The European Union

What it is and what it does

This publication is a guide to the European Union (EU) and what it does.

The first section explains in brief what the EU is.

The second section, ‘What the European Union does’, describes what the EU is doing in 35 different areas to improve the lives of people in Europe and further afield.

The third section, ‘How the European Union makes decisions and takes action’, describes the institutions at the heart of the EU’s decision-making process and how their decisions are translated into actions.

This publication is available in the following formats HTML PDF The EU What it is what it does Paper The EU What it is what it does

1 The European Union in brief

The European Union (EU) is a unique economic and political union between 27 European countries.

The predecessor of the EU was created in the aftermath of the Second World War. The first steps were to foster economic cooperation: the idea being that countries that trade with one another become economically interdependent and so more likely to avoid conflict. The result was the European Economic Community, created in 1958 with the initial aim of increasing economic cooperation between six countries: Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

Since then, 22 more countries joined (and the United Kingdom left the EU in 2020) and a huge single market (also known as the ‘internal’ market) has been created and continues to develop towards its full potential.

What began as a purely economic union has evolved into an organisation spanning many different policy areas, from climate, environment and health to external relations and security, justice and migration. A name change from the European Economic Community to the European Union in 1993 reflected this.

The EU has delivered more than half a century of peace, stability and prosperity, helped raise living standards and launched a single European currency: the euro. More than 340 million EU citizens in 19 countries now use it as their currency and enjoy its benefits.

Thanks to the abolition of border controls between EU countries, people can travel freely throughout most of the continent. And it has become much easier to live and work in another country in Europe. All EU citizens have the right and freedom to choose in which EU country they want to study, work or retire. Every EU country must treat EU citizens in exactly the same way as its own citizens when it comes to matters of employment, social security and tax.

The EU’s main economic engine is the single market. It enables most goods, services, money and people to move freely. The EU aims to develop this huge resource to other areas like energy, knowledge and capital markets to ensure that Europeans can draw the maximum benefit from it.

The EU remains focused on making its governing institutions more transparent and democratic. Decisions are taken as openly as possible and as closely as possible to the citizen. More powers have been given to the directly elected European Parliament, while national parliaments play a greater role, working alongside the European institutions.

The EU is governed by the principle of representative democracy, with citizens directly represented at EU level in the European Parliament and Member States represented in the European Council and the Council of the EU.

European citizens are encouraged to contribute to the democratic life of the EU by giving their views on EU policies during their development or by suggesting improvements to existing laws and policies. The European Citizens’ Initiative empowers citizens to have a greater say on EU policies that affect their lives. Citizens can also submit complaints and enquiries concerning the application of EU law.

As enshrined in the Treaty on European Union, ‘the Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail’. These values are an integral part of the European way of life.

Human dignity must be respected, protected and constitutes the real basis of fundamental rights.

Being a European citizen also means enjoying political rights. Every adult EU citizen has the right to stand as a candidate and to vote in elections to the European Parliament, whether in their country of residence or country of origin.

Equality is about equal rights for all citizens before the law. The principle of equality between women and men underpins all European policies and is the basis for European integration. It applies in all areas.

The EU is based on the rule of law. Everything the EU does is founded on treaties, which are voluntarily and democratically agreed by its member countries. Law and justice are upheld by an independent judiciary. The EU countries have given final jurisdiction in matters of EU law to the European Court of Justice, whose judgments have to be respected by all.

Human rights are protected by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. These cover the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation, the right to the protection of your personal data, and the right to get access to justice.

In 2012, the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for advancing the causes of peace, reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.

EU Member States and institutions

At the core of the EU are the 27 Member States that belong to the EU, and their citizens. The unique feature of the EU is that, although the Member States all remain sovereign and independent states, they have decided to pool some of their ‘sovereignty’ in areas where it makes sense to work together.

In practice, this means that the Member States delegate some of their decision-making powers to the shared institutions they have created, so that decisions on specific matters of common interest can be made democratically at EU level.

Member States of the European Union in 2020

Several institutions are involved in making decisions at EU level, in particular:

  • the European Parliament, which represents the EU’s citizens and is directly elected by them;
  • the European Council, which consists of the Heads of State or Government of the EU Member States;
  • The Council, (also called the Council of the European Union) which represents the governments of the EU Member States; and
  • the European Commission, which represents the interests of the EU as a whole.

