The European Union’s founding treaties collectively underpin the principle that the electoral procedures and leadership selection processes for the main EU institutions must be carried out in a transparent and democratic way.
The EU treaties – the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union - provide the broad operational framework for the EU’s main institutions and indicate that representative democracy will be the form of government upon which the EU is based.
The Treaty on European Union makes it clear that:
- citizens are directly represented at EU level in the European Parliament
- EU countries are represented in a twofold manner:
The Lisbon Treaty (2007) introduced several notable amendments – including, for example, creating a permanent, full-time President for the European Council, and strengthening the European Parliament’s role and powers.
EU citizens are central to the EU’s democratic process and they all have a right to vote in the European Parliament elections.
In much the same way that they make their voices heard in their own countries by voting in national elections, they also directly or indirectly influence EU elections and appointments.
The European Parliament, European Council and Council of the EU are composed, respectively, of elected representatives and members of governments from every EU country.
And the EU largely replicates the parliamentary control processes of its 27 member democracies in its own democratic system of government. For example, the European Commission needs the express confidence of the European Parliament to formally take office at the beginning of its term.
Like governments worldwide, the EU executive is supported in its tasks by a civil service, entry to which is open to all EU citizens via recruitment competitions run by the European Personnel Selection Office.
The EU institutions have different selection procedures for their leadership.
Composition: currently 705 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), voted for directly by EU citizens, according largely to national electoral laws and traditions in each EU country.
MEPs may join political groups within the Parliament, based on their political affinities. Those who don’t are considered ‘non-attached’ MEPs.
Parliamentary elections are held every 5 years, most recently in May 2019.
Function: as the ‘co-legislator’, it decides on new legislation proposed by the European Commission – on most issues on an equal footing with the Council of the EU. It also votes on new trade agreements and scrutinises the EU institutions and how the EU budget is spent. Supported by its own administration composed of civil servants.
Powers of appointment
- Votes for its own President
- post held for a 2.5 year term, renewable once
- nominated by political groups or a minimum of 38 MEPs
- election held by secret ballot
- maximum of 4 ballots
- candidate must win an absolute majority of votes cast, i.e. 50% plus one.
- Elects its own Vice-presidents, quaestors, committee and delegation chairs and vice-chairs
- Elects the President of the European Commission
- Parliament must approve the new Commission President, proposed by the European Council, by an absolute majority (half of all MEPs, plus one).
- Vets Commissioners
- each Commissioner-designate (proposed by the Council, in agreement with the President-elect of the European Commission) must appear before parliamentary committees in their prospective fields of responsibility
- negative evaluations can result in a candidate’s withdrawal from the process. A new candidate for Commissioner must then be put forward for scrutiny
- Approves European Commission (the Commissioners, the President and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy)
- by a single vote of consent
(they are then officially appointed by the European Council)
- by a single vote of consent
- Has supervisory and control powers over the other EU institutions, holding them to account. It can for instance adopt a vote of no-confidence to censure and ultimately dismiss the Commission.
Composition: heads of state or government of EU member countries, the President of the European Council and the President of the European Commission. Supported by its own administration composed of civil servants.
Function: defines the EU’s overall political direction and priorities.
Powers of appointment
- Elects its own President
- by qualified majority in the European Council (55% of EU countries and 65% of the entire EU population)
- post held for a 2.5 year term, renewable once
- Proposes a candidate for the President of the European Commission
- by a qualified majority in the European Council
- post held for a renewable 5-year term
- the candidate proposed by the European Council must be approved by a majority in the European Parliament
- if Parliament fails to approve the candidate, the European Council must propose another candidate. The new candidate also has to be approved by a majority in the European Parliament
- Appoints the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (responsible for EU foreign affairs (‘external action’) and also a Vice-President of the European Commission)
- by qualified majority, with the agreement of the Commission President
- for a 5-year term
- Appoints the European Commission (the Commissioners and President, and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy)
- by qualified majority (after they have been approved by the European Parliament)
- Appoints the Executive board of the European Central Bank (ECB)
- board comprises 6 members: ECB President, Vice-president + 4 other members
- appointment made following a recommendation by the Council to the European Council, reached after consulting the European Parliament and the ECB’s Governing Council
- appointment approved by a qualified majority in the European Council
Council of the European Union
Composition: periodic meetings of government ministers from each EU country, depending on the policy area under discussion. For example, when agricultural policies are on the agenda, the meetings are attended by each country’s agriculture minister.
Supported by the Council administration, composed of civil servants.
Function: ministers voice the views of the EU’s member governments and meet to negotiate and adopt EU laws and coordinate EU policies.
The Council of the EU does not have an individual president. Instead it is chaired by a ‘presidency’, which rotates among member countries every 6 months.
