one most anti-Europeans target as the one which has/will undermine British political sovereignty. They believe that the European Court of Justice will impose onto member states what they want and that the people within those states will not have any choice.

When Britain joined the EEC, simply by doing this the government put European law above British law. Though the Treaty of Rome has no validity in itself, what it stated was brought into British law by an Act of Parliament – the European Communities Act – in 1972. Therefore, all British domestic law has to be in synch with European Union law. The European Court will decide if it is or is not. The first time this affected Britain was in 1991 when the House of Lords used the 1972 Act to adjudge the 1988 Merchant Shipping Act to be contrary to European Union law (known as the Factortame Case). The summary of that case is blunt:

"The EEC Treaty is the supreme law of this country taking precedence over Acts of Parliament. Our entry into the EEC meant (subject to our undoubted but probably theoretical right to withdraw from the Community all together) Parliament surrendered its sovereign right to legislate contrary to the provisions of the Treaty on matters of social and economic policy."

The European Court of Justice is made up of 15 judges appointed by the member states. Their appointment is for a fixed term of office of 6 years though the term is renewable.

The function of the Court is to apply the laws and directives that come from the Commission. It also applies community law which is the law derived from the treaties on which the European Union is based. The Court can also hear cases against member states and the Commission itself. It was this court that deemed France was acting illegally when it refused to allow the sale of British lamb in French shops. However, its authority was only upheld after lengthy negotiations. As with the Supreme Court in America, the European Court can only work it member states agree to accept its rulings. The Court does not have the ability to physically impose its will – as in America – and the situation has not yet arisen  whereby member states have adamantly refused to implement the Court’s rulings.


MLA Citation/Reference

"The institutions of the European Union". HistoryLearningSite.co.uk. 2014. Web.






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