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The Institutions of the EU

Although the United Kingdom has been a member of the European Community, now the European Union, for over thirty years, and much has been published about the EU institutions, there are still many questions posed by people in Britain and many misunderstandings about who does what in the EU.

The Remit of the European Union

The Union acts only where the Member States give it powers to act, because they believe that it is to their advantage to act together. Those areas are laid down in the Treaties, principally the Treaty of Rome (which has been amended on a number of occasions but always by unanimous decision of the Member States, ratified by their people or parliaments).

The EU cannot legislate or act outside the terms of the Treaties. Thus in the creation of the EU and in its future development it is the Member States who rule. Laws are made by the Ministers of the Member States, including the United Kingdom, in the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament and not by bureaucrats, as is commonly believed. The Presidency of the EU rotates between Member States every six months.

The Institutions

The Institutions of the European Union are:

The Council of Ministers
The European Parliament
The European Commission
The Court of Justice
The Court of Auditors

In addition, there are two important bodies which are not institutions of the Union but give valuable advice; the Committee of the Regions and the Economic and Social Committee.

The Council of Ministers

The prime policy-making and legislative body of the European Union, the Council of Ministers comprises the Ministers of all 25 Member States. It meets in various forms (e.g. the Environment Council, Economic and Finance Council, Agriculture Council and the General Affairs and External Relations Council) covering the main areas falling within EU responsibility.

Although the Treaty lays down whether decisions in the Council require a unanimous vote or a qualified majority in favour, Ministers prefer to achieve consensus, deciding most questions by agreement and without recourse to a vote. If there is no agreement or favourable decision by vote, a proposal is usually abandoned, withdrawn or resubmitted after amendment. On Community legislation, the Council can act only on a proposal from the European Commission (although it can of course amend it – unanimously if the Commission does not agree - or reject it): this is to ensure that proposals before the Council reflect the interests of the whole Union, since the European Commission is the institution which represents as far as possible the common interest.

The European Council

Four times each year, the heads of state or government of the 25 (soon to be 27) Member States meet in the European Council and take decisions on the most important and difficult issues submitted to them. In recent years, the European Council has become the prime mover, setting the strategic direction of the EU as well as the place where disagreements between Member States are resolved. The European Council operates by consensus.

The Council in all its various formations is underpinned by a structure of committees composed of officials representing member state governments. At the lowest level are the working groups, where the detailed negotiations among Member States take place to arrive at common solutions. Between the working groups and ministerial/Council levels are several senior/ambassadorial level committees. They can take a wider view of outstanding issues not soluble at the lower level. They also prepare the ministerial level discussion or negotiation if they cannot settle the issues. These committees are: the Committee of Permanent Representatives (known universally by its French acronym as Coreper) for external relations and general affairs and for co-ordinating the work of the EU as a whole and most Community legislation; the Economic Policy Committee; the Special Committee for Agriculture; the 133 Committee, for trade policy issues (known by the treaty article which creates it); the K4 Committee, for Justice and Home Affairs; and the Political and Security Committee (PSC), for foreign, security and defence policy

The European Parliament

The European Parliament is directly elected by the people of the Union. It has the right to propose amendments to legislation. A substantial number of areas are now covered by the “co-decision” process, the introduction of which has increased the democratic input into Community legislation; in effect, the European Parliament and the Council have to agree before a law can be adopted. Such laws normally take the form of “directives” which Member States have to turn into national laws, using their own wording to reflect the meaning of the directive.

The European Parliament and the Council are the joint budgetary authority of the EU and determine the amount of money to be spent each year in the budget. There is presently an overall cap on that budget of 1.24% of the GNI of the Union; this ceiling will be reduced to 1.045% if the agreement on future financing last December is approved. Currently the European Union budget represents less than 2.5% of public expenditure by the Member States of the Union.

The European Parliament, like many national parliaments, has a role of controlling the operation and implementation of Union policies by the Commission and is vigorous in its scrutiny.

The European Commission

The European Commission is headed by 25 Commissioners (one from each Member State). Member States agree on a President of the Commission, who must then be endorsed by the Parliament. The President then selects the other commissioners in discussion with Member States; the European Parliament must then endorse the whole college of commissioners. Normally the Commissioners have either held Ministerial posts in their own country or have been members of their national parliaments or the European Parliament. Commissioners are answerable for the European interest and are not allowed to take instruction from their governments.

The Commission’s principal roles are:

1. as the sole proposer of legislation at Union level;
The Commission consults very widely with those directly concerned such as consumer and environmental groups, business, commerce, trade unions, and professional interests. The great majority of proposals in fact come in response to the wishes of the Member States or of important opinion within the Union.

2. the implementation of policies and programmes decided by the Council and Parliament;
The Commission draws strongly on the services of the Member States themselves (for example, on agriculture and on regional and social spending) and also works closely with international organizations and non-governmental organizations (for example, on humanitarian aid and development).

3. as the regulator of the Internal Market;
One of the most important Commission roles is in ensuring fair competition in the internal market by its powers in relation to business mergers, against the abuse of dominant commercial positions and on state aids. The Commission also has an important role as the spokesman of the whole Union, within the terms of a negotiating position decided by the Council, in international negotiations on external trade and in some other areas.

4. as “Guardian of the Treaty”;
The Commission ensures that the Member States correctly transpose the European Union directives into national law and follows up on any other infringements, if necessary referring them to the European Court of Justice.

Staff and budget

The European Commission is quite small in staff numbers: about 25,000 permanent and temporary posts in its operational budget for a Union population of 450 million people. The Commission’s budget is less than that of the Mayor of London and is about 3% of the entire European Union budget. The Commission’s staff is a permanent civil service, almost all of whom are recruited by open competition.

Delegated legislation

When the Council has taken decisions on primary legislation, it has often delegated secondary and minor legislation to the Commission which then acts in consultation with the experts of the Member States. As a result there is a large volume of this minor legislation but a substantial amount expires or is repealed each year. In recent years, there have also been some moves to replace legislation with less formal benchmarking and comparison of national practices.

The European Court of Justice

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxembourg is the ultimate authority on the validity, interpretation and application of European Union law. Whether at the request of the highest court of a Member State or the Commission, the Court may clarify the meaning of EU law and can require a Member State to change its law in line with its EU obligations. Its power is the clearest possible demonstration of the respect of the rule of law in the European Union. The Court has the power to levy fines on Member States who ignore its judgments. However, it is not a US-style Supreme Court in that it can only deal with matters covered by the Treaties. The ECJ has no connection to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which predates the European Union and is not a part of the Union.

The Court of Auditors

The Court of Auditors' main task is to monitor the European Union's finances and point out areas where the management needs to be improved. It is free to organize its own work, and, in particular, to plan its own auditing activities. The Treaty requires the Court of Auditors to assist the Parliament and the Council in exercising their powers of control over the implementation of the budget to ensure that it is properly spent. The Court may, at any time, submit observations on specific questions and deliver opinions at the request of one of the other Institutions.


The EU’s institutions were carefully designed in the founding treaties to best achieve the common objectives of the Member States. This was to be achieved through a central institution charged with proposing legislation and safeguarding the treaties (Commission), working on the basis of decisions made by a body in which the Member States take decisions (Council), subject to the approval of the elected representatives of the people on certain issues at EU level (European Parliament) as well as through their Ministers in the Council at national level, overseen by an independent court and scrutinised by independent auditors.

March 2006

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