The national parliaments of the Member States also play a role in taking decisions and making laws, as do two advisory bodies. These are the European Committee of the Regions, which consists of representatives of regional and local government, and the European Economic and Social Committee, comprising representatives of employees’ and employers’ organisations and stakeholders’ groups.

Generally it is the European Commission that proposes new laws and the European Parliament and the Council that adopt them.

The advisory bodies (the European Economic and Social Committee and the European Committee of the Regions) as well as the national parliaments are involved in the process by providing their opinions on the proposals, mainly from the perspective of the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality. Subsidiarity means that, except in the areas where it has exclusive powers, the EU only acts where action will be more effective at EU level than at national level. Under the principle of proportionality, the EU’s action must be limited to what is necessary to achieve the objectives of the EU treaties.

The Member States and the EU institution or institutions concerned then implement adopted EU laws. The third section of this publication contains more information on how the EU makes decisions, and how it implements them.

The EU treaties

Every action taken by the EU is founded on treaties that have been approved voluntarily and democratically by all EU countries. The treaties lay down the objectives of the European Union, and set out the rules for how the EU institutions operate, on how decisions are made and on the relationship between the EU and its Member States.

In certain specific cases, not all Member States participate in all areas of EU policy. For example, while the euro is the single currency of the EU as a whole, the euro area currently comprises only 19 Member States, while Denmark has an opt-out and the remaining countries do not yet meet the criteria for joining. 22 Member States are members of the Schengen area, which enables passport-free movement, with five maintaining their own border controls.

Looking ahead

To keep the European project on course, the 2016 State of the Union address by Jean-Claude Juncker, then President of the European Commission, presented a positive agenda for a Europe that protects, empowers and defends. This message was welcomed by the European Parliament as well as by the 27 EU leaders at the Bratislava Summit on 16 September 2016.

The work on the positive agenda continued with the Commission’s White Paper on the Future of Europe in March 2017, offering five scenarios for what the EU could look like by 2025. Following the White Paper, the Commission contributed to the debate with a series of thematic reflection papers offering different options for the EU in certain policy areas: the social dimension of Europe; harnessing globalisation; the deepening of economic and monetary union; the future of European defence; and the future of EU finances.

The years ahead offer both opportunities and challenges for the European Union. The European Parliament elections in 2019 and the extraordinary summit to discuss the future of Europe in Sibiu, Romania on 9 May 2019, provided the EU with the chance to renew its commitment to delivering on the issues that really matter to people.

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has announced a Conference on the Future of Europe to give Europeans their say on how their Union is run, and what it delivers on. It will start in 2020 and run for two years, bringing together citizens of all ages from across the EU, as well as civil society and European institutions.

2 What the European Union does

The second part of this publication presents a summary of what the EU does in 35 different policy areas, including useful links to more information.

Public health

Please click here for the latest information from the European Commission on the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, including travel advice.

Citizens’ health is a major priority for the European Union. The EU’s health policy complements Member States’ policies to ensure that everyone living in the EU is protected from serious cross-border health threats and has access to quality healthcare.

While the organisation of healthcare is the responsibility of individual Member States, the EU complements national policies to achieve shared objectives. The EU’s role in preparing for and responding to serious cross-border health threats is essential to protect Europeans and includes action on vaccination, fighting antimicrobial resistance, and preventing and limiting pandemics and other infectious diseases such as Ebola. The EU’s health policy also generates economies of scale by pooling resources, and helps countries to tackle common challenges, including the risk factors of chronic diseases or the impact of increased life expectancy on healthcare systems.


What the EU does

The EU’s health policy focuses on tackling serious EU-wide health threats, preventing diseases and ensuring an equal chance of good health and quality healthcare for all. A population in good health is also good for the economy, and therefore the EU’s ambition is to ensure the accessibility, effectiveness and resilience of health systems in the EU.

The EU is active in many different areas, such as capacity building to increase the uptake of vaccinations, pooling knowledge on cancer, promoting a healthy lifestyle, and combating smoking through tobacco legislation. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control assesses emerging threats so the EU and national health authorities can respond rapidly. And to ensure patients get the best treatment, all medicines in the EU must be approved at national or EU level (through the European Medicines Agency) before going on the market.

