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The European UnionHow does it work?

The European Union: How does it work? (6th edn)

Daniel Kenealy, Amelia Hadfield, Richard Corbett, and John Peterson
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p. 533. The EU’s Institutionslocked

p. 533. The EU’s Institutionslocked

  • Richard Corbett,
  • Daniel Kenealy
  •  and Amelia Hadfield


It is impossible to understand the EU without a careful study of its key institutions and how they work. This chapter examines the six key institutions of the EU: the European Commission; the Council (of ministers); the European Council; the European Parliament; the Court of Justice of the European Union; and the European Central Bank. The chapter discusses the structures and formal powers of the six institutions and how these powers have evolved in practice over time. While it may be tempting to regard EU institutions as dry and complex, they are also dynamic organisms exercising a unique mix of legislative, executive, and judicial power. The chapter explains why these institutions matter in determining EU politics and policy more generally, focusing on three central themes: the extent to which the EU is an experiment in motion; the importance of power sharing and consensus; and the capacity of the EU structures to cope with the Union’s expanding size and scope.


No student of the EU can understand their subject fully without a careful study of its key institutions and how they work. While it may be tempting to regard EU institutions as dry and complex, they are also dynamic organisms exercising a unique mix of legislative, executive, and judicial power. In this chapter, we begin by introducing the EU’s six most important institutions. We outline their structures and formal powers—that is, what the treaties say they can do—but we also focus on how they ‘squeeze’ influence out of their limited treaty prerogatives. We then explore why these institutions matter in determining EU politics and policy more generally.

3.1p. 54 Introduction

What makes the EU unique, perhaps above all, is its institutions. This chapter explores the six institutions that exercise the most power and influence: the European Commission, the Council (of ministers), the European Council, the EP, the CJEU, and the ECB. We draw analogies to their counterparts at the national level, but also show how they are distinct and unique. It is important to understand not just the formal powers conferred on them, but also how their informal powers have accrued over time, and how incremental power shifts take place between the various rounds of treaty reform. The institutional politics of the EU are often lively and can have important consequences.

An important point to note, at the outset, is the EU’s political cycle. EP elections are held every five years (the next are scheduled for May 2024). In the aftermath of those elections, a new European Commission is appointed, the term of which coincides with that of the Parliament, albeit with a timelag in that it can take some months for the Commission to be confirmed (the current Parliament convened on 2 July 2019 and the current Commission took office on 1 December 2019). Since December 2009 the European Council has appointed its own president for a two-and-a-half-year term, which can be renewed once to make a five-year term. The first two holders of that office were renewed, thus putting that office on the same cycle as the Commission. However, fluidity is introduced into the system by the Council (of ministers), whose composition is determined by the political make-up of the EU’s member state governments, which changes regularly through national elections. Member states take it in turns to chair its meetings for six months at a time.

Examining its institutions, and how they work, is essential to understanding the EU. First, it gives us a starting point from which to examine the EU’s policy process. Second, it helps us to identify the diversity of actors involved and to understand how they together determine the EU’s policies and indeed the shape and speed of integration. Finally, it reminds us that there remain many interesting questions still to be answered about European integration. Is it heading towards a European federal state? Or a looser, more intergovernmental body? Or a multi-tiered system? How democratic or efficient will it be? Who or what will determine the content of policies and the pace and shape of integration?

3.2 The European Commission

One of the EU’s most powerful and controversial institutions is the Commission. The EU’s founders were faced with a challenge. If the member states wanted to pursue common policies in certain fields, should they hand over responsibilities to a common institution, and leave it to get on with it, which could pose major questions of democratic accountability? Or should important policies be settled by national governments, thus risking endless intergovernmental negotiations and lowest common denominator outcomes?

p. 55In the end, they opted for a compromise: a common institution—the European Commission—was charged with drafting policy proposals (and implementing them once agreed; see Box 3.1). However, a separate institution—the Council—consisting of ministers representing national governments, would make (most) policy decisions on the basis of those proposals. This interplay of an institution charged with representing the general interest (Commission) and those composed of representatives of national governments (Council) or citizens (Parliament) is the essence of what became known as the Community method (Box 1.4). Very little can become EU legislation unless the Commission proposes it (although the Council and the Parliament can request the Commission to draft proposals).

Box 3.1 How it really works: Who initiates policy?

The formal right to initiate proposals for policy or legislation is one of the Commission’s most precious and fundamental powers. However, the origins of these same initiatives are diverse. In practice, most legislative initiatives emanating from the Commission are a response to ideas, suggestions, or pressures arising not from within its own corridors, but from other EU institutions (including the Parliament and Council, both of which have a right under the treaty to request the Commission to draft proposals—see Articles 225 and 241 TFEU), member states, and leaders. Others arise from international obligations or new trade agreements, and a growing proportion are connected to updating or amending previous EU legislation, rather than legislating in new fields. A particular effort in recent years has been to simplify, consolidate, or repeal old legislation, known as the ‘REFIT’ programme. In its 2020 programme, for instance, the Commission announced 43 policy objectives that would entail some 23 legislative proposals, along with two proposals to repeal (and 44 to simplify) existing legislation. In doing so, the Commission withdrew 32 proposals made by the previous Commission that had not been adopted by the EP and the Council.

The Lisbon Treaty also added a new, direct source of proposals: one million EU citizens can now sign a European Citizens’ Initiative to invite the Commission to bring forward a legislative proposal. Of more than seventy initiatives launched, six have reached the one million threshold. While the Commission is not legally obliged to act, the route has led to legislative proposals concerning drinking water quality.

3.2.1 Tasks and powers

The treaties (Article 17 TEU) grant the Commission a number of other important tasks besides the right to propose policies. The Commission is charged with representing the ‘general interest’ of the Union and, in this capacity, performs a variety of tasks:

it acts as guardian of the EU’s treaties (to defend both their letter and spirit), verifying the correct application of EU legislation;

it can be given powers to implement EU legislation and manage its programmes (see section 7.2);

p. 56 it is the competition authority for the single market, with powers to vet and veto mergers, even of companies located outside the EU but selling in its market;

on the basis of Council mandates, the Commission negotiates international trade and cooperation agreements;

it manages and executes the EU budget, which is adopted on a proposal by the Commission, but invariably after amendment by the EP and the Council (see Box 5.3; Box 7.2; Figure 7.1).

Taken together, these powers make the Commission one of the most powerful international administrations in existence (Kassim et al. 2013). Its powers in some economic fields are not far short of those enjoyed by national governments. However, its capacity to act autonomously is also more limited than that of a national government and its scope is limited: for example, it lacks powers that national governments have over armed forces, police, foreign policy, or the nomination of judges.

3.2.2 How the Commission is organized

‘The Commission’ refers to two elements of the same body: the College of Commissioners (the political executive which heads the Commission), and its administration (its permanent ‘services’ staffed by civil servants). The College is the powerhouse of the Commission. Like a minister in a national government, each of the 27 commissioners—one from each member state—is nominated by the prime minister or president of their own country. Commissioners are not directly elected, but they are politicians rather than civil servants (most have held high office in national politics before becoming commissioner) and hold office only with the approval of the EP. The permanent civil servants (i.e. the Commission’s officials or fonctionnaires) are recruited normally through competitive examination and work under the College’s authority. This is a unique feature of the EU: its institutions recruit its own civil servants and do not rely (much) on national appointees (except for the European External Action Service (EEAS)—the EU’s diplomatic service—where seconded national diplomats amount to about one-third of its ranks).

The Commission president is elected by the EP straight after each EP election, on a proposal of the European Council, which itself is obliged to take account of EP election results in making that nomination (Corbett 2014; Dinan 2015). In other words, heads of government have to choose a candidate for president who is capable of commanding a parliamentary majority in much the same way that a national head of state has to when nominating a prime minister. Ahead of the 2014 EP elections, several European political parties interpreted this requirement to mean that the European Council should choose as Commission president the nominee of the political party with the most seats in the EP, or at least the one able to assemble a majority coalition. The European Council followed this process when it appointed Jean-Claude Juncker in 2014. However, in a controversial move, the process was p. 57not followed in 2019 and the European Council chose as Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who had not been a nominee of any party (see section 6.3.4), and who was approved by a narrow majority in the EP. Von der Leyen was the first woman appointed to the post (see Abels and Mushaben 2020).

