How the European Union works

The European Union is based on the rule of law. This means that every action taken by the EU is founded on treaties that have been approved voluntarily and democratically by all EU countries. The treaties are negotiated and agreed by all the EU Member States and then ratified by their parliaments or by a referendum.

The treaties lay down the objectives of the European Union and set out the rules on how the EU institutions operate, how decisions are made and the relationship between the EU and its Member States. They have been amended each time new Member States have joined the EU. From time to time they have also been amended to reform the European Union’s institutions and to give it new areas of responsibility.

Decision-making at EU level involves various European institutions, in particular:

  • European Parliament,
  • European Council,
  • Council of the European Union (Council), and
  • European Commission.
  • Court of Justice of the European Union
  • European Central Bank
  • European Court of Auditors

The advisory bodies (the European Economic and Social Committee and the European Committee of the Regions) and national parliaments also play a role.

Generally it is the European Commission that proposes new laws and the European Parliament and the Council (also called the Council of the European Union) that adopt them. The Member States and the EU institution or institutions concerned then implement them.

European Parliament

The European Parliament is the only directly elected EU body, with representatives apportioned by each member state’s population. Unlike traditional legislatures, it can’t propose legislation, but laws can’t pass without its approval. It also negotiates and approves the EU budget and oversees the commission. Parliament is currently led by Maltese politician Roberta Metsola.

European Council

The European Council, a grouping of the EU’s top political leaders, consists of the president or prime minister of every member state. Its summits set the union’s broad direction and settle urgent high-level questions. Its members elect a president, who can serve up to two two-and-a-half-year terms. The current president is former Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel.

Council of the European Union

The Council of the European Union, also known as the Council of Ministers to avoid confusion, is a second legislative branch whose approval is also needed for legislation to pass. This council consists of the government ministers from all EU members, organized by policy area. For instance, all EU members’ foreign ministers meet together in one group, their agriculture ministers in another, and so on.

European Commission​

The European Commission, the EU’s primary executive body, wields the most day-to-day authority. It proposes laws, manages the budget, implements decisions, issues regulations, and represents the EU around the world at summits, in negotiations, and in international organizations. The members of the commission are appointed by the European Council and approved by the European Parliament. The current commission is led by former German Minister of Defense Ursula von der Leyen.

Court of Justice of the European Union

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) is the EU’s highest judicial authority, interpreting EU law and settling disputes. The CJEU consists of the European Court of Justice, which clarifies EU law for national courts and rules on alleged member state violations, and the General Court, which hears a broad range of cases brought by individuals and organizations against EU institutions.

European Central Bank

The European Central Bank (ECB) manages the euro for the nineteen countries that use the currency and implements the EU’s monetary policy. It also helps regulate the EU banking system. In the midst of the European debt crisis, which rocked the continent beginning in 2009, ECB President Mario Draghi controversially committed the bank to acting as a lender of last resort to ailing eurozone economies. French politician Christine Lagarde, former head of the International Monetary Fund, took over from Draghi in 2019.

European Court of Auditors

The European Court of Auditors (ECA) audits the EU budget, checking that funds are properly spent and reporting any fraud to Parliament, the commission, and national governments.