The main instrument to implement EU health policies is the third EU health programme. Its budget of €449 million funds cooperation projects at EU level and joint actions by national health authorities, and supports non-governmental bodies and cooperation with international organisations. In addition, the Horizon 2020 programme is investing €7.5 billion in health-related research and innovation, while the Connecting Europe Facility, the EU Structural Funds and the Investment Plan for Europe are investing in health infrastructure and the digitisation of healthcare.

The European Health Insurance Card helps travellers obtain treatment if they fall ill while visiting another EU country, while EU law on cross-border healthcare sets out citizens’ rights when crossing borders for planned care. Through European reference networks patients with rare or complex diseases benefit from the best expertise from across Europe without even leaving their home country.

Climate action and the European Green Deal

The EU is working hard to cut greenhouse gas emissions and make the transition to a clean, low-carbon and sustainable economy, as well as addressing unavoidable consequences of climate change.

The EU is taking action on climate change in response to changes in the Earth’s climate, in particular the rise in global temperatures due to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity. Higher average temperatures have many consequences, including stronger and more frequent extreme weather events such as floods, droughts and storms. Such events not only pose a direct threat to people but can also jeopardise food production and create water shortages, which can in turn trigger famine, regional conflicts and mass migration.


What the EU does

To keep climate change below dangerous levels, under the Paris Agreement on climate change the international community has agreed that the average global temperature rise must be kept to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels, with the aim being to limit the increase to 1.5 °C. The EU has a range of policies and instruments in place for lowering emissions and driving the low-carbon transition, while its adaptation strategy promotes actions such as building flood defences, developing drought-tolerant crops and changing building regulations.

Not addressing climate change could be very costly for the EU and the rest of the world. At the same time, growing demand for clean technologies presents opportunities for innovation, industrial modernisation and green jobs and growth. Climate action is now incorporated into all of the main EU spending programmes, with 20% of the EU budget for 2014-2020 to be spent on climate-related initiatives.

The EU is leading global efforts to fight climate change, in particular by galvanising the international community to maintain the momentum of the Paris Agreement and put it into practice worldwide.

Becoming the world’s first climate-neutral continent by 2050 is the greatest challenge and opportunity of our times. To achieve this, the European Commission presented the European Green Deal, the most ambitious package of measures that should enable European citizens and businesses to benefit from sustainable green transition.

The EU emissions trading system is a cornerstone of EU climate policy and is cutting emissions from industry, power plants and aviation within Europe cost-effectively. EU countries have also agreed national targets for cutting emissions in other sectors, such as transport, buildings and agriculture.

Economy, finance and the euro

Economic and monetary union and the euro provide the common foundations for greater stability, growth and prosperity across Europe.

Economic and monetary union unites and integrates EU economies through coordinated economic and fiscal policies, a common monetary policy and a common currency, the euro. It is a powerful tool to deliver jobs, growth, social fairness and financial stability, but is a work in progress that still needs to be completed.


What the EU does

The EU’s economic and financial policies in the euro area and the EU aim to:

  • promote growth and employment;
  • promote macroeconomic and fiscal stability;
  • improve the efficient functioning of economic and monetary union;
  • promote investment;
  • prevent or correct macroeconomic imbalances;
  • help to coordinate national structural policies; and
  • promote prosperity beyond the EU.

In reaction to the economic and financial crisis of 2008, the EU’s economic governance was strengthened through improvements to the Stability and Growth Pact, the fiscal rules Member States follow to facilitate and maintain the stability of economic and monetary union. Countries that were shut out of financial markets, such as Greece, received financial and policy support and the European Stability Mechanism was created as the euro area’s permanent solution for such situations.

The Macroeconomic Imbalance Procedure was also introduced to monitor and correct potentially problematic economic trends in individual Member States and prevent them from affecting others.

The euro, in circulation since 2002 and used by more than 340 million people in 19 Member States, is the world’s second most important currency after the US dollar. A single currency is practical for citizens and good for business, and represents a major achievement of European integration.

The Investment Plan for Europe, adopted in November 2014, uses public guarantees to stimulate private investment. The plan’s European Fund for Strategic Investments has already mobilised €439  billion worth of investments (by October 2019), exceeding expectations. The plan’s investments have supported the creation of 1.1 million jobs, a figure set to rise to 1.7 million by 2022. More than one million small and medium-sized companies are set to benefit from improved access to finance and the plan has helped to boost EU gross domestic product by 0.9%.