Once elected by the EP, the Commission president must then agree with each head of government on the nominee from each country for the remaining members of the College of Commissioners. It is up to the Commission president to distribute policy responsibilities—known as ‘portfolios’—to individual commissioners (for transport, agriculture, and so on). The one exception is the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy (see section 3.4), who is also a vice-president of the Commission, where the European Council collectively agrees a nominee with the president-elect of the Commission.

The prospective Commission must then present itself to the Parliament for a vote of confidence. This vote is on the college as a whole—again, much like a vote of confidence in a government in a national context. However, prior to this vote, the EP exercises its power of democratic scrutiny and holds public hearings for each individual commissioner before the parliamentary committee corresponding to their portfolio (which does not happen to ministers in most European countries).

The distribution of Commission portfolios can be controversial. Historically, portfolios dealing with international trade, the internal market, competition policy, agriculture, regional development funds, and, in recent times, environment and energy are particularly sought after. However, since the presidency of Jean-Claude Juncker (2014–19), the Commission has been organized in a more strategic way, with more senior commissioners—vice-presidents and, since 2019, executive vice-presidents as well—responsible for coordinating the work of the Commission in key policy spheres (Box 3.2). How much an individual commissioner can shape policy is nonetheless limited by the principle of collegiality: the entire College agrees all policy proposals. Once the College takes a decision at its weekly meetings—chaired by the president (if necessary by majority vote but usually by consensus)—it becomes the policy of the Commission as a whole. Key legislative and policy decisions then need approval by the Council and/or the Parliament. In this way, the Commission illustrates a key feature of the EU itself: that of institutions operating within a system of checks and balances.

Box 3.2 Spotlight on: The evolving structure of the College

The structure of the College has evolved since 2014. This was partly a necessity, following the 2009 European Council decision to keep one commissioner per member state, despite the increased size of the EU, and partly a reflection of the need for the Commission to act in a more focused way in an ever-more-complex world. The key structural innovation has been to introduce a two-tier p. 58system of commissioners—with vice-presidents (or executive vice-presidents) taking on either core policy portfolios or coordinating briefs responsible for organizing the work of multiple policy portfolios.

Although there have been vice-presidents of the Commission dating back to the first Hallstein Commission (1958–62), the title historically signified no more than nominal seniority. The situation changed with the Commission of Jean-Claude Juncker (2014–19). Juncker organized his Commission in project teams, which was a major overhaul in both structure and governance. Juncker appointed six vice-presidents (in addition to the high representative1) and tasked them with taking charge of major cross-cutting policy issues. Juncker’s structure was innovative insofar as it introduced a more horizontal structure to a Commission that had, up to that point, been organized vertically in silos. The horizontal/vertical issue is one that increasingly bedevils national ministries as policy problems become more interconnected—the Juncker Commission explicitly tried to overcome this.

Juncker’s vice-presidents were responsible for coordinating Commission activity in pursuit of, for example, an energy union, economic growth and competitiveness, the digital single market, and interinstitutional relations and the rule of law within the EU (something that become more controversial than its description suggests as the governments of Hungary and Poland passed laws that led to democratic backsliding—see section 6.4). The Juncker Commission was generally praised for its innovative structure, more so than most similar national experiments with what are often called ‘coordinating ministers’ (Peterson 2017b; Kassim 2017). The von der Leyen Commission, which took office in December 2019, built on this organizational approach, organizing itself into six key ‘groups’. Although some of the names of the groups—‘Protecting our European Way of Life’, for example—drew ire, it represented a continuation of the structure established by Juncker. The von der Leyen Commission presented itself as a ‘geopolitical’ Commission from the outset, chiming with the language of French President Emmanuel Macron, who sought an EU that could act with strategic purpose, first in its neighbourhood and then globally—a form of ‘European sovereignty’, as Macron called it, harking back to Gaullist visions of using the EU as a tool to amplify the power of its key member states (especially France—see section 2.3.1).

Debates about whether these developments symbolize a turn towards a more ‘political’ Commission often suffer from conceptual poverty (Nugent and Rhinard 2019). What is certain is that both Juncker and, following him, von der Leyen, have approached the organization of their Commission in a more cross-cutting, thematic, and strategic way.

p. 59Controversy surrounding portfolio assignments illustrates that the defence of national interests in the Commission can never be entirely removed. Commissioners take an oath of independence when they are appointed, but it is challenging for them to wholly set aside national interests. Indeed, many consider it to be an advantage that they bring in-depth knowledge of their respective countries to the Commission as part of the overall decision-making process, even if they are not formally there to represent them—that job belongs to ministers in the Council. A commissioner who merely repeats the position of his or her national government would soon lose credibility within the Commission. However, one that too obviously ignores strategic national interests may be liable for criticism at home. Commissioners therefore face a tough balancing act: they must be simultaneously sensitive to the interests of their member state but not undermine the independence of the Commission as an institution.

Commissioners each have their own private office—or cabinet—of around eight or nine advisers, although the president’s cabinet is always larger. Cabinet officials are chosen by individual commissioners and may be drawn from inside or outside the Commission, and keep the commissioner informed about their own policy area(s), as well as wider developments in the Commission and Europe more generally. Most cabinets are composed largely of members of staff of the same nationality as the commissioner, but the head or deputy head of each must hail from a member state different from that of the commissioner. Member states are often criticized for seeking to place their own national officials into Commission cabinets to ensure that their interests are not overlooked. However, since new rules brought in by President Romano Prodi (1999–2004), cabinets have become more ‘European’—with nearly all having at least three nationalities—and less male-dominated, with around 40 per cent of appointees being women (Peterson 2017a: 129).

Most commissioners are responsible for one or more Directorates General (DGs)—or services—that relate to their portfolio. These DGs, the equivalent of national ministries, cover the EU’s main policy areas such as competition, the environment, or agriculture. A director general, who reports directly to the relevant commissioner, heads each. The Commission’s administration comprises 33 DGs (or Executive Agencies with equivalent status), in addition to 16 Service Departments. In total, the Commission has approximately 33,000 officials, although about one-tenth of them are involved simply in translating or interpreting into the 24 official languages of the EU. It is thus smaller than is often portrayed in the popular press: about the size of the administration of some large cities. In day-to-day work, the dividing line between administrative civil servants and commissioners is not always self-evident. While the College is ultimately responsible for any decisions that emanate from the institution, in practice, many matters are handled further down in the administration by the permanent civil servants distributed across the various DGs (see section 5.3.1).

With successive EU enlargements, the growing size of the College of Commissioners has risked turning it from a compact executive into a miniature p. 60assembly of 27. The 2009 Lisbon Treaty had provisions for a smaller Commission but also allowed member states to vary its size, leading to a decision to stick with one commissioner per member state. The move shows that there remains more concern for the Commission’s legitimacy—with, for instance, one member of the College who speaks each country’s language(s) and who can appear in the national media—than with its efficiency. Finding a sufficient number of responsible and interesting portfolios of relatively equal importance has proved difficult. The result has been the introduction of a de facto hierarchy among commissioners (see Box 3.2). In the Commission administration, new and generally younger officials from states that have joined the EU since 2004 have contributed to revitalizing and renewing the institution with fresh ideas (see Kassim et al. 2013: 245–72). The Commission can be adept at using its limited resources—for example, it was among the first institutions to conduct detailed research on climate change, highlighting the necessity of new initiatives such as an emissions trading scheme. Thus, the Commission is not simply the servant of the member states.

3.3 The Council (of ministers)

The Council was originally created as the EU’s primary decision-making body. The treaties state that it shall consist of ‘a representative of each member state at ministerial level, who may commit the government of the member state in question and cast its vote’ and that it ‘shall, jointly with the EP, exercise legislative and budgetary functions’ and ‘carry out policy-making and co-ordinating functions’ (Article 16 TEU).

