The European Parliament is the only directly-elected body of the European Union. The 785 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are elected once every five years by voters representing the 492 million EU citizens. The main job of the European Parliament is to pass European laws, and it shares this responsibility with the Council of the European Union. Parliament and Council also share joint responsibility for approving the EU’s €100 billion annual budget. The main meetings of the Parliament are held in Strasbourg, others in Brussels. MEP’s have offices in both cities. Like all other EU institutions, the Parliament works in all 23 official EU languages.
The members of the Parliament sit in political groups – they are not organised by nationality, but by political affiliation. The President, elected among the MEPs for two and a half years at a time, oversees all the work of the Parliament and represents the Parliament in all external relations.
The power of the European Parliament has increased considerably over the years. The Parliament has, to some extent, the task of supervising the 27 European Commissioners who are appointed by the Council of Ministers then approved by Parliament. Commissioners, whose job is to oversee the various activities of the EU, appear regularly before parliamentary committees. Parliament has the power to dismiss the Commission en masse, but not individual commissioners.
EP Committees, which usually meet in Brussels, cover specific subject fields and prepare Parliament’s opinions in detail. In principle, all meetings of committees and the full Parliament are held in public, although some sections of committee meetings are occasionally held in camera.
Council of the European Union
The Council is the main decision-making body of the European Union and shares legislative power with the European Parliament. Meetings are attended by whichever ministers are responsible for the items to be discussed: foreign ministers, ministers of the economy and finance, ministers for agriculture and so on, as appropriate.
For intergovernmental matters, such as foreign and security policy or some justice and freedom matters, the Council acts on its own initiative – here the roles of the Commission and Parliament are limited. Each country has a number of votes in the Council broadly reflecting the size of their population, but weighted in favour of smaller countries. Most decisions are taken by majority vote, although sensitive issues in areas like taxation, asylum and immigration, or foreign and security policy, require unanimity. Council meetings are held in private, but there has been an attempt in the last few years to increase transparency in decision-making and make some meetings public.
Most meetings are held in Brussels; in April, June and October, however, the Council sits in Luxembourg. Very occasionally it may meet elsewhere, for example in the margins of UN or WTO meetings. The Council is chaired for a six-month period by each member state in turn – i.e. the ‘Presidency’, which sets the agenda. EU heads of state and government meet four times a year – as the European Council – setting overall directions for the EU.
The Secretary-General of the Council and the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy assists the Council in foreign policy matters. He contributes to the formulation, preparation and implementation of European policy decisions. He acts on behalf of the Council in conducting political dialogue with third parties. The current Secretary-General is Javier Solana.
The European Commission represents and upholds the interests of Europe as a whole. It is independent of national governments. The Commission of 27 member states consists of 26 Commissioners plus the President who are responsible for a diverse range of portfolios, such as enterprise and industry, transport, institutional relations and communication strategy, agricultural and rural development, and more. They are each assisted by a cabinet (private office) and a department (or Directorate-General) of officials.
The European Commission is the only EU institution that can initiate legislation. It drafts proposals for new European laws, which it presents to the European Parliament and the Council. It manages the day-to-day business of implementing EU policies and spending EU funds. The Commission also makes sure that everyone abides by the European treaties and laws. It can act against rule-breakers, taking them to the Court of Justice if necessary.
The President and members of the Commission are appointed for a period of five years, coinciding with the period for which the European Parliament is elected.
The Directorates-General are the Commission’s departments handling the practical work relating to each policy sector. They have some 24 000 civil servants, majority of whom work in Brussels.