Set-up and location
The European Union’s institutional set-up is unique and its decision-making system is constantly evolving. The 7 European institutions, 7 EU bodies and over 30 decentralised agencies are spread across the EU. They work together to address the common interests of the EU and European people.
In terms of administration, there are a further 20 EU agencies and organisations which carry out specific legal functions and 4 interinstitutional services which support the institutions.
All of these establishments have specific roles – from developing EU laws and policy-making to implementing policies and working on specialist areas, such as health, medicine, transport and the environment.
There are 4 main decision-making institutions which lead the EU’s administration. These institutions collectively provide the EU with policy direction and play different roles in the law-making process:
- the European Parliament (Brussels/Strasbourg/Luxembourg)
- the European Council (Brussels)
- the Council of the European Union (Brussels/Luxembourg)
- the European Commission (Brussels/Luxembourg/Representations across the EU)
Their work is complemented by other institutions and bodies, which include:
- the Court of Justice of the European Union (Luxembourg)
- the European Central Bank (Frankfurt)
- the European Court of Auditors (Luxembourg)
The EU institutions and bodies cooperate extensively with the network of EU agencies and organisations across the European Union. The primary function of these bodies and agencies is to translate policies into realities on the ground.
Around 60,000 EU civil servants and other staff serve the 450 million Europeans (and countless others around the world). This is actually a relatively small number - the French Finance Ministry has around 140,000 staff for a population of only 67 million.
The powers, responsibilities and procedures of the EU’s institutions are laid down in the founding treaties of the EU: the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (1957) and the Treaty on European Union (1992). More recently, the Lisbon Treaty (2007) introduced certain amendments and additions to their competencies.
The 4 main EU institutions, with their distinct functions, work together closely to set the EU’s agenda and initiate and coordinate EU law-making.
In general, the European Council does not make laws. However, it can agree on changes in the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU. Its main role is to determine the EU’s political direction. In most cases, the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union and the European Commission produce the policies and laws that apply throughout the EU. The process they follow is called the Ordinary Legislative Procedure.
In principle, the Commission proposes new laws, and the Parliament and Council of the European Union adopt them. The member countries then implement them, and the Commission ensures that the laws are properly applied.
The European Parliament represents the citizens of EU countries and is directly elected by them. It takes decisions on European laws jointly with the Council of the European Union. It also approves the EU budget. It runs a network of liaison offices in EU capitals, London, Edinburgh and Washington D.C.
The heads of state or government of the EU countries meet, as the European Council, to define the general political direction and priorities of the European Union. The European Council is chaired by a president who is elected for a 2.5-year term, renewable once. It does not adopt laws except for possible EU Treaty amendments.
Represents the governments of EU countries. The Council of the EU is where national ministers from each government meet to adopt laws and coordinate policies. Ministers meet in different configurations depending on the topic to be discussed. The Council of the EU takes decisions on European laws jointly with the European Parliament.
The European Commission represents the common interests of the EU and is the EU’s main executive body. It uses its ‘right of initiative’ to put forward proposals for new laws, which are scrutinised and adopted by the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union. It also manages EU policies (except for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, which is conducted by the High Representative for CFSP, Vice-President of the European Commission), and the EU’s budget and ensures that countries apply EU law correctly. Representation offices act as the Commission’s voice across the EU. They monitor and analyse public opinion in their host country, provide information about EU policies and the way the EU works, and facilitate the Commission’s cooperation with the host member country.
The work of these 4 main EU institutions, which covers the legislative and executive tasks of the EU, is complemented by the work of another 3 EU institutions: the Court of Justice of the European Union, the European Central Bank and the European Court of Auditors. These 3 institutions are responsible for managing the judicial, financial and external audit aspects of the European Union.
The Court ensures that EU law is followed, and that the Treaties are correctly interpreted and applied: it reviews the legality of the acts of the EU institutions, ensures that EU countries comply with their obligations under the Treaties, and interprets EU law at the request of national courts.
The ECB and the European System of Central Banks are responsible for keeping prices stable in the euro area. They are also responsible for the monetary and exchange rate policy in the Eurozone and support EU economic policies.
The ECA contributes to improving EU financial management, and promoting accountability and transparency, and acts as the independent guardian of the financial interests of EU citizens. It checks that EU funds are correctly accounted for, that they are raised and spent in accordance with the relevant rules and regulations, and that they deliver value for money.
In addition to the institutions, there are a number of bodies which play specialised roles in helping the EU to fulfil its tasks. Some bodies have the task of advising the institutions (the European Economic and Social Committee, the European Committee of the Regions); others ensure that the institutions comply with EU rules and procedures (the European Ombudsman, the European Data Protection Supervisor). The European External Action Service is an external policy body that supports the EU on foreign affairs matters.
The EEAS is the European Union’s diplomatic service. It helps the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission implement the EU’s common foreign and security policy, and ensures the consistency and coordination of the EU’s external action. It has a network of EU Delegations throughout the world.
