What is the European Union?

How does the European Union work? in Easy to read

As a European citizen or person living in any European Union (EU) country you have the right to know how EU laws and policies are being made. But what is the EU, which decisions can it make, and how does the EU make these decisions?

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The European Union and its Institutions

The European Union is a unique economic and political union between 27 European countries known as ‘Member States’. Decision making at the EU level involves the following institutions:

  • The European Council
  • The European Commission
  • The European Parliament
  • The Council of the European Union

The European Council defines the general political direction and priorities of the European Union. It consists of the Heads of State or Government of the Member States, together with the President of the European Council and the President of the European Commission.

European Council logo

The European Commission is the executive arm of the EU. It proposes new laws, manages EU policies, allocates EU funding, and promotes the general interest of the EU. It is also named as the “guardian of the treaties” as it monitors if the EU Member States apply EU law correctly. The political leadership is provided by a team of 28 Commissioners (one from each EU country) – led by the Commission President. The day-to-day running of Commission business is performed by its staff, organised into departments known as DirectoratesGeneral (DGs), each responsible for a specific policy area.

European Commission logo

The European Parliament and the Council of the European Union are responsible for adopting legislation and making policy decisions, based on proposals from the European Commission.

The European Parliament is composed of politicians from each Member State, called Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). They are directly elected by EU voters every 5 years. Members of Parliament may ask the Commission questions to influence policy issues. Parliament’s work comprises two main stages:

  1. Committee stage: where smaller groups of MEPs discuss specific issues and prepare legislation
  2. Plenary – these are meetings of all MEPs, where they vote on legislation and agree on policies. 
  • The Disability Intergroup of the European Parliament is an informal grouping of MEPs from all nationalities, and most political groups, who are interested in promoting disability policy in their work at the European Parliament and at the national level.

European Parliament logo

The Council of the European Union coordinates Member States’ policies in specific fields such as employment, education, economic and fiscal policies. It is composed of government ministers from each EU country, according to the policy area being discussed. The EU Member States share the presidency, which rotates every 6 months. For example, in the first half of 2018, Bulgaria held the presidency, followed by Austria from July to December 2018, Romania from January until June 2019 and Finland from July and December 2019. If you would like to know when your country holds the EU presidency, please check on the Council’s webpage.

European Council logo

(the Council of the European Union and the European Council use the same logo)

There are also several committees which give policy advice at the EU level. The most relevant ones, which work on the rights of persons with disabilities are:

The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) represents employers, trade unions and other groups such as professional and community associations, youth organisations, women’s groups, organisations of persons with disabilities, consumers, environmental campaigners, and other groups of Europeans.

EESC logo

The Committee of the Regions (CoR) ensures that the voice of local and regional government is heard. It is composed by mayors, city councillors and other local government representatives. 

Consultation of the EESC and the CoR by the Commission or the Council is mandatory in certain cases. The EESC may also issue statements on certain issues by its own initiative. They are called 'opinions'. Its opinions are then sent to the Council, the European Commission, and the European Parliament for consideration.

European Committee of Regions logo


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What is EU law based on?

The European Union is based on the rule of law. Every action of the EU is founded on treaties that have been approved voluntarily and democratically by all Member States. Treaties lay down the objectives of the European Union, the rules of the EU institutions, how decisions are made and the relationship between EU and Member States. The European Union is defined by two treaties: The Treaty on the European Union (TEU) and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). For more information, please visit the online repository of EU treaties.

The Treaties explain in which policy areas the EU can pass laws, and which policy areas remain the responsibility of the member states. For a limited number of policy areas, the EU has the exclusive power to make laws (internal market, monetary union, etc.). For most policy areas, the EU shares this power to make laws with the Member States (social policy, consumer protection, transport, etc.). In a third category, the EU can only support the member states’ actions and initiatives through funding, research, and sharing of good practices (tourism, education, culture, etc.).

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How are EU laws made?

The European Commission proposes new initiatives of EU law and policy. The European Parliament and the Council of the European Union review these proposals and can propose changes to the text, called amendments. Once an agreement is reached, the proposal is adopted (approved) by both the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union. The Member States and the Commission then implement the decisions taken.

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Types of Laws

At the European Union level, there are different types of laws and legal actions. In some cases the Member States are forced to act (“Regulations” and “Directives”), in others it’s optional (“Recommendations”, “Opinions”, and “Communications”).

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