Who decides what in the EU?

When you hear discussions about politics, it is often people who are mentioned: the prime minister of your country, for example, or an opposition leader. This is because it is people who take decisions and shape policies. And the same is true for the EU.

The European institutions are simply places where politicians from all EU countries can meet to work together towards concrete results. Let’s take a look at the institutions where most of the decisions are made.

The European Parliament

As the EU’s only directly elected institution, the European Parliament is the collective voice of ordinary people. Members are directly elected by European citizens every 5 years. Anyone with EU citizenship is eligible to vote in these elections. In some EU countries where non-citizens can sometimes vote in sub-national elections, people who fulfil other residency conditions (such as non-citizens legally living in the country) can also vote in European Parliamentary elections.

The European Parliament building in Strasbourg, France. / An European Parliament meeting in Brussels, Belgium.  / An infographic depicting the blocks of seats allocated to each political group in the European Parliament.

The last European elections were held in 2019. The next ones will be held in 2024. You have the right to vote from the age of 18 in all EU countries except Austria and Malta, where you can vote at 16, and Greece, where you can vote when you are 17. Belgium and Germany have lowered the voting age to 16 for some elections like the European elections.


Young people– between 15 and 30 years old – are the most pro-European of all the generations. In 2019, over 70 % of them said they had a positive view of the EU.

Source: Flash Eurobarometer 478

The main meetings of the European Parliament, also known as ‘plenary sessions’, take place 12 times a year in Strasbourg, France, and up to 6 times a year in Brussels, Belgium.

The European Parliament has 705 members, also called MEPs, from all EU countries. The number of members per country varies: more populous countries have more members than smaller, less populous ones. Members from across the EU with similar political views work together in political groups just as in national parliaments, instead of forming groups according to their nationality.

The European Parliament takes decisions on EU laws together with the Council of the European Union. If the Parliament and the Council cannot agree on a piece of legislation, there will be no new law. The Parliament elects the President of the European Commission and has the right to approve or to dismiss the whole European Commission. It also approves the budget of the European Union.

An infographic showing different legal voting ages across the EU.European citizens directly elect the Members of the European Parliament.


The next European Parliamentary elections will be held in 2024, and you might be eligible to vote by then. Your representatives work with other Members of the European Parliament in political groups. To form a political group, 23 members are needed, from at least one quarter of the 27 EU countries. At present, there are seven political groups in the Parliament. Members cannot belong to more than one political group at the same time. Other members do not belong to any political group at all and are known as non-attached members.

In small groups, have a look at the map available at the following link and see which parties from your country were successful at the last European elections and which groups they belong to:!mP79pm

Here you can see how members are seated in the plenary:!qp74Dm

Do you recognise some of the members from your own country?

The European Council

The European Council brings together the elected leaders of EU countries, i.e. the heads of state or heads of government. These leaders meet at least four times per year. Their meetings are often referred to as ‘European summits’. The European Council sets the EU’s main political priorities and overall policy direction. It is chaired by a president who is elected every 2½ years.

The European Council does not pass EU laws. That is the job of the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union – don’t mix them up!

At least 4 summits a year / A meeting room inside the Europa building.
An infographic explaining the make-up of the  European Council. It shows the flags of the 27 Member States and three EU flags representing the leaders of the EU institutions.

Each leader of the 27 Member States of the European Union is represented by a cartoon figure with the flag of their country placed in front of them. There are also three figures with EU flags that represent the President of the Council and two other EU leaders. The participants are arranged in a circle, as they would be for any summit meeting.

The European Council

EU and national leaders attend a European summit, chaired by the President of the European Council.

The Council of the European Union

The Council of the European Union – also known as ‘the Council’ for short – represents the governments of the EU countries. In the Council, ministers from all EU countries meet to discuss and take decisions on EU policies and laws. Which ministers attend depends on the topic under discussion. For example, if the meeting is about air pollution, then the environment ministers will meet. If the focus is on unemployment, then ministers responsible for employment and social affairs will attend.

The Council is one of the EU’s two law-making bodies. So without the ministers from all EU countries, nothing can get done in the European Union.

The rules of voting in the Council are decided by the EU countries. The Council takes most of its decisions by a majority vote, and in some cases unanimously. For the areas where the EU countries have agreed that decisions must be taken by unanimity – for instance for taxation or security issues – this means that all ministers must be in agreement for a decision to be taken.

In many other areas, ministers take decisions by majority vote, for example when passing an EU law on consumer rights, on issues such as the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic or on environmental issues such as how to treat urban waste.

The presidency of the Council is held by a different EU country every 6 months. Following the Swedish and Spanish Presidencies in 2023, the presidency will be held by Belgium and Hungary in 2024, and Poland and Denmark in 2025.


