3. How does the EU operate?

The EU treaties have created a system of governance for the EU, including decision making bodies, regulatory processes and organisations which do the day to day work of the EU. The EU structure is currently defined by the Nice treaty, although the Lisbon Treaty will soon come into force (more on this later).

For most environmental policy, EU governance can be simplified to three key components, each of which is explained in more detail below:

  • The European Commission
  • The European Parliament
  • Member State governments, working together as Council
  • (There are also other important bodies in the EU, including the European Court of Justice, which adjudicates on disputes relating to EU powers and decision making.)

    The European Commission

    The European Commission is the core institution that runs the day to day business of the EU. It is the only European institution that can draft legislation (often after a request from Council), though it is the Parliament and Council that can vote on it.

    The Commission is able to fine Member States who do not implement EU laws, but they are not usually able to enforce the laws directly. One notable exception is Competition Law, where the Commission is able to take enforcement action against companies.

    The Commission is divided into departments, or “Directorate Generals”, such as DG Environment and DG Enterprise. The political head of each Directorate General is the Commissioner, who is in many ways the equivalent of a government minister. The Commissioners are nominated by the Member States to serve five year terms.

    The Commission has a comprehensive web site.


    Council is the made up of ministers from the EU Member State governments, and acts as one of the two chambers of EU decision making. At a higher level, The European Council brings together heads of state and government from the EU, along with the president of the European Commission, in order to set the political direction of the EU.

    Each subject area has a separate Council of Ministers, made up of Ministers from Member State governments, e.g. Environment Council = Environment Ministers. The ministers meet several times a year to make decisions relating to the EU, though government officials have meetings all year around discussing the policy details.

    The presidency of the Council rotates every 6 months; the country with the presidency has the responsibility to chair all council meetings during this period, and set the agendas.

    Council also has a large web site, but Council meetings are not accessible to the public (though they sometimes have public debates), and most Council discussions happen in secret between civil servants.

    The European Parliament

    The European Parliament is elected by the population of the EU every 5 years. Each EU Member State has an allocation of seats, with the larger Member States electing more MEPs. MEPs organise themselves into political groups, and also into committees to enable effective scrutiny of legislation.

    The European Parliament acts as one of the two chambers of EU decision making for most EU decisions. There are a few exceptions, for example agricultural spending, where decisions are made entirely by Council.

    The European Parliament has a comprehensive web site, and all committee meetings and plenary sessions are open to the public.

    For more information

  • What is the EU? (on this site)
  • How does the EU make and enforce laws? (on this site)
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