Migration and asylum

The EU’s common migration and asylum policy helps Europe deal with migration challenges in an effective manner.

More than 3.2 million asylum seekers have applied for international protection in the EU since 2015, many of whom were fleeing from war and terror in Syria and other troubled countries.


What the EU does

The EU has developed a common migration and asylum policy to manage the many challenges generated by migration into the EU, including of people seeking international protection. This policy includes the following actions aimed at dealing with the crisis.

The EU has dedicated over €10 billion to dealing with the refugee crisis, financing projects to address the most urgent humanitarian needs of refugees arriving on European shores. The EU also provides humanitarian aid to refugees and migrants in countries outside the EU, and supports work to address the root causes of irregular migration.

Based on a European Commission proposal, Member States agreed to relocate asylum seekers from Greece and Italy to other EU countries. The EU also wants to create safe and legal ways for asylum seekers to enter the EU. A voluntary resettlement programme agreed by Member States envisages the transfer of 22 500 people from outside the EU to an EU Member State. The EU is working to increase the rate of returns to their home country of irregular migrants with no right to stay in the EU.

The EU and Turkey agreed in March 2016 that irregular migrants and asylum seekers arriving on the Greek islands from Turkey may be returned to Turkey. For every Syrian returned to Turkey from the Greek islands after an irregular crossing, the EU will take in a Syrian from Turkey who has not sought to make this journey in an irregular way. This has led to a major decrease in irregular arrivals to the islands. The EU has made available €3 billion to address the needs of refugees hosted in Turkey.

Over 620 000 lives have been saved in the Aegean and the Mediterranean since 2015 thanks to Italian and Greek rescue operations and the work of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, established in 2016.

The Commission has proposed a deep reform of existing asylum laws in line with current and future needs. The basic principle will remain the same: people should apply for asylum in the first EU Member State they enter unless they have family elsewhere, but whenever a Member State is overwhelmed, there must be solidarity and a fair sharing of responsibility within the EU.

Borders and security

The European Union is working towards establishing a security union, making Europe more secure by fighting terrorism and serious crime and by strengthening Europe's external borders.

The EU offers its citizens an area of freedom, security and justice without internal borders. The overall objective of a security union is to make this area a safer place. The EU and Member States cooperate to tackle terrorism and violent radicalisation, serious and organised crime and cybercrime.


What the EU does

The EU focuses its actions on supporting Member States through:

  • information exchange between national law enforcement, customs agencies and border guards;
  • operational cooperation, with the support of EU agencies;
  • training, exchange of best practice, funding, research and innovation.

The European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (Europol) brings Member States together to investigate cases of serious and organised crime. The Commission is also working to ensure the different EU information systems for security, border and migration management will be ‘interoperable’, i.e. able to speak to each other.

The EU has updated and reinforced its laws, harmonising the definition of terrorist offences and criminalising terrorist travel, training and financing. With the support of the Radicalisation Awareness Network Centre of Excellence, the EU is stepping up efforts to prevent radicalisation and to address the challenge of returning terrorist fighters. Through the EU Internet Forum, the Commission is facilitating cooperation between key internet companies, law enforcement agencies and civil society to reduce access to illegal content online and provide effective alternative narratives to counter terrorist propaganda. The Commission also proposed to make it mandatory for internet companies to remove terrorist content from the web within one hour of a removal order from national authorities.

In December 2018 the European Parliament, the Council and Commission agreed on the Cybersecurity Act, which strengthens the mandate of the EU cybersecurity agency (European Union Agency for Network and Information Security) so as to better support Members States with tackling cybersecurity threats and attacks.

Thanks to the Schengen Agreement, checks at many EU internal borders have been progressively abolished. The migration crisis and the changing security landscape in recent years have demonstrated that the Schengen area needs strong external borders. In 2017 the EU adopted new rules for the external Schengen borders to reinforce checks on all people, including European citizens, against relevant databases, to make sure that they do not represent a threat to public policy or internal security. In addition, more than 1 600 European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) officers are now helping Member States’ national border guards to patrol in places like Greece, Italy, Bulgaria and Spain. The Commission has proposed to further scale up the Agency by establishing a standing corps of 10 000 operational staff.

Business and industry

The EU aims to make industry and business more competitive and to promote jobs and growth through a business-friendly environment.

The EU’s business and industrial policy is designed to improve the business environment, promote a climate of entrepreneurship and job creation and give small businesses easier access to finance and markets. Small and medium-sized enterprises represent 99% of all businesses in the EU, providing two thirds of total private-sector employment. EU policies encourage the creation of new businesses and support innovative enterprises in their efforts to scale up. Enhanced trade agreements open markets for EU businesses, and action can be taken to prevent unfair competition from outside the EU. The EU aims to:

  • strengthen its industrial base and promote the transition to a low-carbon economy;
  • promote innovation as a means to generate new sources of growth;
  • encourage small businesses and promote an entrepreneurial culture;
  • guarantee an EU-wide market for goods; and
  • maximise the benefits of the EU’s investment in space.

What the EU does

The EU is committed to helping businesses and industry to be competitive and to generate growth and new jobs. The aim is to help European companies to become smarter, more innovative and more sustainable. Industrial policy contributes to competitiveness by establishing appropriate framework conditions (such as smart legislation and skills development). The European Commission has developed sector-specific action plans and legislation to support more than a dozen key industrial sectors, including the chemicals, automotive, food, healthcare, biotechnology and aeronautics industries. The Commission is also responsible for sectors with geostrategic implications and a high degree of public intervention, such as defence, security and space.

The European Commission, together with the European Investment Bank, launched the Investment Plan for Europe. As part of the plan, the European Fund for Strategic Investments was created to mobilise investment across Europe. By November 2018 the plan had mobilised €360 billion worth of investments. The fund provides guarantees in support of projects financed by the European Investment Bank, focusing on infrastructure, innovation and smaller companies. Around 850 000 small and medium-sized companies are set to benefit from improved access to finance. The Commission manages several EU programmes to support innovation and entrepreneurship, including:

The EU also offers businesses a number of support services including the Enterprise Europe Network and Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs.

Single market

The single market is one of the EU’s greatest achievements. It fuels growth and jobs and makes everyday life easier for people and businesses.

Thanks to the single market (sometimes also called the internal market) people, goods, services and money can move around the EU almost as freely as within a single country. EU citizens can study, live, shop, work and retire in any EU country, and enjoy products from all over Europe.

Hundreds of technical, legal and bureaucratic barriers to free trade and free movement between EU Member States have been removed to make things flow more easily within the single market. As a result, companies have expanded their operations and competition has brought prices down and given consumers more choice. For example, phone calls in Europe are much cheaper, and airfares have fallen significantly and new routes have opened up. At the same time, the EU works to ensure that these greater freedoms do not undermine fairness, consumer protection or environmental sustainability.


What the EU does

The European Commission works with authorities and stakeholders in Member States to monitor and enforce the existing rules so that people and businesses can benefit from the opportunities offered by the single market. However, some barriers remain to a fully functioning single market. The EU is in particular working to:

  • address current regulatory or administrative obstacles that prevent people from easily buying or selling goods and services from or in another Member State;
  • make it easier for companies – big and small – to raise money through the Investment Plan for Europe and the capital markets union;
  • encourage workers to take up jobs in other EU countries in order to fill vacancies and meet the need for special skills, including through the European Professional Card and the EURES job mobility portal;
  • prevent social dumping, the practice of using cheaper labour and moving production to a low-wage country or area;
  • boost cooperation between national tax authorities; and
  • establish a common consolidated corporate tax base in the EU and a financial transaction tax.

In addition to the single market’s rules guaranteeing free movement of people, EU citizens do not need a passport to travel within the Schengen area, which currently comprises the EU Member States (except Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Ireland and Romania), plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. To ensure safety in the Schengen area, these countries have stepped up checks on the EU’s external borders and also increased police cooperation.

The Your Europe portal provides information on living, working, travelling, studying and doing business in another EU country. It also offers access to services such as Your Europe Advice (for personalised legal advice) and SOLVIT (solving problems with public authorities abroad).

Digital economy and society

The EU’s digital single market aims to open up opportunities for people and businesses and enhance Europe’s position as a world leader in the digital economy.

The EU continues to remove hurdles that prevent citizens, governments and businesses from taking full advantage of the internet. The solutions range from ending ‘geo-blocking’, removing mobile phone roaming charges and addressing the lack of internet access or digital skills, to new portability rules so people can access their online subscriptions for TV, games and music when travelling in the EU in the same way as they do at home.


