Institutions and symbols of the European Union

The EU has a unique institutional framework:

• the general priorities of the EU are set by the European Council, which brings together Heads of State and Government from the member states;

• the Members of the European Parliament, which are directly elected, represent the citizens of the European Parliament;

• the overall interests of the EU are promoted by the European Commission, whose members are appointed by the national governments;

• governments defend their national  interests in the Council of the European Union.  

The European legislative process involves three institutions: the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union and the European Commission.

The European Parliament, which has just been renewed by the elections of 25 May 2014, is directly elected by the European Union citizens every five years. Its headquarters are in Brussels, where the Committees meetings and some Plenary sessions are held, Strasbourg, where most voting in plenary session takes place, and Luxembourg, which is the headquarters of the administrative offices (the “Secretariat General”).

It has a legislative power: it discusses the provisions concerning almost all areas of the Community law; it amends or approves the Commission’s proposals. It has the power to approve the budget and to monitor the other institutions activities and the EU budget. With the 2014 elections, the number of elected MEPs increased to 751 (they were 766 during the previous parliamentary term). Through a system of digressive representation, MEPs represent 500 million citizens from the 28 EU member states. The EU Assembly elects the President of the Commission by absolute majority vote; the candidate is chosen by the European Council by qualified majority, taking into account the European elections results.

With the Lisbon Treaty, the European Parliament strengthened its powers, by changing the number of areas where it “co-decides” together with the EU Council.

The Council of the European Union is the institution where the Ministers of the member states governments gather to adopt European regulations and to coordinate Community policies. It meets in different configurations (laid down in number 10 of the Lisbon Treaty) according to the areas and subjects to be discussed. Jointly with the European Parliament, it has a legislative and budgetary power. Furthermore, it coordinates the economic policies of the member states and the common foreign and defence policy. The presidency of the EU Council is taken in turn by each member state for a period of six months (the so-called “six-month presidency”).  Most EU Council meetings are held in Brussels, but in some cases they are also held in Luxembourg.

The European Commission only represent the European Union interests and is the executive body of the Community institutions. Every five years the President and the 27 commissioners from each EU country are appointed. The European Council appoints a candidate for the presidency of the Commission, who must be approved by the majority of the Members of the European Parliament. The elected President chooses the commissioners (and their portfolios) among the candidates proposed by the EU countries. The list of commissioners is put to the approval (by qualified majority) first of the Council of Ministers, then to of the European Parliament. If the latter approves it, the new Commission is officially appointed by the Council. The current term of office of the Commission expires on the 31st of October 2014. The current President-in-Office is the Portuguese José Manuel Barroso.

Other EU institutions. Two other institutions play an essential role: the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Auditors. 

The European Court of Justice interprets EU law to make sure it is applied in the same way in all EU countries. It also settles legal disputes between EU governments and EU institutions. Individuals, companies or organisations can also bring cases before the Court if they feel their rights have been infringed by an EU institution.

The European Court of Auditors is based in Brussels and audits EU finances. It plays a crucial role in monitoring budgetary decisions taken by the Commission, the EU Council, the European Parliament and the member states.

Interinstitutional bodies. The EU comprises other institutions and bodies that perform specific functions.

The European Central Bank was established in 1999 and its main task is to maintain the euro’s purchasing power and thus price stability in the 18 countries of the euro area. It also contributes to the administration of the EU economic and monetary policy. Its headquarters is in Frankfurt, Germany.

The European External Action Service (EEAS) was established by the Lisbon Treaty and it aims at implementing the common foreign policy. The EEAS acts under the authority of the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and it assists him in performing his tasks, in relation to the management and development of the EU foreign and security policy, including the common security and defence policy. The EEAS is based in Brussels and it has EU delegations in third countries and to various international organisations. The delegations cooperate and share information with the diplomatic services of the EU member states.

The European Economic and Social Committee represents all actors interested in the single market performance and related issues. It is a consultative assembly, issuing the opinions of the different sectors to the institutions involved in the legislative process.

The Committee of the Regions is the EU’s assembly of regional and local representatives and it has 353 members – regional  and province presidents, mayors and elected representatives of regions, provinces and  cities. Since the Lisbon Treaty’s entry into force, the Committee of the Regions has to be consulted throughout the legislative process in various areas, such as, among others, social and economic cohesion, trans-European networks, health, education and culture, employment. 

The European Investment Bank, owned by the 28 EU member states, borrows on the capital markets and lends in order to fund projects which contribute to furthering EU policy objectives, such as infrastructural improvements, energy supply or environmental sustainability. Through the European Investment Fund it supports small and medium-size enterprises.

The European Ombudsman investigates complaints against EU institutions, bodies and offices lodged by European citizens, businesses  and associations. It acts independently from the governments and covers discrimination, maladministration and abuse of power. It reports annually to the European Parliament in order to improve the functioning of Community institutions. 

The European Data Protection Supervisor makes sure that all EU institutions and bodies respect people’s right to privacy when processing their personal data.

Click here if you want to know more about EU institutions.


Symbols: the flag and the anthem

bandiera europea

Flag. The current European flag was adopted by the Council of Europe in 1955 and over the following years the European institutions adopted it as well. It consists of twelve golden stars – which do not represent the member states - on a blue background. Each of the stars has five points, one of which is constantly directed upwards, and they are situated on a circumference. The stars symbolise the ideals of unity, solidarity and harmony.



Anthem. In 1985 the Heads of State and Government from the member states chose “Ode to Joy” by Ludwig van Beethoven as the official European Union anthem.  Without  words, in the universal language of music, this anthem expresses the European ideals of freedom, peace and solidarity.  The melody used to symbolise the EU comes from the Ninth Symphony composed in 1823 by Ludwig Van Beethoven, when he set music to the "Ode to Joy", Friedrich von Schiller's lyrical verse from 1785. The European anthem is not intended to replace the national anthems of the EU countries but rather to celebrate the values they share.  

Last update: 11 June 2014