Page last updated at 15:07 GMT, Tuesday, 31 May 2011 16:07 UK
Guide to the European Parliament



The EU flag
The flag of the European Union

The European Parliament is just one cog in the complex machine of the wider European Union. So what are the other institutions? What do they do, and how do they work together?

Although there is no EU "government" as such, the nearest you get to this is the European Commission .

Each member state appoints one commissioner. They are each given a policy area to deal with, such as transport.

The commissioners have to be approved by the European Parliament before they can take their seats at the round table. And if MEPs think the Commission has been misbehaving, they can table a vote of censure , similar to a no-confidence vote.

The Commission's job is to propose laws that are then passed by the Council and Parliament. Commissioners are supposed to "think European" and leave their national allegiances back in London, Paris, Riga or Ljubljana.

Whether this actually happens in practice is debatable.

National representation

Along with the Parliament, the Council of Ministers is the other organisation that is allowed to pass laws. Unlike Parliament, which is theoretically supposed to represent the citizens of Europe, the Council of Ministers represents national governments.

The Council of Ministers (usually shortened to "the Council") is made up of relevant government ministers from each member state, for example environment ministers to debate laws on air quality.

The Council votes using a complicated system called qualified majority voting. Basically this means that different countries have different voting weights, depending on their population.

It also ensures, however, that EU minnows like Malta or Estonia, do not get continually outvoted by the big beasts of Germany, France, the UK and Poland.

Unlike the Parliament, the Council also has powers to discuss and vote on certain issues relating to foreign policy. These, however, are done on an "intergovernmental" basis, meaning that unanimous agreement is usually required.

The presidency of the Council of Ministers rotates on a six monthly basis around the member states.

Grand plans

Often confused with the Council of Ministers, the European Council is the meeting of all the heads of government of EU member states that meet usually every six months.

Previously an informal part of the EU, it became an official institution following the passing of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009.

The Treaty created the position of President of the European Council, lasting for two and a half years, and currently filled by former Belgian Prime Minister Herman van Rompuy,

The European Council can be seen as a "guiding hand" on the workings of the EU, looking at grand plans relating to the Union's future direction, rather than the nitty-gritty of making or passing laws.

And the rest

There are also a number of other organisations that make up the EU family. The Court of Justice makes sure member states are applying EU laws properly.

The European Central Bank looks after matters relating to the euro.

The Court of Auditors ensures that the EU spends its money correctly.

Finally, other institutions include the Committee of the Regions , the anti-fraud office OLAF and Europol , the EU's criminal intelligence agency.





More from BBC Democracy Live
Compare who does what across the UK and Europe
Our A-Z of words used in the business of politics
Discover what BBC Democracy Live has to offer you

BBC navigation

BBC © 2013 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific