Wednesday, 6 July 2022 – 15:09
European Parliament

How the European Union works

Despite the fact that the UK has left the European Union, the EU will remain one of the most important international institutions that dictate the lives of the people in the United Kingdom, as member states account for over 50% of UK’s total trade and are also a key ally in the world of security and technology.

Click through the tabs below to learn more about different parts of the European Union.


{tab European Commission}

The European Commission is essentially the executive branch of the European Union – equivalent to the president or a prime minister – who is in charge of implementing legislation and managing the day to day administrative business of the EU. The Commission is made up of 27 Commissioners, one drawn from each member state, with one serving as the President of the Commission – currently, that is Ursula von der Leyen from Germany.

The president is proposed by the European Council and then voted on by the European Parliament – a largely similar method as with the UK Prime Minister being elected to the position by their party, never by the general electorate. The lifespan of a Commission is known by the incumbent president, with the current commission being the Von der Leyen Commission, since the European-wide elections in 2019.


Photo: European Commission Building

{tab European Council}

The European Council is a body that largely dictates the long-term policy direction and priorities of the European Union. It comprises of the Heads of State or governments of the 27-member states, along with the president of the commission and the president of the council – with the latter two members being non-voting, allowing each nation equal voting rights; regardless of which nations holds the commission presidency.

This means that the leader of each nation is a member of the council, such as Angela Merkel of Germany of Emmanuel Macron of France, with the current president of the council being former Belgium prime minister, Charles Michel.

Its official role is to provide the impetus for the union, being a major driving force of European integration, while also serving as a way of individual member states having an individual input in the European project. David Cameron used the council to express his dissatisfaction at the European Union’s further integration on many occasions.

The president of the council serves as the primus inter pares (first among equals), similar to the role of prime minister within the UK government, and are beholden to the European Parliament, being required to report back to them after every council meeting. This makes them relatively powerless legislatively, although they can serve as president of the European Commission in the absence of the permanent president.


Photo: Current EU Council President, Charles Michel | Credit: European Union


{tab European Parliament}

This is the body that is the most powerful on the daily lives of European citizens, with the electorate of every nation sending a delegation of representatives to the European Parliament, with the size of the delegation being determined by the size of each state.

The parliament is the legislature of the European Union, being the major body who vote on laws and create the laws that take precedence over those of individual nation’s own law. It is made up of 705 members, making it the world’s second-largest legislative body, a number which fell from 751 in 2019 after the UK left the parliament.

The parliament is presided over by a president and 14 vice presidents, with the parliament splitting into different voting blocks, determined by party ideologies. The Conservative party of the UK, for example, sat within the European Conservatives and Reformist Group (ECRG), which is made up of many centre-right parties across Europe. The largest of these blocks is the European People’s Party (EPP) group, which consists chiefly of centre-right parties across Europe but is different from the ECRG by being far more pro-Europe in its beliefs.

Perhaps the most confusing part of the European Parliament is the fact that every month they leave from Brussels (Belgium) to Strasbourg (France) and conduct their business in a French-German border town rather than from the parliament’s primary base. This extremely expensive endeavour is the result of the 1992 decision to officially settle the various branches of the European Union: the parliamentary committees in Brussels, the parliamentary secretariat in Luxembourg and the plenary sessions in Strasbourg.

This arrangement was incorporated into the EU treaty of 1997, which means that a change to this arrangement would require changes to the treaty that would require ratification by individual nation’s parliaments – it is unlikely, given the importance of the parliament to the economy of the respective regions in which they sit. It is estimated that moving operations from Strasbourg to Brussels, where most business is still taking place, would save more than £100 million a year.

Beyond this, the European Parliament acts almost entirely the same as any other parliament, with 20 standing committees and a variety of other committees and bodies which allow the different blocks to negotiate with each other and drive the policy-making of the union.


European Parliament Chamber, Strasbourg, France


{tab European Court of Justice}

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) acts as the Supreme Court of the European Union. Based in Luxembourg, it acts largely as an intermediary in disputes of law between member states, with the court’s main function being the interpretation of European Law and ensuring the equal application of the law across the entirety of the European bloc.

The court is aimed at giving equal representation to member nations, with each nation contributing one justice, however, most court proceedings occur with panels of just 3-15 members. The court often presides over cases of fulfilment, deciding whether member nations have been fulfilling their obligations as members of the European Union, with Poland amongst the recent nations being found not to be fulfilling their obligation within the Union.

Often, the ECJ has received criticism for being too proactive in its decision making, rather than simply acting as a reactionary and interpretive body, such as the US Supreme Court. However, the functions of the Union would be practically impossible without its service.


Photo: The Towers at the European Court of Justice, which accommodate translation services


Skip to content