European Affairs

The institutions of the European Union: what are they and why do they matter?

Published on

July 5, 2018

European Commission

The European Commission is often portrayed as a costly machine, made of grey bureaucrats, detached from the reality of the man in the street, and entrenched in red tape and lengthy procedures. But what is it exactly and how does it work?

The European Commission is one of the main institutions of the European Union. It is constituted by a team of 28 Commissioners, coming from each country of the EU and led by a President (currently Jean-Claude Juncker). The College embodies the political leadership of the European Commission, which is divided in Directorates General, each responsible for a particular policy area. Overall, approximately 32,000 people work in this institution.


Did you know?
Only 6% of the annual budget of the EU (€145bn in 2015) is spent on running costs for all institutions. 94% of it funds real activities on the ground

Apart from its roles as enforcer of EU law and allocator and supervisor of EU funding, the European Commission is the only EU institution responsible for proposing new law, that will be then adopted by the European Parliament and the Council. This gives to the Commission a great agenda-setting power, even though many legislations are introduced at the behest of the Council or the Parliament. Still, when the Commission proposes legislation, it has to follow the principles of Better Regulation which include ensuring effectiveness, efficiency, relevance, coherence, and EU added value. Furthermore, the Commission is committed to high standards of stakeholder consultation, making sure that interested parties can provide their feedback and expertise on a given proposal even before it has been published. Associations like the EBAA play an important role in providing the Commission with informative elements and relevant evidence on the initiatives they are about to propose, therefore shaping new initiatives from an early stage.

The European Commission, located in Brussels, Belgium
The European Commission, located in Brussels, Belgium

The European Parliament

After having looked at the role and functioning of the European Commission in the last edition of the Bulletin, we will explore this time the European Parliament, its composition and its role in the co-decision procedure, and what this implies for stakeholders like the EBAA and its members.

The European Parliament is the only institution of the European Union directly elected by the population of the EU every five years. It is composed of 751 MEPs who are divided between Member States, proportionally to the size of their population. However, within the European Parliament, MEPs are not grouped by nationality but by political affiliation.


Did you know?
The European Parliament is the largest trans-national democratic electorate in the world

The Parliament is constituted of 20 committees and 2 subcommittees, that are all responsible of one particular area of competencies (e.g. Transport & Tourism Committee, Environment Public Health & Food Safety Committee, …). These committees examine the proposed legislations by the European Commission, alongside the Council of the European Union as part of the co-decision procedure, which is the most common legislative process. This means in practice that both institutions share equal powers to adopt legislative proposals.

Each MEP is responsible for amending the legislative proposals made by the European Commission if he/she wishes to. This moment of the legislative procedure is particularly timely for stakeholders, such as companies, NGOs, business organisations like the EBAA, or even academics, to engage with the MEPs. In fact, they can explain to the MEPs their stands on a specific issue in the legislative proposal and provide them with arguments and facts to support the points they are raising. MEPs rely on the expertise and feedback of stakeholders to make informed decisions on the proposals they are going to adopt, as they are often not expert in the field tackled by the initiative. This makes it particularly important for stakeholders to present themselves as respectable, knowledgeable, leading organisations in their field of expertise and to continue build a trusting relationship with decision-makers. Next year, after the European Parliament election that will take place in May 2019, stakeholders will have to capitalize on their existing relationships with MEPs and create new ones to ensure the right dissemination of their messages.


The European Parliament, Brussels
The European Parliament, Brussels

The Council of the European Union

After having looked at the European Parliament’s role in adopting legislation, it is now time to take a look at the other European institution able to adopt legislation: the Council of the European Union. As you will see, the importance of the Council for stakeholders expands far beyond Brussels.

The Council of the European Union, often referred to as ‘the Council’, represents the interests and positions of the Member States and therefore it regularly gathers ministers from each EU country to discuss, amend and vote on new laws. The Council is also responsible for coordinating the policies of EU Member States and for signing international agreements on behalf of the EU.

To follow the institutional work undertaken in the Council, each Member State has a permanent representation in Brussels, which works as an embassy to the EU and in close cooperation with the ministries in the capitals.

Did you know?
The Presidency of the Council changes every 6 months

Given the strong national dimension of the Council, for stakeholders, it is as important to engage at the national levels as it is at EU level. In fact, bringing an issue to the attention of policy-makers at national level, and explaining the potential impact for the country or for companies based in that country, can raise awareness of the issue and increase the chances of getting support within the Council. This is why having strong and engaged national support – from members or national associations – is important for stakeholders such as the EBAA, that are acting at the EU level.

Furthermore, decisions taken within the Council, at the exception of sensitive issues that might require the unanimity of the votes,  are accepted with a qualified majority. This means that a least 55% of countries representing minimum 65% of the total of the EU population need to approve them, hence the importance of coordinating national actions at EU level.

The Council of the European Union, Brussels
The Council of the European Union, Brussels

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Please contact Róman Kok at

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