Democratic Institutions of the European Union


As a broad supranational union of countries, it’s essential that there are democratic elements in the operations of the EU and this is the case. However, exactly how the EU operates isn’t too well known to the general public, particularly in the UK.

The European Parliament

The European Parliament is elected in multiple ways – depending on the country. Aside from general democratic legitimacy of the elections, they must also be held under some form of proportional representation. Almost all EU countries use some form of “list” system, except for Ireland, Northern Ireland and Malta which use Single Transferable Vote, and one of Belgium’s three electoral areas – the German-speaking community – which uses first-past-the-post to elect one member.

Members of European Parliament (MEPs) are elected from the lists of national parties, but they usually belong to a larger “Europarty” within the parliament. The largest is the centre-right European People’s Party, which no UK party belongs to, whilst the second is the Socialists & Democrats group, to which Labour is affiliated to.

Others include the centre to centre-right ALDE (the third largest and to which the Liberal Democrats belong to), the right-wing, soft Eurosceptic ECR (including the Conservative Party) and the left/centre-left Greens-EFA (including the Green Party, SNP and Plaid Cymru). A few parties, such as the DUP, don’t belong to any group.

The layout of the parliament is a hemicycle, and votes require a simple 50% majority to pass. The allocation of seats to countries is largely proportional to population.

The European Council

The European Councils consists of the heads of government in all 28 member states. There are at least 2 “summits” every six months, and its purpose is to decide the direction of the European Union. It’s intended that decisions are made by consensus, rather than close votes on a politicised basis. It’s a relatively recent addition, coming into existence after the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009. However, leader summits have played an important (albeit informal) role since the EU’s formation.

The Council of the European Union

The Council of the European Union (distinct from the European Council above despite the similar names) consists of representatives from the governments of the 28 member states, who are intended to represent their nation’s interests. It can be compared to the House of Lords, in that it is a non-directly elected body which “double checks” the legislation passed by the elected body (the European Parliament/House of Commons).

“Qualified majority voting” is used, where for a vote to pass it must be supported by 55%+ (at least 16) of member states’ representatives and where the majority in favour represents over 65% of the EU’s total population. This came into effect due to the Lisbon Treaty, replacing a system under the Treaty of Nice which used an “arbitrary” vote weighting system to reflect the population differences of member states.

The European Commission

The European Commission is the “executive branch” of the European Union. There are 28 members – one nominated by the government of each EU country. This occurs in line with elections to the EU Parliament, and hence the political affiliation of a country’s EU commissioner doesn’t necessarily match that of the country’s government. Regardless, the members are officially bound to represent EU interests rather than their specific country’s interests. All EU legislative bills pass through here first.

European Committee of the Regions

On certain legislation which would be implemented on a local/regional level, the European Committee of the Regions must be consulted. It’s an indirectly elected body of elected representatives across Europe from the subnational level (e.g. councillors).


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