The EESC represents a variety of civil society stakeholders from across Europe, including employers, workers and representatives from other social, occupational, economic and cultural organisations. The European Parliament, the Council of the European Union and the European Commission consult the EESC when they take decisions on policy matters within its remit.
The CoR represents regional and local authorities. The European Parliament, the Council of the European Union and the European Commission consult the CoR on matters of relevance to local and regional authorities.
The EIB is the lending arm of the European Union. It focuses its activities on climate and the environment, development, innovation and skills, small and medium-sized businesses, infrastructure and cohesion.
The European Ombudsman is an independent and impartial body that holds the EU’s institutions and agencies to account and promotes good administration. The Ombudsman helps people, businesses and organisations who face problems with the EU by investigating complaints about maladministration, as well as by proactively looking into broader systemic issues.
The EDPS ensures that EU institutions and bodies respect people’s right to privacy when processing their personal data.
The EU institutions created 4 interinstitutional services to serve and support the work of the EU institutions, as well as its agencies and bodies. They each have specific remits, which cover the essential requirements of the EU institutions, such as recruitment, staff learning and development, IT and publishing. The Publications Office was established in 1969, whereas the other offices were set up more recently – the European Personnel Selection Office in 2003, the European School of Administration in 2005 and the Computer Emergency Response Team in 2012.
CERT-EU manages threats to EU institutions' computer systems – supporting IT security teams in each EU institution and liaising with public-sector CERT counterparts in EU countries.
The European School of Administration provides training in specific areas for EU staff and works in close cooperation with the training departments of all the institutions to avoid any duplication of effort.
EPSO is the EU’s selection office. It organises competitions to recruit candidates to work for EU institutions and agencies.
The Publications Office of the European Union is the official provider of publishing services to all EU institutions, bodies and agencies. As such, it is the central point of access to EU law, publications, open data, research results, procurement notices and other official information.
There are currently over 30 decentralised agencies. They have their own legal personalities, are set up for an indefinite period and are distinct from the EU institutions.
Decentralised agencies contribute to the implementation of EU policies. They also support cooperation between the EU and national governments by pooling technical and specialist expertise and knowledge from both the EU institutions and national authorities.
Decentralised agencies are spread across Europe and work on issues affecting the everyday lives of nearly 450 million people living in the EU. Examples include food, medicine, justice, transport safety, drug addiction and the environment.
The European Medicines Agency is a decentralised agency, located in Amsterdam. Established in 1995, it works on ensuring the efficacy and safety of human and veterinary medicines across Europe. It also promotes research and innovation in the development of medicines. It has contributed significantly to the development of children’s medicines, remedies for rare diseases, advanced therapies, and herbal and veterinary medicines. It also has a role to play in tackling such public health challenges as AIDS, cancer, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes.
Common foreign and security policy
The EU has set up 3 agencies to carry out very clearly defined technical, scientific and management tasks. The trio’s overarching mission is to help the EU and its member countries to implement the common foreign and security policy, including the common security and defence policy, and other aspects of EU external action.
The Defence Agency supports the development of defence capabilities and military cooperation between EU countries. It stimulates defence research and technology, strengthens the European defence industry and acts as a military interface on EU policies.
The Institute analyses foreign, security and defence policy issues. It provides analysis, organises discussion forums to help formulate EU policy, and contributes to debates on security strategy in and outside Europe.
The Satellite Centre provides geospatial intelligence products and services, primarily by analysing data from Earth observation satellites. It provides decision makers with early warnings of potential crises to enable diplomatic, economic and humanitarian measures to be taken in good time.
The European Commission has set up 6 executive agencies for a limited period of time to manage specific tasks associated with EU programmes. These executive agencies, which are legal entities, work on Commission initiatives ranging from health and education to innovation and research.
The European Commission established the European Innovation Council and SME Executive Agency (EISMEA) to develop and implement the European Innovation Council that identifies and supports breakthrough technologies and innovations. The Agency is also responsible for managing EU programmes in SME support, innovation ecosystems, single market, consumer policy and interregional innovation investments. It makes sure that work funded by these programmes delivers results and provides the Commission with valuable input for its policy tasks.
Euratom agencies and bodies
There are 2 Euratom agencies and bodies which were set up to support the aims of the European Atomic Energy Community Treaty (EURATOM, 1957). The aims of the Treaty are: to coordinate national nuclear research programmes for peaceful purposes; to provide knowledge, infrastructure and funding for nuclear energy; and to ensure sufficient and secure supplies of nuclear energy.
The agency ensures a regular and equitable supply of nuclear fuels to EU users. It enhances the security of supply to users in the European Union.
The joint undertaking manages the EU’s contribution to the ITER (originally, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) project, designed to demonstrate the scientific and technological feasibility of fusion power, and cooperates with Japan on fusion research and development projects.