How the EU works

One of the loudest things that brexiteers shout is that the EU is undemocratic. I have asked in what way they believe it is not democratic, but never receive any answers; I’m just told, “they are, why can’t you see it?” or “they’re unelected” or “they’re unfair to the UK”, and other similar statements, but nobody ever explains or gives any facts or statistics.

So, here we examine how the EU is actually run and how it’s members are elected.

European Council

The European Council represents the highest level of the EU countries. Led by its President, currently Donald Tusk, the Council comprises of the Heads of state/government of EU countries (in other words for the UK it’s our Prime Minister, currently Theresa May) and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs & Security Policy. The President is elected by the European Council for a once-renewable two-and-a-half-year term, and represents the EU to the outside world.

The European Council is responsible for setting the EU’s overall political direction, but has no powers to pass laws. It is this institution that nominates and appoints candidates to certain high profile EU level roles, such as the ECB (European Central Bank) and the European Commission. The European Council generally decides issues by consensus and only the heads of state/government can vote. They then ask the European Commission to make a proposal, to address it and pass it on to the Council of the EU to deal with it.

Then there are 3 main institutions involved in EU legislation: the European Parliament, Council of the European Union and the European Commission

European Parliament

The European Parliament is the EU’s law-making body. It comprises of 751 MEPs (Members of the European Parliament), who are directly elected by EU voters (us!) every 5 years. The number of MEPs for each country is roughly proportionate to its population, but this is by digressive proportionality, ie no country can have fewer than 6 or more than 96 MEPs and the total number cannot exceed 751 (750 plus the President)

The European Parliament has three main roles:



  • Democratic scrutiny of all EU institutions
  • Electing the Commission President and approving the Commission as a body. Possibility of voting a motion of censure, obliging the Commission to resign
  • Granting discharge, i.e. approving the way EU budgets have been spent
  • Examining citizens’ petitions and setting up inquiries
  • Discussing monetary policy with the European Central Bank
  • Questioning Commission and Council
  • Election observations


  • Establishing the EU budget, together with the Council
  • Approving the EU’s long-term budget, the “Multi-annual Financial Framework”

Council of the European Union

The Council of the European Union represents the governments of the individual member countries. The Council of the EU does not have fixed members, but meets in 10 different configurations, dependent upon the policy area being discussed, and each country sends their minister responsible for that policy area. The Presidency of the Council is shared by the member countries on a 6 month rotating basis. The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy is the permanent chairman of The Foreign Affairs Council. All other Council meetings are chaired by the relevant minister of the country holding the rotating EU presidency.

All the Council of the EU’s discussions and votes take place in public. The majority of decisions require a qualified majority of 55%, meaning 16 countries (65% of EU population). To block a decision at least 4 countries are required (35% of EU population). However, sensitive topics like foreign policy and taxation require a unanimous vote (all countries in favour). Procedural and administrative issues only require a simple majority.

What does the Council do?

  • Negotiates and adopts EU laws, together with the European Parliament, based on proposals from the European Commission
  • Coordinates EU countries’ policies
  • Develops the EU’s foreign & security policy, based on European Council guidelines
  • Concludes agreements between the EU and other countries or international organisations
  • Adopts the annual EU budget – jointly with the European Parliament.

European Commission

The European Commission is the EU’s politically independent executive arm, representing the interests of the Union as a whole. It is alone responsible for drawing up proposals for new European legislation, and it implements the decisions of the European Parliament and the Council of the EU. One person from each member country is nominated to be a member of the EC. The current British European Commissioner is Julian King, nominated by David Cameron in July 2016.

What does the Commission do?

Proposes new laws. The Commission is the sole EU institution tabling laws for adoption by the Parliament and the Council that:

  • protect the interests of the EU and its citizens on issues that can’t be dealt with effectively at national level;
  • get technical details right by consulting experts and the public.

Manages EU policies & allocates EU funding

  • Sets EU spending priorities, together with the Council and Parliament.
  • Draws up annual budgets for approval by the Parliament and Council.
  • Supervises how the money is spent, under scrutiny by the Court of Auditors.

Enforces EU law

  • Together with the Court of Justice, ensures that EU law is properly applied in all the member countries.

Represents the EU internationally

  • Speaks on behalf of all EU countries in international bodies, in particular in areas of trade policy and humanitarian aid.
  • Negotiates international agreements for the EU.


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