General EU Guide: European Union 101

Welcome to our introduction to the European Union! Here at the session, we will share all the necessary background knowledge of how the EU works to promote your academic engagement.

Welcome to the European Union! 

The European Union (EU) is a supranational organisation of 27 Member States. It is a unique economic and political union in terms of both its structure and its decision-making procedure. It has evolved gradually, starting from the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, which was established after World War II to preserve peace on the European continent through deep economic integration. Over the following decades, the jurisdictions of EU institutions grew, moving towards the closer economic and political integration of Member States and  resulting in the still-evolving structure of the EU we know today.

What are the EU Treaties?

The EU Treaties are the Union’s equivalent to a “Constitution:” these intergovernmental agreements form the most basic EU legislation, outlining the most basic principles of the Union. They also define the EU’s functioning and state its purposes and values. There are several Treaties signed along the years, but the two most important ones, that you will most likely have to work with, are the Treaty on European Union (TEU), also known as the Treaty of Maastricht, and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), also known as the Treaty of Lisbon.

Worth mentioning is also the Charter on the Fundamental Rights of the European Union (CFREU): having the same legal power as the two basic Treaties, it enlists all the Fundamental Rights on which the EU is based.

What are the EU’s institutions?

The EU has seven institutions that ensure its functioning. Below, we briefly outline the most relevant among them.

  1. European Commission (‘The Commission’) – Articles 17, 18 TEU

The European Commission is the Union’s executive body, responsible for the carrying out of day-to-day governance, implementation of EU policy and legislation, and protection of the Treaties. As such, its position within the EU is comparable to that of national governments within the Member States. Each Member State nominates one Commissioner, who acts as a Minister would on the national level and is responsible for a specific policy area, such as agriculture, competition, foreign affairs, etc. The Commission represents the EU’s own interests.

The Commission monitors the implementation of EU policy, has exclusive Right of Initiative to propose legislation to the European Parliament and Council of the EU, and represents the EU abroad. The Commission is divided into various Directorates-General (DGs), agencies, and services, each responsible for a particular policy area. These can be compared to Ministries or Departments in the national system.

  1. European Parliament (EP) – Article 14 TEU

The European Parliament is one of the EU’s legislative bodies, composed of 705 Members of Parliament (MEPs) directly elected by all EU citizens every five years. The EP co-decides on legislative and budgetary proposals, together with the Council of the EU, scrutinises the Commission, and debates on international agreements. The EP represents EU citizens’ interests.

  1. The Council of the EU (‘The Council’) – Article 16 TEU

The Council is the EU’s other legislative body, co-deciding on policies and legislation together with the EP, coordinates policies across Member States, and concludes on international agreements. It is organised into ten different issue-specific groups (configurations) composed of National Ministers responsible for the legislation that is discussed. The Council represents Member States’ interests in the EU.

  1. The European Council (never abbreviated) – Article 15 TEU

The European Council is made up of the EU’s Heads of State or Government. It determines the EU’s strategies, policies, and goals, as well as the Union’s shared foreign and security policy. The European Council is a strategic body without legislative authority. 

The other three institutions are not involved in the legislative procedure and, as such, less directly relevant in EYP. They can, however, still be relevant actors in particular topics. These institutions are the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU), responsible for the interpretation and correct application of all EU legislation; the European Central Bank (ECB), responsible for monetary policy in the Eurozone,replacing national central banks in Eurozone countries; and the European Court of Auditors (ECA), which oversees the correct application of the EU’s budget.

If you want a clearer picture of how the above-mentioned institutions work, be sure to check this useful diagram of the main EU stakeholders: 


How does the EU pass laws?

The European legislative process is far wider than that of the majority of Member States; it involves the European Commission, the Council of the EU, and the European Parliament, which comprise the Institutional Triangle of the EU. These determine whether a resolution will become a legitimate act, coming into effect after being integrated into national legislation by Member States.
If you want a more detailed overview of how the EU passes legislation, you might be interested in this video: How does the EU pass new laws? or to this diagram: The Ordinary Legislative Procedure.

What are ‘EU competences?’ 

The EU can only pass legislation (i.e. has the competence to do so) in areas that fall under its legal jurisdiction. In Articles 2-6 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, these areas are made explicit. In other words, it is clarified who can legislate in different areas: the EU, the national governments, or both. 

What are the types of EU competences?

  • Exclusive competence: Only the EU can act in these cases, producing legally binding acts that Member States are responsible for applying.
  • Shared competence: Both the Commission and national governments may legislate in these areas. However, national governments may only pass laws if the EU has not already done so (‘exclusive if EU has policy’) or if it has decided to not do so (‘non-exclusive’)
  • Supporting competence: The EU aids Member States by coordinating or supporting their action, for example through setting up relevant programs and sharing best practices. However, the EU has no jurisdiction to create new laws in these areas or lead Member States to harmonise their national legislations.

If you want to learn about EU competences in greater detail, you might be interested in this video: Competences of the European Union. 

So, who to call upon in your resolution?

  • If we want to implement something at an EU-level: the European Commission, through its Directorate Generals; never the European Parliament. We are the EYP after all, proposing our resolution! 
  • Other EU bodies or organisations connected to the topic!
  • More interested in implementation on the national level? Member States are the way to go!
  • Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) can be very influential as well! 
  • Cannot find anyone in the EU? No problem, consider international organisations such as the United Nations (UN) and Council of Europe (CoE), or other topic-specific ones!
  • Cannot find anyone at all to call upon? Check again, ask your Chairs for some help! Finding the appropriate stakeholder can be a challenge, but they definitely exist, no need for creating new bodies to deal with the issue!

Big thank you to EYP Ireland for sharing this guide!