The Council votes unanimously on:

  • most common foreign and security policy issues;
  • citizenship (the granting of new rights to EU citizens);
  • EU membership;
  • harmonisation of national legislation on indirect taxation;
  • EU finances;
  • certain justice and home affairs issues (e.g. family law, police cooperation);
  • harmonisation of national legislation on social security and social protection.

Under unanimous voting, abstention does not prevent a decision from being taken.

Find out more about the Council in this short documentary:!Xm48xu


In Council meetings, about 80 % of law proposals are decided by qualified majority vote, also called a ‘double majority’. Under qualified-majority voting, each minister casts one vote for or against a proposal, or abstains. As the number of people represented by each minister varies according to the population of their country, a ‘double majority’ is required to adopt a decision fairly: at least 55 % of EU countries (15 out of 27) representing at least 65 % of the total EU population (around 447 million) must vote in favour for a law to pass.

See here for more details:!fh76Jm

Try out the voting calculator on the Council’s website to see how this system works with the exercise below:!rM38Ru

Imagine your class has collected money for a school trip and you now need to agree on a destination. Someone suggests putting the proposed destination to a vote by qualified majority. Are you all of the same opinion or do you need to take a qualified-majority vote?

Choose someone to represent the European Commission – they have 1 minute to argue in favour of a certain destination. Pick another student to take charge of the Council’s voting calculator. Assign each of your classmates the role of a minister from each of the 27 EU countries.

Each ‘minister’ should then vote for or against the proposed destination – or they can abstain.

Check the result on the Council’s calculator. What was the outcome? Were you able to agree on the proposed destination? Discuss your thoughts about this type of voting process with the group.

Qualified majority: 27 Member States, Minimum ‘yes’ required for adoption: 55 % = 15. Total simple majority = Population, Minimum ‘yes’ required for adoption: 65 % use the voting calculator.
An infographic explaining the voting system at meetings in the Council of the European Union. Malta has 0.11% of the EU's population, whereas Germany has 18.54%.

The European Commission

An infographic explaining the make-up of the European Commission. It shows 27 members, one from each EU country.

The European Commission is made up of 27 Commissioners – one per EU country. Together with the President of the European Commission, the Commissioners are the EU’s executive branch, responsible for the daily running of the EU. Their mandate lasts 5 years.

Find out more about the Commission in this short video:!HPrvR7

The European Commission president is nominated by the Member States via the European Council and is formally appointed by the European Parliament. The other Commissioners are proposed by their country’s government and approved by the European Parliament. Commissioners do not represent the views of their country of origin but rather the common interest of the EU. Each member of the Commission is assigned responsibility for a specific policy area by the president, such as energy, the economy or the environment.

The European Commission proposes new laws and programmes in the general interest of the EU. Before making a proposal, the Commission seeks the opinions of national parliaments, governments, interest groups, experts and the general public, by inviting them to make comments online.

For more information about how you can make your voice heard in EU policymaking, see section: Your voice in the EU decision-making

The Commission’s proposals are scrutinised in detail by the European Parliament and the Council. These two institutions take the final decision on all EU laws. They can amend proposals or reject them altogether. The European Commission also manages EU policies and the budget, and ensures that EU countries apply EU law correctly.

The European Commission is the ‘executive body’ of the EU. An infographic explaining the role of the European Commission.

The European Commission is responsible for managing the EU's budget, monitoring the application of EU law, and drafting EU laws.

Young people seated in the European Parliament. / A group of young people gathered in front of the European Parliament building in Strasbourg.


The day-to-day work of the Commission is carried out by its administrative staff, experts, translators, interpreters and assistants. Commission officials – like the staff of other EU institutions – are recruited via the European Personnel Selection Office (

These officials are citizens of the EU countries, selected by recruitment competitions. Around 32 000 people work for the Commission. That may sound like a lot, but it is in fact fewer than the number of staff employed by most large city councils in the EU.

If this sounds like a career you might be interested in, you can apply for an EU traineeship with any of the EU institutions.

Find out more here:!tu37Kg


You can visit the European institutions!

Take a tour around the European Parliament, the Council, the European Council and the European Commission in person or online.

An illustration of men and women gathered around a computer in a European Commission office. - Two photos showing people looking at an interactive map in the European Parliament's Parlamentarium museum in Brussels.

The Court of Justice of the European Union

Over the last 70 years, EU countries have drawn up many EU laws together. The Court of Justice ensures that these laws are interpreted and applied uniformly. If a national court is in doubt about interpreting any of these laws, it can ask the Court of Justice for clarification. Individual EU countries do not always apply EU laws fully. In this case, the Commission or another EU country can bring the matter before the Court. The Court is based in Luxembourg and consists of one judge per EU country.