The Council is thus both a legislative chamber for the EU member states (as half of the Union’s bicameral legislative authority, together with the EP) and the forum in which the governments of the individual member states come together to debate issues of foreign policy, and coordinate domestic policies (e.g. macroeconomic policies), that are primarily a national responsibility. It is in the Council that national interests, as seen by the government of the day in each member state, are most clearly represented and articulated.

The Council is a complex system. The treaties refer to a single Council, but as an institution, it meets in different configurations depending on which policy area is being discussed. For example, when agriculture is discussed, agriculture ministers meet; when the subject is the environment, it is environment ministers, and so on. There are ten different configurations of the Council, with the General Affairs Council (now largely comprising national Europe ministers to relieve the burden on foreign ministers, so the latter can concentrate on foreign policy) holding a coordinating brief. The General Affairs Council is also responsible for dossiers that affect more than one of the Union’s policies, including enlargement, the budget, and the EU’s overall institutional set-up, as well as preparing European Council meetings. The Council is aided by a secretariat of around 3,000 officials who play an important role in brokering deals and crafting compromises between member states. Even with their help, the burden on national ministers has increased enormously. p. 61The agricultural, foreign, and economic ministers meet at least once a month, others from one to six times a year.

Given its core function—representing member states—it is easy to conclude that the Council (and its preparatory bodies) are purely intergovernmental. But, as constructivists would note (see Lewis 2005), regular ministerial meetings, informal contacts, and routine bargaining have provided the grounds for continual and close cooperation among executives from different member states. As a result, the Council has helped construct a collective identity that is more than merely the amalgamation of national views. That identity has in turn helped push the Union forward as a regional and international actor.

3.3.1 The Council presidency

Council meetings are chaired by a minister from the member state holding the rotating ‘Presidency of the Council’ (except for meetings of foreign affairs ministers, which are chaired by the high representative—see section 3.4). Member states take turns chairing for six months each. Although often hyped up in the media as the ‘EU presidency’, presidencies are, in fact, simply the opportunity for member states to chair one of the Union’s institutions on a rotating basis. Holding the presidency does not confer any additional powers on the holder, but places them in the media spotlight, providing them with an opportunity to highlight a given EU policy as well as bringing their own national ‘flavour’ to the fore during the six-month period. The presidency’s job is to build consensus across EU member states, and move decision-making forward. In doing so, the presidency arranges meetings, and in setting the Council’s agenda, can determine which issues will be given priority (see Häge 2017; Vaznontyé 2020). Holding the presidency also has disadvantages. Much time and preparation is required and at times of high crisis, much can go wrong, all of which is daunting, especially for those from smaller states (see section 4.3.2).

3.3.2 Voting in the Council

In most areas, the treaties provide that a qualified majority can approve a Commission proposal, whereas unanimity is required to amend it. This is a crucial distinction, and also a key feature of the Community method. Some policy areas, however, require unanimity to approve any measure. Unanimity applies to sensitive matters including taxation, anti-discrimination legislation, non-legislative decisions on foreign and security policy, and constitutional questions such as the accession of new member states (see section 9.2.2). A simple majority, i.e. one vote per member state, is used for procedural questions. The chair of the Council decides whether, and when, to call a vote, and must do so if a simple majority requests it. Even though consensus is always sought, and usually achieved, formal votes are sometimes needed. Even then, a qualified majority requires the support of a high threshold (see Box 3.3).

Box 3.3 How it really works: Reaching decisions in the Council

QMV now applies to most areas of Council decision-making, and any national representative on the Council can call for a vote on any measure to which QMV applies. In nearly all cases, a qualified majority requires that a proposal secures the support of at least 55 per cent of the members of the Council (at least 15 out of 27 member states), and that they must represent, collectively, at least 65 per cent of the EU’s population. However, a blocking minority on the population criteria (35 per cent) must include at least four Council members—three member states, whatever their population, are not enough to block. In practice, only a minority of decisions subject to QMV are actually agreed by majority (Wallace and Reh 2014: 83). Pushing for a formal vote either too early, or too often, can create resentment that subsequently disrupts the mood and effectiveness of the Council. Thus, decision-making in the Council usually proceeds on the understanding that consensus will be sought, but equally that obstructionism or unreasonable opposition could be countered by a vote.

How is consensus achieved between 27 (now very disparate) states? Imagine a contentious item on the Council’s agenda (e.g. health and safety regulations for workers). Perhaps a majority of states support the initiative, but some are opposed or ambivalent. Before proceeding to a vote, several attempts may be made to achieve some sort of consensus. Bargaining is most intense at the level of Coreper, which is the committee in which member state ambassadors to the EU meet to prepare Council meetings. Informal conversations between national representatives prepare the ground. The presidency will be particularly active, and may hold bilateral meetings to explore possible compromises. These can be ahead of meetings or at them during breaks, whether scheduled or impromptu. The objections of opposing states might be assuaged in a variety of ways, for example, by redrafting certain clauses, by the promise of later support for a favoured initiative, or by the possibility of a derogation from a policy, or a postponement of its implementation. Daily practice in Coreper and the Council are therefore characterized far more by the search for consensus among member states than by the various voting mechanisms.

p. 62Prior to the Lisbon Treaty, the Council legislated behind closed doors—which arguably made negotiations easier as they were shielded from public scrutiny—but left the Council vulnerable to the charge that it was the only legislative body in the democratic world that enacted legislation without the public being able to see how members voted. Since then, legislative deliberations take place in public, meaning web-streamed or televised (there is no physical public gallery). The Council—and the European Council (see section 3.5)—have felt the effects of EU enlargement most keenly, especially where unanimity is required or desired. Since the 2004 enlargement, the Council has found it increasingly difficult to push through important decisions in key areas, such as foreign policy, police cooperation, and migration. National vetoes are not necessarily more common in an enlarged EU (see Kaeding and Stack 2015). Equally, Council meetings are now more time-consuming p. 63and not always as productive, given the increased number, and diversity, of member states (see section 4.1). A larger number of member states increases the chances of one or more outliers whose governments (or electorates) challenge the values and assumptions on which the EU is based—for example, Hungary blocked a Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) statement that was critical of China’s anti-democratic activities in Hong Kong in May 2021.

3.3.3 Coreper (Committee of the Permanent Representatives)

Council decisions require extensive negotiation. Each EU member state has its own Permanent Representation (‘Perm Rep’) office in Brussels, headed by a permanent representative who has ambassadorial status. The national civil servants who staff the Perm Reps sit on a variety of preparatory working groups within the Council system. The fine-grained policy details are debated and largely decided at these levels, and particularly within Coreper. Composed of national ambassadors to the EU and their staffs, Coreper’s job is to prepare the work of the Council, and to reach consensus or suitable majorities ahead of Council meetings (see Bostock 2002). Items agreed by Coreper are placed on the Council’s agenda as ‘A points’ for formal approval: if no minister objects, they are approved. Coreper is split into Coreper II, which is made up of ambassadors overseeing strategic political, institutional, and budgetary issues, and Coreper I, which is led by deputy ambassadors, who deal with most other issues. Some sensitive or high-activity policy areas—including security, economic and financial affairs, and agriculture—have their own special preparatory committees, composed of senior officials from the member states.

To the uninitiated (and many of the initiated), Coreper and its various working parties can seem complicated. National ambassadors and senior civil servants who prepare Council meetings are assisted by numerous (around 140) working groups and committees of national delegates who scrutinize Commission proposals, put forward amendments, and hammer out deals prior to the Council meetings. The vast majority of Council decisions (around 70 per cent) are settled by Coreper II and I, before Council ministers become directly involved (Hayes-Renshaw 2017). Some view Coreper as a policy powerhouse: ‘the men and women who run Europe’. For others, including Coreper’s civil servants themselves, their role is merely that of assisting ministers. A civil servant’s quote from some years ago remains apt: ‘If ministers want to let Coreper decide, that is a ministerial decision’ (Economist 1998). And all decisions must go before the ministers, even if they nod them through.

3.4 High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy

A major innovation took place in 2010 with the merging of two previously separate posts: the commissioner for external relations and the Council’s high representative for the CFSP. The creation of the latter post in the late 1990s p. 64reflected a desire to have a common EU spokesperson articulating the agreed member state position on key foreign policies. However, France and the UK in particular were averse to the idea of the Commission representing the EU beyond its existing external relations remit in trade, development, and humanitarian aid. Thus, the top civil servant of the Council, i.e. its secretary general, was designated as the high representative for the CFSP. This division of labour, however, proved problematic and confusing. Non-EU countries, and international organizations, were not always sure who was representing the EU on a given foreign policy issue. In many situations, the Union had to be represented simultaneously by the high representative and the external relations commissioner. For these reasons, the Lisbon Treaty merged the two posts. Still titled the high representative (for foreign affairs and security policy)—the post is also that of vice-president of the Commission (HR/VP), with the European Council choosing the appointee in agreement with the Commission president.

The HR/VP role is on the one hand a logical step towards bringing the tasks of the former Council high representative into the European Commission, ending the separation of foreign policy from other external policy sectors (e.g. development). Equally, it permits the Council additional authority within the Commission’s external representation role. The outcome is a compromise designed to enable the EU to coordinate its foreign affairs between its own member states and institutions in a way that is recognizable for international actors, enabling it to be regarded, and indeed to act, as a regional and global leader in key areas. The HR/VP chairs the meetings of the FAC, oversees the EEAS, the EU’s diplomatic service, and heads the European Defence Agency. Batora (2013) theorizes the EEAS as inhabiting the spaces between existing EU institutions, creating ‘a situation in which there are different and sometimes conflicting organizational principles and practices introduced’ within the EEAS. However, in the years since its establishment, the EEAS ‘has earned its space as a coherence-building mechanism’ (Blockmans and Wessel 2021: 11) and new informal leadership practices have since emerged in EU foreign policy.

Interestingly, the HR/VP post was originally labelled the EU ‘minister of foreign affairs’ in the proposed Constitutional Treaty, before the latter was abandoned. Recycling the more anodyne title ‘high representative’ for the post has not prevented its holder becoming a high-profile figure in representing the EU to the world. Vicere argues that the post-Lisbon foreign and security policy architecture acts as an intergovernmental catalyst for greater integration ‘without greater empowerment of supranational actors’ (2016: 557). However, the HR/VP remains the most explicit example of seeking to combine supranational and intergovernmental structures into a single institutional post. The first three holders of the post—Catherine Ashton, Federica Mogherini, and Josep Borrell—have each differed in their approach, with Mogherini and Borrell seeming to embed the role more centrally in the Commission (see section 8.4).

3.5p. 65 European Council (of Heads of State or Government)

The European Council began in the 1970s as occasional and informal fireside chats among heads of government (or, in the case of member states with executive presidents, such as France, heads of state). It became a regular gathering, and known as the European Council, in the mid-1970s (although the term ‘summit’ is still frequently heard). For a long time, the European Council was seen simply as the pinnacle of the Council system, comprising prime ministers rather than sectoral ministers. However, its composition is formally different—the president of the European Commission is also a member of the European Council alongside the heads of state or government—and the very nature and dynamics of Council meetings give it an unmistakably distinct character. The Lisbon Treaty formally made it a separate institution.

The European Council must meet at least four times a year, although six (or sometimes more) has become the norm in recent years. The treaties state that the European Council ‘shall provide the Union with the necessary impetus for its development and shall define [its] general political directions and priorities’ (Article 15 TEU). Even prior to the recognition of its role in the treaties, it had become the major agenda-setter of the Union. Initiatives such as direct elections to the EP, monetary union, successive enlargements, climate change strategy, and major treaty reforms have all been agreed, or endorsed, at European Council level. The European Council is not a legislating institution, but it does set and direct the EU’s overall policy agenda by adopting key ‘conclusions’ at its meetings. In the words of Herman Van Rompuy, European Council President between 2009 and 2014, ‘the European Council works by keeping out of day-to-day business which the other institutions do much better’ (in the well-tested framework of the Community method), ‘yet springing into action to deal with the special cases—changing the treaty, letting new members in the club, dealing with a crisis. In all these cases it draws upon the collective legitimacy of its members’ (Van Rompuy 2012).

The European Council’s other broad function is problem solving. Issues that cannot be resolved within either Coreper or the Council (of ministers) are often settled at this elevated political level. Sometimes this is through informal persuasion. At other times, European leaders strike ‘package deals’ that trade off agreements on one issue (e.g. regional spending) in exchange for concessions on another (e.g. agricultural reform), settlements which sectoral ministers cannot easily make. Serious deadlocks on the finances of the Union have often been resolved only through such deals in late-night sittings. The European Council also nominates the president of the Commission, and the governor and board members of the ECB.

The presidency of the European Council used to rotate in tandem with that of the Council (of ministers). With the Lisbon Treaty, it was agreed that heads of state or p. 66government would choose their own chair for a longer, two-and-a-half-year term (renewable once). The first such President, Herman Van Rompuy took office on 1 January 2010, leaving his post of prime minister of Belgium (see Barber 2010). Donald Tusk succeeded him in 2014, leaving the post of prime minister of Poland. In 2019, another Belgian Prime Minister, Charles Michel, was chosen. Belgian prime ministers have particular experience of having to find consensus among disparate coalition partners using more than one language.

The creation of a ‘permanent’ president was driven largely by a desire to enhance the efficiency and continuity of the European Council’s work, which had expanded and created significant pressures on national heads of state or government under the previous rotating system. In addition, the task of representing the EU externally at various international summit meetings, while at the same time representing their own country, was felt to be inappropriate.

Member states with an intergovernmentalist view of the EU saw the European Council president as a useful counterweight to the president of the Commission. Many French observers, given their domestic institutional system, regard the president of the European Council as a sort of président of Europe, with the Commission president demoted to the status of a French prime minister: that is, devoted largely to internal affairs and even then deferring on major decisions to the president of the European Council. However, not all share that view. The first European Council President, Van Rompuy, described himself as being less than a président but more than a chairman: a facilitator, not a dictator. A series of crises that confronted the EU from 2009 onwards has led some to observe an increased role for the European Council in decision-making (see section 4.3.3).

3.6 The European Parliament

The EU is unique among international organizations in having an elected parliament: the EP is the only directly elected multi-national parliament with significant legislative powers in the world. Some saw the creation of a directly elected parliament as a means towards a more ‘federal’ system in which the Union would derive legitimacy directly from citizens instead of exclusively via national governments. Others simply saw the need to compensate the loss of national-level parliamentary power, which is inherent in pooling competences at European level, with a supranational scrutinizing and law-making institution.

To its admirers, the Parliament represents the voice of European citizens in elected, accountable European decision-making. But it also has its critics: in contrast with most national parliaments, it cannot directly initiate legislation and its budgetary powers cover only spending, not the sources of revenue. Its housekeeping arrangements remain challenging and expensive: member states attached a protocol to the EU treaties requiring it to divide its activities between Brussels (three weeks out of four) and Strasbourg. The multiplicity of languages means that p. 67its debates sometimes lack the cut-and-thrust found in many national parliaments. Until 2014, there was no visible link between the outcome of the parliamentary elections and the composition of the executive, a situation that voters are used to at the national level (see section 6.3.4). Turnout in EP elections is also historically lower than in most national (but not local) elections in Europe, though the 2019 election saw turnout increase to its highest level since 1994, at 51 per cent.