The one exception is the field of foreign affairs and security policy – this is led by a standing official, the High Representative, supported by the European External Action Service (EEAS).
The Council of the EU is a single legal entity, but it meets in 10 different ‘configurations’, depending on the subject being discussed. The presidency chairs meetings held at every level within the Council of the EU. Its role is to ensure the continuity of the EU’s work in this forum.
The EU country holding the presidency works closely with the 2 countries that will succeed it in the chair. These groups of 3, known as “trios”, draw up a common agenda that will cover the main issues to be addressed by the Council of the EU over an 18-month period. Based on the agreed agenda, each country determines its own, more detailed, 6-month work programme, to implement when it assumes the presidency.
The European Council and Council of the European Union are supported by the General Secretariat of the Council.
Composition: a team of 26 Commissioners (1 per EU country), led by a President and supported in its business by a civil service.
Function: politically independent executive body that proposes new laws, manages EU policies according to powers defined in the treaties, implements the EU budget and enforces EU law.
The European Commission is led by its President and the 26 Commissioners, one per country.
The Commission President is elected for a 5-year term by the European Parliament, following the European elections.
The European Council (EU heads of state or government) proposes a presidential candidate to the Parliament. Because the choice of candidate must take into account the European election results, the proposed candidate generally comes from the largest political group in the Parliament.
The Parliament has to approve the new Commission President by an absolute majority (half of all MEPs, plus one). Once approved, the European Council officially appoints the new President.
If the candidate fails to secure the approval of the European Parliament, the European Council must propose a new candidate within 1 month.
The President-elect allocates policy portfolios to the candidate Commissioners, one from each EU country.
Commissioners carry out their duties for the Commission independently of the national governments of the countries from which they come.
The Commissioners-designate must then appear before the parliamentary committee responsible for their portfolio, to be evaluated on their suitability for the position.
Once all 26 Commissioners-designate have been approved (Commissioners-designate may withdraw if they do not receive a positive evaluation), they, along with the President-elect and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, have to be approved in a single vote of consent by the European Parliament.
The European Council formally appoints all the Commissioners to their respective positions, acting by a qualified majority.
Court of Justice of the European Union
Composition: The Court of Justice of the European Union consists of 2 courts:
- Court of Justice – rules on requests for preliminary rulings from national courts, certain actions for annulment, infringement proceedings brought against EU countries for failing to adhere to EU law, and appeals.
- General Court – rules on actions for annulment brought by individuals, companies and, in some cases, EU governments. In practice, it operates as the general administrative court of the EU and deals with many different fields of EU law, including competition law, state aid (government support), trade, agriculture, intellectual property and restrictive measures adopted by the Council against individuals and non/EU countries.
Function: interprets EU law to make sure it is applied in the same way in all EU countries, and settles legal disputes between national governments and EU institutions. It can also, in certain circumstances, be used by individuals, companies or organisations to take action against an EU institution, if they feel it has infringed their rights.
Members: Each judge and advocate general is appointed for a renewable 6-year term, by common accord of the governments of EU countries, after consulting a panel of respected lawyers who give an opinion on prospective candidates’ suitability. In each Court, the judges select a President from among themselves, who serves a renewable term of 3 years.
- Court of Justice – 1 judge from each EU country, plus 11 advocates general, who assist the Court by presenting, with complete impartiality and independence, an ‘opinion’ in the cases assigned to them
- General Court – 2 judges from each EU country
European Central Bank Executive Board
Consisting of the Bank’s President and Vice-President and the 4 other members, the Board is appointed by the European Council by qualified majority voting.
The Council makes this decision following a Council recommendation and having consulted the European Parliament and the Bank's Governing Council (the 6 members of the Executive Board, plus central bank governors from the 19 euro area (“eurozone”) countries).
European Court of Auditors
This is an EU institution that operates as a collegiate body of 27 members, one from each EU country. The members are nominated by their national government and appointed (for a renewable term of 6 years) by the Council, after consulting the European Parliament.
Members are required to perform their duties independently of national or other interests, representing the general interest of the EU. The Court of Auditors is headed by a President, who is elected for a renewable term of 3 years by the members from among their number.
As with the EU institutions, senior level appointments (e.g., Directors, Presidents) in other EU bodies are regulated by specific and detailed rules, which have their basis in the EU treaties. Some of these rules are applicable to all EU bodies, while others are internal requirements for specific institutions.
The executive directors of the EU’s decentralised agencies are usually appointed by the management board of the agency concerned, on the basis of a shortlist drawn up by the Commission, following an open selection procedure. Occasionally the appointing authority is the Commission or the Council of the EU. In some cases, the selected candidate has to undergo a hearing by the European Parliament before being formally appointed.