For more information, see:


That was a lot of information to take in! However, it is important to understand what ‘Brussels’ really is and who is responsible for what in the EU. Take the test below to see how much you remember. Put a cross in the box against the institution or institutions that match the description.

Who …? European Parliament European Council Council of the European Union European Commission European Court of Justice
1. makes proposals for EU laws YES / NO YES / NO YES / NO YES / NO YES / NO
2. approves EU laws YES / NO YES / NO YES / NO YES / NO YES / NO
3. consists of (only) one representative/member per EU country YES / NO YES / NO YES / NO YES / NO YES / NO
4. is directly elected YES / NO YES / NO YES / NO YES / NO YES / NO
5. manages the budget YES / NO YES / NO YES / NO YES / NO YES / NO
6. represents the interests of the people YES / NO YES / NO YES / NO YES / NO YES / NO
7. represents the interests of EU countries/their governments YES / NO YES / NO YES / NO YES / NO YES / NO
8. represents the interest of the EU as a whole YES / NO YES / NO YES / NO YES / NO YES / NO
9. decides on the interpretation of EU laws YES / NO YES / NO YES / NO YES / NO YES / NO
10. defines the general political direction of the EU YES / NO YES / NO YES / NO YES / NO YES / NO

Apart from the institutions discussed here, you may have heard of these other EU institutions and bodies:

For more information see:!NX37Dd


The most common procedure for making laws in the EU is called the ‘ordinary legislative procedure’. With this procedure, proposals for a new law are examined up to three times (in so-called readings). If no agreement can be reached, the proposal is withdrawn.

The EU treaties specify who can pass laws in what areas: the EU, national governments or both. EU countries are responsible for making their own decisions and laws in certain areas of national policy like industry, health and education. In these areas, the EU only provides support to national governments. In areas where the EU or national governments can act, the EU may only take action if it can do so more effectively.

Find out more about  EU competences:!Nm66pq

The readings mainly involve three institutions: the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union and the European Commission. Please put each institution in the correct box in the image.

An infographic with boxes to fill in answering questions about law-making in the EU.


You now know a lot about the European institutions, but do you know the names and faces of the people leading them? Do you know who is the current:

  1. President of the European Parliament?
  2. President of the European Council?
  3. President of the European Commission?
  4. High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy?
A woman holding a loudspeaker in front of a cheering crowd.

Your voice in EU decision-making

As a European citizen, you can influence EU policies in several ways.

play video WATCH THE VIDEO: How do you shape the EU institutions?!gwKXmw

Vote in your country

Voting for your Member of the European Parliament in Brussels and Strasbourg makes a huge impact, as does voting for your national government. This is because your head of state and national government both influence the work of the EU.

An infographic showing various ways in which European citizens can influence EU policies.

Your vote in your country’s general election helps choose the government of your country. The Head of State or Government of your country is a member of the European Council. Your vote also helps choose your country’s ministers for education, environment, etc., who take decisions at Council meetings. Your vote in the European Parliament elections helps choose your representatives in the European Parliament, who work in political groups together with members from other EU countries.

Participate in online consultations

You can make your voice heard by taking part in online public consultations. Before making proposals for new EU laws, and throughout the whole decision-making process, the European Commission seeks the opinions of ordinary people, as well as the public and private sector.

Take part here:!Tk33yq

Debate the EU

You can also have your say about what is happening in the EU during the many debates that take place both physically and online across the EU.

You can read more about how you can get involved in EU policymaking here:!nhTNBf. Check out the platform if you want to support democracy in Europe by helping bring people out to vote at the 2024 European elections; this platform connects people across Europe to meet, share knowledge and learn new skills.

Ask the European Commission to propose a new law

play videoWATCH THE VIDEO: What is the European Citizens' Initiative? Take the initiative!kpmXmn

EU citizens can launch or support a European citizens’ initiative (!xr67Dq). These initiatives ask the European Commission to propose legislation on a specific issue for which the EU is responsible, such as the environment, agriculture or transport. A group of at least seven EU citizens living in seven different EU countries can launch an initiative and collect supporting signatures. Once an initiative has been signed by 1 million people, or slightly over 0.2 ٪ of the EU population, it can be submitted to the European Commission for examination.

The first-ever European citizens’ initiative, ‘Right2Water’, gathered 1.6 million signatures. It led to a proposal for new rules on drinking water.


The European Commission has small offices (the offices are called ‘representations’) in all EU countries, with staff who speak the language(s) of the country. You can talk to them or ask for written information about the EU in your language. There are also local information offices of the Europe Direct network in all EU countries. You can find their contact details at the end of this booklet.


In small groups, make a list of the five main topics that you would like your representative to defend in the European Parliament. As an example, you can read about the Parliament’s resolution to reduce plastic bag use in Europe here:!Bt79yQ.