However, the EP exercises its legislative powers forcefully compared to national parliaments, which rarely amend or reject government proposals. Because no executive or any governing majority controls it, the EP can use its independence to considerable effect. Each successive treaty change has also strengthened the role of the Parliament. The Parliament is now a legal and political equal to the Council in deciding almost all legislation, as well as the EU budget, and the ratification of international treaties. The EP also elects the president of the Commission, and confirms (and can dismiss) the Commission as a whole. Its members (MEPs) are able to network across the EU’s institutions and with national governments, interest groups, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The Lisbon Treaty caps the EP at 751 members (currently 705 following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU) with a minimum of six, and a maximum of 96 seats per member state, degressively proportional to population. It has members from opposition parties as well as governing parties in every member state and therefore has a considerably higher degree of pluralism than the Council. Most dividing lines are political rather than national. Indeed, MEPs sit in political groups, rather than in national blocs. Although there are over 150 national parties, almost all MEPs coalesce into (currently seven) Parliametary Groups, most of which correspond to familiar European political families: Liberals, Socialists, Christian Democrats, Greens, and so on (Table 3.1). These groups must be distinguished from—although they are closely connected to—European political parties (see Box 6.5). The EP, despite real linguistic challenges, seems to have had the least difficulty absorbing new members after EU enlargements (see Donnelly and Bigatto 2008). Moreover, the quality of MEPs from the post-2004 enlargement states generally has been high, with many having held important positions (including presidents and prime ministers).

Table 3.1 The European Parliament’s political groups*

Group name


Seats (705 total)

European People’s Party (EPP)

Centre-right, conservative, Christian Democrat, pro-European.

Includes: German Christian Democrats, Fine Gael (Ireland), Forza Italia (Italy), Les Républicains (France), People’s Party (Spain).


Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D)

The political group of the Party of European Socialists (PES).

Centre-left, social democratic, pro-European.

Includes: German Social Democrats, French Socialist Party, Italy’s Democratic Party, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party.


Renew Europe

The political group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) and the European Democratic Party (EDP).

Centrist, liberal, pro-European.

Includes: En Marche! (France), Free Democratic Party (Germany), Fianna Fáil (Ireland), Italia Viva (Italy), Ciudadanos (Spain).


Identity and Democracy Group (ID)

Right- to far-right, populist, nationalist, eurosceptic.

Includes: Austrian Freedom Party, Danish People’s Party, Finns Party, French National Rally, Alternative for Germany, Lega (Italy), Dutch Party for Freedom.


Group of the Greens / European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA)

The political group of the European Green Party, the European Free Alliance, the European Pirate Party, and Volta Europa.

Green, pro-European (some federalist), participatory democracy, devolution/regionalism.

Includes: predominantly member state Green parties.


European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR)

The political group of the European Conservatives and Reformists Party and the European Christian Political Movement.

Conservative, centre-right to right wing, (soft) eurosceptic.

Includes: Law & Justice (Poland), Brothers of Italy, Vox (Spain), Civic Democratic Party (Czech Republic).


The Left group in the EP (GUE/NGL)

The political group of the Party of the European Left, the Nordic Green Left Alliance, Now the People!, and Animal Politics EU.

Democratic socialism, left- to far-left wing, (soft) eurosceptic.

Includes: Syriza (Greece), Die Linke/The Left (Germany), La France Insoumise, Podemos (Spain).


Notes: *as of 1 May 2021.

Twenty-five MEPs are required to form a group, and at least one-quarter of the member states must be represented within the group. MEPs cannot belong to more than one group. Some members do not belong to any group and are known as ‘non-attached’ or non-inscrits, of which there are currently 38. As of 1 May 2021 the most prominent non-inscrits are the MEPs representing Hungary’s Fidesz party (part of the EPP until March 2021) and Italy’s Five Star Movement (part of a now disbanded eurosceptic populist group until 2019).

The EP’s Parliamentary Groups have become more cohesive over time and the principal cleavage in the EP is political (or ideological), not national (Hix et al. 2009; Bowler and McElroy 2015). That dynamic reflects a form of pan-European politics that raises interesting questions about the nature of democracy and representation in the EU (see section 6.3). The leaders of each political group, along with the Parliament’s president, together constitute the ‘Conference of Presidents’, which sets the EP’s agenda. But, like most national parliaments, the detailed and most important work of the EP is carried out in some 20 standing committees, mostly organized by policy area (such as transport, agriculture, or environment), and three subcommittees, occasionally supplemented by temporary committees or committees of inquiry. The committee system allows detailed scrutiny of proposals by members who are, or become, specialists.p. 68

3.6.1p. 69 The powers of the EP

The Parliament’s powers fall under four main headings: legislative, budgetary, scrutiny, and appointments. The Parliament’s legislative powers were originally very weak, having only the right to give an opinion on proposed legislation (see Box 3.4). After successive treaty changes, the EP now co-decides nearly all EU legislation in what amounts to a bicameral legislature consisting of the Council and the Parliament. What is now, revealingly, called the Ordinary Legislative Procedure (OLP) requires that the Council and the Parliament agree a text in identical terms before it can be passed into law (see Figure 5.1). International treaties or agreements are subject to the consent procedure: the Parliament has the right—in a yes or no vote—to approve or reject the agreement. When it comes to budgetary matters, the Lisbon Treaty also provides for a form of co-decision.

Box 3.4 How it really works: How does the EP ‘squeeze’ power?

The EU’s Parliament has tended to make the most of whatever powers it has had under the treaty at any given moment. Even when it was merely consulted on legislation, the institution developed techniques, such as the threat of delay, to make its influence felt. In budget negotiations, the EP uses its power to sign off—or not—on the annual budget selectively but effectively.

Similarly, the EP has stretched its powers to oversee the Commission. For example, under the treaty, the Parliament has only a collective vote of confidence in the Commission before it takes office and no right to vote on individual commissioners. Yet, starting in 2004, it insisted that it would not hold its vote until every candidate commissioner had appeared before the parliamentary committee corresponding to their prospective portfolio for a three-hour public hearing. At those first hearings, concerns were raised about Italian Commissioner-Designate Rocco Buttiglione, who had made statements that homosexuality was ‘a sin’ and that women ‘belonged in the home’ (Peterson 2017a: 120). These comments caused widespread consternation, especially as his portfolio was to include civil liberties. As it became clear that Parliament might vote to reject the entire Commission, President-elect Barroso formally withdrew the team on the eve of the vote and came back a few weeks later with a new College from which Buttiglione had been dropped. Note that the Parliament did not have de jure power to force the withdrawal of Buttiglione, but in practice, it did just that. At every subsequent set of confirmation hearings (2009, 2014, and 2019) one or more of the candidate commissioners has been withdrawn and replaced as a result of concerns expressed by the EP.

p. 70As highlighted in Box 3.4, the Parliament also exercises scrutiny of the Commission (and, to a degree, other institutions and agencies). Its oversight is exercised via its right to question (through written questions or orally at question time), to examine and debate statements or reports, and to hear and cross-examine commissioners, ministers, and civil servants in its committees. The Parliament also approves the appointment of the Commission and, more spectacularly, can dismiss the Commission (as a whole) through a vote of no confidence. The latter is considered to be a ‘nuclear’ option—a strategic, reserve power that requires an absolute majority of all MEPs and a two-thirds majority of all votes cast. As in most national parliaments, which do not make regular use of their right to dismiss the government, its very existence is sufficient to show that the Commission must take due account of Parliament.

This power was fully exercised only once, in 1999, resulting in the fall of the entire Commission under the presidency of Jacques Santer. Even then, the Commission resigned prior to the actual vote, once it was clear that the necessary majority would be obtained. One outcome of this particular episode was a treaty change permitting the president of the Commission to dismiss individual members of the Commission (which the EP cannot do). Thus, if the behaviour of a particular commissioner gives rise to serious parliamentary misgivings (as the former French Prime Minister Edith Cresson’s did in the Santer Commission), the president of the Commission can act to retain the EP’s confidence (Peterson 2017a: 114). Besides the Commission, the Parliament also elects the European ombudsman (Box 3.6) and is consulted on appointments to other EU posts.

In short, the EP’s powers have grown significantly since direct elections were first held in 1979 (Hix and Høyland 2013). However, some still question its ability to add legitimacy to the EU’s overall decision-making. The claim of the EP to represent the citizenry of the EU is undermined by relatively low turnouts for its elections (just over 50 per cent in the last EP elections, 43 per cent in the previous two). p. 71Since the 2014 election, voters have elected a high number (up to a quarter) of eurosceptic MEPs, many of whom question the very existence of the EU, with such parties topping the poll in some member states (including France and Italy). The Parliament’s image—accurate or not—as a ‘gravy train’ does not help. Ultimately, the Parliament’s future role is tied up with larger questions of democracy and power in the EU (see section 6.1).

3.7 Court of Justice of the European Union

The CJEU comprises the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and the General Court (previously known as the Court of First Instance). The ECJ sits at the pinnacle of the EU legal order and is comprised of 27 judges—one appointed by each member state—plus 11 advocates-general who draft and present impartial independent ‘opinions’ on cases assigned to them, for the judges. Located in Luxembourg, it operates in chambers of three to five judges, except when the issues raised are considered to be of exceptional importance, when it can sit as a Grand Chamber of fifteen judges or as a full plenary of all twenty-seven. According to the EU treaties, the role of the CJEU is to ensure that ‘in the interpretation and application of the treaties, the law is observed’ (Article 19 TEU). In this sense, the Court is powerful: it is the final arbiter in legal disputes on EU law, such as between EU institutions, or between them and member states, between EU citizens and EU institutions, or between the member states themselves. The Court ensures that the EU institutions do not stray beyond the powers given to them. Conversely, it also ensures national compliance with the treaties and the legislation that flows from them, and it has the right to fine member states that breach EU law. Altogether, just over 40,000 judgments and orders have been given since 1952.

EU law is qualitatively different from international law in that individuals can seek remedy for breaches of the former through their own domestic courts, which then refer points of European law to the CJEU. The process allows national courts to ask the CJEU for a preliminary ruling on the European facet of a case before them. The national courts, in judging cases, then use such preliminary rulings. Over time, this method has shaped national policies as diverse as the right to advertise abortion services across borders, roaming charges for mobile phones, and equal pay for equal work. The process of integrating national courts into a cooperative system to ensure that EU law is applied is an important component of the CJEU’s influence (Vauchez 2015).

The CJEU has sometimes interpreted the treaties in a way that furthers integration. Its approach to the treaties—treating them as akin to a constitutional charter (see Box 3.5)—has helped transform the EU from an international organization into an entity with polity-like features (Weiler 1991). In the 1960s, it was crucial in giving real substance to the EU legal system. Three landmark decisions stand out. In the 1963 Van Gend en Loos case, the Court established ‘direct effect’: the doctrine that EU citizens had a legal right to expect their governments to adhere to their p. 72European obligations. In 1964 (Costa v ENEL), the Court established the ‘supremacy’ (or precedence) of EU law: if a domestic law contradicts an EU obligation, European law prevails. There would be no point agreeing common laws if individual member states could then ignore them. Later, in the 1979 Cassis de Dijon case, the Court established the principle of ‘mutual recognition’: a product made or sold legally in one member state—in this case a French blackcurrant liqueur—cannot be barred in another member state if there is no threat to public health, public policy, or public safety. This principle proved fundamental to the single market because it established that national variations in standards could exist as long as trade was not unduly impeded.

Box 3.5 Spotlight on: ‘Constitutional’ Courts in the EU and the US

The ECJ—like the EU more generally—is in many ways sui generis: an international body with no precise counterpart anywhere in Europe or beyond. But interesting parallels, as well as contrasts, can be drawn between the ECJ (at the apex of the CJEU) and the US Supreme Court. The US Supreme Court exists to uphold the US Constitution, whereas the EU has no such constitution. Yet even here, the difference may not be as stark as it appears. The ECJ must uphold the EU’s treaties. For some legal scholars, the cumulative impact of Court decisions that have interpreted the treaties amounts to a ‘quiet revolution’ that effectively transformed the treaties into a constitution insofar as they constitute the basic rule book of the EU (see Weiler 1999).

One difference is jurisdiction, or the power to hear and decide cases. The jurisdiction of the US Supreme Court is vast. It can hear all cases involving legal disputes between the US states. Even more important is its power to hear cases raising constitutional disputes invoked by any national treaty, federal law, state law, or act. The ECJ’s jurisdiction is more confined. While its rulings have had a fundamental impact on the single market and the EU more generally, many matters of national law and most non-economic disputes between states fall outside its remit. Moreover, the ECJ cannot ‘cherry pick’ the cases it wants to hear, as the US court can. Finally, recruitment, appointment, and tenure differ. Federal institutions are the key players in appointing US Supreme Court judges—the president nominates a candidate and the Senate confirms (or not). In contrast, ECJ judges are appointed by member states. The former are appointed for life, the latter for a six-year renewable term, and with little of the political controversy surrounding Supreme Court appointments.

Equally, there are interesting parallels between the two. The rulings of both the ECJ and Supreme Court take precedence over those of lower or national courts. Lower courts must enforce these rulings. Like the US Supreme Court in its early decades, the ECJ’s early decisions helped consolidate the authority of the Union’s central institutions. Perhaps the most interesting similarities involve debates surrounding these courts’ powers and political role. In the case of the US Supreme Court, concerns about its politicization and activism are well known, especially in its rulings on abortion, racial equality, and campaign spending. In the EU too, albeit less spectacularly, concerns about the Court’s ability to push forward or limit integration, and the expansion of its authority, have propelled it into political debates about the future of Europe. Controversy about its role featured, for example, in the 2016 EU referendum in Britain, despite confusion between the ECJ and the quite separate (non-EU) European Court of Human Rights (see Box 6.1). Thus, whatever their differences, both the ECJ and US Supreme Court raise fundamental questions about the proper limits of judicial review and the role of courts in democratic societies more generally.

These judgments took place in a period normally characterized as one of stagnation and ‘Eurosclerosis’, when political integration seemed paralysed. Scholars who take inspiration from neofunctionalist thinking often cite evidence from this period to undermine the intergovernmentalist claim that national governments alone dominate the rhythm of integration (Stone Sweet 2010; and see section 1.2.1). There is broad agreement that the CJEU’s influence ‘rivals that of the world’s most powerful courts’ (Stone Sweet 2010: 2) and that it has helped to advance integration in a distinct, legal way (Schmidt 2018). In the years since the Cassis ruling, the Court has issued judgments that, among other things, incrementally extended the scope of EU citizenship rights—the Rottmann and Zambrano cases being particularly noteworthy (see Lenaerts 2015)—and established EU law as enjoying primacy over even a UN Security Council resolution (the Kadi case—see Kokott and Sobotta 2012).

p. 73Debates continue as to whether the Court is too active—interpreting the texts adopted by democratically accountable politicians in the EP and the Council beyond what they intended (Stone Sweet 2010; Grimm 2017). However, with the exception of a 2021 ruling by Poland’s highest court (EURACTIV, 2021b), no member state has explicitly refused to respect its judgments and compliance with its rulings is high (Saurugger and Terpan 2017). In practice, the Court has to interpret the texts as they have been adopted and the CJEU can only rule on matters referred to it.

3.8 European Central Bank

The ECB was established in 1998 ahead of the launch of the final stage of EMU in January 1999 (see section 2.4.1). The ECB is charged with a fundamental task: formulating monetary policy for member states that use the euro, including ensuring monetary stability, setting interest rates, and issuing and managing the currency. The ECB’s main decision-making body is the Governing Council, made up of the governors of the national central banks of the (currently) 19 states in the Eurozone alongside the members of the Executive Board. The Board, which is p. 74responsible for the day-to-day running of the ECB, is made up of the ECB’s president and vice-president, as well as four other members, all of whom are appointed at staggered intervals for non-renewable eight-year terms by the European Council acting by qualified majority (in practice, it is the 19 Eurozone states, not all 27 EU member states, who make the appointments). The ECB president has become a powerful figure. The ECB works closely with the Eurozone’s national central banks (forming collectively the ‘Eurosystem’) and with all 27 EU national central banks (forming collectively the ‘European System of Central Banks’). In its first decade of operation the ECB, and particularly its Governing Council, tended to make decisions by consensus. However, the sovereign debt crisis, and the contentious policy decisions it required within the Eurozone, increased the number of votes taken (Henning 2017: 46).

The ECB is headquartered in Frankfurt and modelled on the fiercely independent German Bundesbank, which was the dominant central bank in the EU for many years before the launch of EMU (Dyson and Featherstone 1999). During the 1990s, the vast majority of central banks were reformed in a way that gave them greater operational independence. Such reforms were introduced in the belief that the best way to secure stable prices and stable money over the medium to long term was to appoint expert economists to manage monetary policy, rather than leaving it in the hands of politicians who lacked expertise and were often driven by short-term electoral calculations. This was part of a broader trend of delegating policy responsibility to non-majoritarian institutions such as courts and regulatory agencies (see Thatcher and Stone Sweet 2002). The ECB was thus not unique in this regard.

Independent central banks are given mandates—instructions about what their policy decisions should aim to achieve—by democratically accountable political leaders. The ECB’s principal mandate is price stability, defined as achieving inflation below but close to 2 per cent over the medium term for the Eurozone. The ECB is secondarily tasked with encouraging balanced growth and full employment but not in ways that undermine the principal mandate of price stability. The Bank’s independence and power undoubtedly help ensure monetary stability but also have raised concerns about transparency and accountability. It must report to the EP several times a year and also has to report to the Council. But its deliberations were until recently not made public and it enjoys considerable independence from other institutions or member states.

A major critique of the design of EMU was that it was ‘asymmetric’: monetary policy was supranationalized across a diverse set of countries, whilst fiscal and economic policy was left to the national governments with, at most, loose intergovernmental coordination (Verdun 1996). Partly with a view to mitigating this asymmetry, the Eurogroup was established at the same time as the ECB as an informal meeting of the finance ministers of Eurozone states—joined by the ECB president and relevant commissioners—to coordinate economic and fiscal policy. The Eurogroup tends to meet on the eve of meetings of the economic and financial affairs configuration of the Council and its members elect a president from within their ranks to serve for a two-and-a-half-year term, renewable once. In the years since the sovereign debt crisis the fiscal and economic aspects of EMU have been developed considerably, with the Commission and Council working closely p. 75together to monitor national budgets and potential economic imbalances, as well as to coordinate socio-economic policy (see section 7.5.1). The leaders of Eurozone states sometimes meet on the margins of a European Council meeting, chaired by the president of the latter, in a format called ‘Euro Summits’.

In addition to triggering a burst of action to further develop EMU, the sovereign debt crisis changed the ECB’s role in three key ways. First, the ECB joined with the Commission and the International Monetary Fund—forming ‘the Troika’—to assist member states that were struggling to borrow in the capital markets (Henning 2017). Second, after an initially cautious approach to the crisis, from May 2010 the ECB launched a series of interventions in the markets for the sovereign debt of Eurozone states and stepped in to provide liquidity to struggling banks in the Eurozone. This represented a controversial expansion of the ECB’s functions but the leadership shown, especially under President Mario Draghi from November 2011, has been assessed as instrumental in overcoming the acute stage of the crisis (see Verdun 2018).

Third, the development of the EU’s banking union transferred responsibilities to the ECB for supervising banks and financial institutions in the Eurozone and in non-Eurozone member states that choose to opt in. The ECB supervises the largest banks directly and works closely with national bank supervisors to monitor the entire financial sector—the Single Supervisory Mechanism (SSM). A Single Resolution Mechanism (SRM) provides for the orderly restructuring of failing banks (see section 7.5.1).

3.9 Why Institutions Matter

The relationship between the main institutional players is constantly changing. Power shifts both across and between them, not only as a result of formal treaty changes, but also due to changes in practice, the assertiveness of the various actors, agreements between EU institutions, and Court judgments. For instance, the ability of the Council to impose its view has declined as the bargaining power of Parliament has increased. Equally, the European Council’s growing power to set the EU agenda has usurped the Commission’s traditional and legal right of initiative. The establishment of a full-time president of the European Council also challenges the primacy of the president of the Commission. Rules and treaty provisions serve as the basis of authority from which the institutions can and do act. But formal powers are only starting points: knowing how the EU institutions exploit, compete for, and ultimately share power is also crucial for grasping how the EU works.

The EU’s institutions help illustrate the three central themes of this book: (1) that the EU is an experiment in motion; (2) the importance of power sharing and consensus; and (3) the capacity of the EU structures to cope with the Union’s expanding size and scope. The very fact that some powers are wielded at a level beyond the nation state, albeit with the involvement of their governments, remains controversial in some countries and was highlighted by Leave campaigners in the 2016 UK referendum (see section 10.2).

3.9.1p. 76 Experimentation and change

The EU’s institutional system has evolved considerably since the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951. A variety of pressures have combined to encourage task expansion and the reinvention of institutions over time. Often, gaps in the capacity of the EU to respond to events and crises have initially resulted in an ad hoc expansion of the informal powers of the institutions. For example, the need for common action on the environment meant that informal environmental agreements predated formal competences introduced by the treaties. Sometimes member states agreed on the need to establish informal cooperation in new areas, but were not initially ready to be legally bound by the treaties, as in the gradual expansion of the powers of EU institutions focused on justice and home affairs (see section 7.5.2). Studying the institutional dynamics of the EU allows us not only to understand the extent to which the EU is subject to experimentation and change, but also to pose key questions about where this process might be headed.

3.9.2 Power sharing and consensus

Scholars of European integration have long and fiercely debated where power lies in the EU. Do the EU’s institutions drive the integration process forward? Or do national governments remain in control? Neofunctionalists and intergovernmentalists have taken up the two sides of this debate, respectively. Both sides can cite changes in formal EU rules to buttress their case. For example, as the Parliament has gained powers and member states have accepted more proposals on the basis of QMV, it could be claimed that supranationalism is on the rise. Equally, as the European Council has come to dominate high-level agenda setting, and some EU states have opted out of certain policies (such as monetary union), it could be said that intergovernmentalism is holding strong. In recent years, as the EU has responded to, among other things, the Eurozone crisis, researchers continue to debate whether we have entered a period of a ‘new intergovernmentalism’ (Bickerton et al. 2015a) or not (Schimmelfennig 2015). The 2014 refugee crisis seemed to push towards divergent national policies, the climate crisis towards a more integrated approach, and the COVID-19 crisis led to both divergence and common actions on procurement, with varied results. The economic fallout of the pandemic led to the ‘Next Generation EU’ €750 billion stimulus package, financed by the issuance of common debt, through EU sovereign bonds, hailed by some as a ‘Hamiltonian’ move towards greater fiscal union (see Figure 10.2).

However, depicting integration as a pitched battle between EU institutions and the member states misses the point. Dividing lines are often within each of the above. Competition is fierce, but so, too, is the search for consensus. Enormous efforts undertaken within the EU’s institutions usually help forge agreements acceptable to all. Focusing on the institutions and how they cooperate or compete with each other and other actors helps us to begin to make sense of the EU as a complex policy-making process.

3.9.3p. 77 Scope and capacity

The step-by-step extension of the scope of the EU’s activities is one thing. Its capacity to deal with those subjects that fall within its remit and to cope with successive enlargements is another. Have the institutional structures (and budget) originally conceived for a Community of six member states been sufficiently adapted to deal with the demands of 27 or more (see Box 3.6 and Box 3.7)? In most policy fields, the EU has managed to avoid decision-making gridlock despite enlargement, although arguments continue as to whether this has been at the cost of having to settle for lowest common denominator solutions. Certainly, in areas that require unanimity within the Council (particularly foreign and security policy), the EU is vulnerable to slow, cumbersome decision-making and even total blockage at the instigation of one or another member state.

Box 3.6 Spotlight on: Other institutions and bodies

The European Court of Auditors (ECA), with 27 members, is charged with scrutinizing the EU’s spending and financial accounts. Acting as the ‘financial conscience’ of the EU, the Court increased its visibility a decade ago when it uncovered some significant instances of mismanagement, and even fraud (see Laffan 2017). Its annual and specialized reports consist mainly of dry financial management assessment.

Several smaller bodies not classified as institutions (therefore having fewer rights at the CJEU) carry out a primarily representative function (see Rowe and Jeffery 2017). For instance, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) represents employers, trades unions, and other social or public interests (such as farmers or consumers) in EU policy-making. Chosen by the national governments, these representatives serve in a part-time function advising the Commission and other institutions on relevant proposals. Their opinions can be well researched but are not usually influential.

The European Committee of the Regions (CoR) suffers from a lack of influence similar to the EESC. Created by the Maastricht Treaty, the CoR must be consulted on proposals affecting regional interests (cohesion funding; urban planning) and can issue its own opinions and reports. However, its membership is debilitatingly diverse (powerful regional ministers from Germany and Belgium sit alongside representatives from Irish local councils). It has yet to exert the influence its proponents originally envisioned. But perhaps its real role is as a channel of communication across several layers of governance.

The EU ombudsman is empowered to receive complaints from any EU citizen or any natural or legal person residing in the member states concerning instances of maladministration in the activities of the Union institutions or bodies (other than the Court in its judicial capacity). The EP chooses the ombudsman after each parliamentary election for the duration of its term of office.

The European Investment Bank (EIB) is the world’s biggest, public, long-term lending institution. It supports the development of infrastructure and economic development projects. The EIB’s shareholders are the member states. It can use the collective collateral of its shareholders to borrow on capital markets at favourable rates, enabling it to finance capital projects. In 2019 it lent over €63 billion.

Box 3.7 Spotlight on: EU agencies

There are over 40 European agencies established by the EU to manage a range of diverse issues (see Kelemen and Majone 2017). Typically, they have a governing body appointed by the EU institutions and member states, and perform technical functions on a pooled basis, avoiding the costs of duplicated efforts by member states, pooling resources, or coordinating national efforts.

A number of agencies are associated with internal security and border management (see section 7.5.2) and work to facilitate cooperation among the member states in: countering terrorism, cyber-crime and other serious and organized forms of criminal activity (Europol); cross-border investigations and criminal prosecutions (Eurojust); managing the external borders of the Schengen area (Frontex); and asylum policy, including the implementation of the Common European Asylum System (the European Asylum Support Office).

Following the Eurozone crisis a new EU framework for supervising the finance sector was established. The framework brings together member state agencies responsible for supervising financial services with three European Supervisory Authorities. Collectively, the three authorities are responsible for what is called ‘micro’-prudential supervision—the supervision of: individual institutions such as banks (European Banking Authority); financial markets and securities (European Securities and Markets Authority); and insurance companies and pension funds (European Insurance and Occupational Pensions Authority). Alongside them is the European Systemic Risk Board (ESRB), responsible for ‘macro’-prudential supervision—the supervision of the financial system as a whole with the aim of preventing or mitigating systemic risks (see section 7.5.1).

Finally, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) facilitates the development of—and access to—medicines, evaluates applications for marketing authorization, and monitors the safety of medicines in the EU. The EMA was prominent during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the agency responsible for recommending vaccines for use in the EU.

Strengthening European cooperation may appear to equate to empowering its institutions. Yet, policy cooperation has been extended in a variety of different ways that have widened the scope of the EU without necessarily expanding the powers p. 78of institutions. The careful exclusion of the CJEU, and the weaker role of the Commission and the EP, in most aspects of foreign and security policy are examples. So is the gradual bonding of European leaders inside and outside the formal confines of the European Council, which can assist in re-imagining narrow national interests in more collective ways (see Van Middelaar 2013). Finally, if there is one lesson to be learned from the study of EU institutions, it is their remarkable ability to adapt as new requirements are placed upon them. This chapter has tried to show that while the capacity of EU institutions may be limited, their ability to adapt is often impressive.

3.10 Conclusion

The EU’s institutional system is complex. But so, too, is the diverse polity it helps govern. We have attempted to cut through this complexity by focusing on the powers of the six most important institutions and how they are used (other institutions, bodies, and agencies are presented in Box 3.6 and Box 3.7). We have stressed the importance of both cooperation and rivalry between the institutions. Each institution may have its own agendas, but nearly all of the important decisions require some (and, usually, quite a large) measure of consensus spanning the EU’s institutions and across member states within the Council. The institutions are as interdependent as the member states that make up the EU.

Moreover, EU institutions do not operate alone. Today they must deal with an ever-broader range of actors, especially because of the EU’s enlargement, but also because organized interests have become increasingly active. As the EU takes on new tasks, the burden on its institutions will increase. The EU’s growing role in areas such as migration, foreign and defence policy, food safety, and climate change means that other agencies and bodies (including international ones that transcend Europe itself) will join the institutional mix that helps govern EU politics. Further institutional reform may prove both necessary and inevitable to cope with the increasing size and policy scope of the EU. But given the challenge of obtaining unanimous support for treaty change, institutional reform—like so much else in the EU—is likely to be incremental and pragmatic rather than spectacular or far-sighted.p. 79

Discussion Questions


Which EU institution is most ‘powerful’ in your view and why?


How has the balance of power between the EU’s institutions shifted over time?


Which factors have driven institutional changes and reforms over time?


Is the relationship between the institutions characterized more by cooperation or conflict?


Which reforms to the EU’s institutions are most urgently needed?

Test your understanding of this chapter with additional self-test questions, with instant feedback.

Stay up to date on all developments in EU politics with biannual updates.

p. 80Further Reading

Hodson and Peterson (2017) is a comprehensive analysis of the EU’s institutions. Helpful examinations of individual institutions include Kassim et al. (2013) on the Commission, Puetter (2014) on the European Council and Council (of ministers), Wessels (2016) on the European Council, Corbett et al. (2016) on the EP, Schmidt (2018) on the CJEU, and Verdun (2017) on the political role of the ECB. Weiler (1999) is a classic, provocative set of essays on the CJEU and the EU’s legal identity. Christiansen (2020) considers how the EU institutions might further consolidate integration. Kassim and Laffan (2019) offer an evaluation of the ‘political Commission’ and the Juncker presidency.

  • Christiansen, T. (2020) ‘The EU’s new normal: Consolidating European integration in an era of populism and geo-economics’, Journal of Common Market Studies, 58/s1: 13–27.
  • Corbett, R., Jacobs, F., and Neville, D. (2016) The European Parliament, 9th ed. (London: John Harper).
  • Hodson, D., and Peterson, J. (eds.) (2017) The Institutions of the European Union, 4th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
  • Kassim, H., and Laffan, B. (2019) ‘The Juncker presidency: The “political Commission” in practice’, Journal of Common Market Studies, 57/s1: 49–61.
  • Kassim, H., Peterson, J., Bauer, M., Connolly, S., Dehousse, R., Hooghe, L., and Thompson, A. (2013) The European Commission of the Twenty-First Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
  • Puetter, U. (2014) The European Council and the Council: New Intergovernmentalism and the InstitutioSnal Change (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
  • Schmidt, S.K. (2018) The European Court of Justice and the Policy Process (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
  • Verdun, A. (2017) ‘Political leadership of the European Central Bank’, Journal of European Integration, 39/2: 207–21.
  • Weiler, J.H.H. (1999) The Constitution of Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
  • Wessels, W. (2016) The European Council (Basingstoke: Palgrave-Macmillan).
  • Web Links

    The EU’s institutions, bodies, and agencies have their own websites.

    The EP’s think tank (research service) prepares reviews and papers about EU institutions and policies;

    p. 81 as does the library of the Council.

    Anyone brave enough to consider working as an intern or stagiaire in one of the EU’s institutions can find out more here.

    For recent updates on institutional developments, especially in relation to treaty reform.

    The University Association for Contemporary European Studies (UACES) hosts regular workshops and lectures on the institutions in the UK and (occasionally) on the continent.

    The European Union Studies Association (EUSA) is a good source of information about conferences and lectures held in the US.

    Explore this topic further with additional web links to reliable content on EU politics.


    • 1 Since the position of high representative was detached from the position of secretary-general of the Council (of ministers) in 2009, the high representative is concurrently a Commission vice-president. The status befits their role as the commissioner responsible for the coordination of the EU’s external relations.

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