What the EU does

The digital single market will improve e-commerce and parcel delivery, remove geo-blocking and review VAT. It will improve the business environment by reforming telecoms and media policy, reviewing the rules on how online platforms behave and ensuring that the online world is safe and secure. The digital single market will also help drive the economy by ensuring the free flow of non-personal data, investing in digital skills and providing better access to online public services. People and businesses will be able to trade online, innovate and interact legally, safely, securely and affordably, making their lives easier. Achieving the digital single market could potentially contribute hundreds of billions of euro per year to the EU economy and create hundreds of thousands of jobs.

The European Commission has delivered most of the legislative proposals it announced in its 2015 digital single market strategy. The focus is now on making the proposals a reality for EU citizens. These are some of the steps already taken.

  • Roaming charges ended in June 2017, so people can use their mobile devices when travelling in the EU, paying the same prices as at home.
  • Since May 2018, citizens and businesses benefit from strong new EU rules on personal data protection.
  • The Commission aims to provide citizens with the best possible internet connection, while the WiFi4EU initiative supports installing free public Wi-Fi hotspots in local communities across the EU.
  • The Commission has proposed new tools to help defend people and businesses against cyberattacks, while reinforcing its cybersecurity agency and in 2018, a cybersecurity competence centre.
  • New initiatives proposed in e-health, addressing disinformation, transparency of online platforms, artificial intelligence, supercomputing, 5G and blockchain, as well as a digital strategy for the Western Balkans.
  • To ensure that the EU remains at the forefront of digital transformation, the Commission proposes to invest €9.2 billion in the Digital Europe and Creative Europe programmes.

Employment and social affairs

The EU contributes to the creation of more and better jobs across Europe, and aims for decent social standards for all its citizens, including through the €86.4 billion European Social Fund.

Responsibility for employment policies and social affairs is shared between the EU and its Member States. The European Commission has made jobs, growth and investment its top priority, backed up by the Investment Plan for Europe.


What the EU does

The EU’s employment and social affairs policies are designed to:

  • create quality jobs throughout the EU;
  • help workers to find jobs in their own or another EU country;
  • promote skills and entrepreneurship;
  • coordinate and modernise social security schemes;
  • create better working conditions through common minimum standards;
  • support social inclusion and combat poverty; and
  • protect the rights of people with disabilities.

These policies contribute to achieving the Europe 2020 targets in employment, social inclusion and education. The EU provides and coordinates funding to help Member States invest in people (in areas like childcare, healthcare, training, accessible infrastructure and help with finding a job) and to reform their social security systems. The European Social Fund is investing €86.4 billion to help millions of Europeans acquire new skills and find better jobs. The Youth Guarantee (€8.8 billion) supports youth employment by ensuring that all young people under 25 receive a good-quality, concrete offer of a job, apprenticeship, traineeship or continued education within 4 months of leaving formal education or becoming unemployed. The Upskilling Pathways initiative helps adults to master basic skills such as reading, writing or using a computer. Through this initiative, the EU helps Member States to give people a second chance to build their skills.

While social security remains the responsibility of each Member State, the EU creates bridges between national systems for citizens moving across borders. The EU rules on social security coordination do not replace national systems, but protect the social security rights of people when they move within the EU (and Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland). The EU also protects people through laws to limit working hours, tackle workplace discrimination, make working conditions safer and ensure that they receive compensation for work injuries. To deliver new and more effective rights for citizens, the European Pillar of Social Rights enshrines principles and rights in the areas of equal opportunities on the labour market, fair working conditions and social protection. EURES, the European Job Mobility Portal, also helps connect jobseekers and companies offering a job.

Education and training

The EU helps improve the quality of education by encouraging cooperation between Member States and by complementing national actions. Erasmus+ provides opportunities for people of all ages and enables young people in particular to study, train, gain work experience or volunteer abroad.

Investing in education and training is the key to people’s future, particularly if they are young. According to a 2015 report, in the EU there are still more than 4.4 million early school leavers and one in four adults who have a low level of skills, which makes it difficult for them to access the labour market and to fully participate in society.


What the EU does

EU countries are responsible for their own education and training systems, but the EU helps them achieve quality education through the exchange of good practice, setting targets and benchmarks and providing funding and expertise. The EU strategy for education and training aims to meet the following objectives:

  • make lifelong learning and mobility a reality;
  • improve the quality and efficiency of education and training;
  • promote equity, social cohesion and active citizenship; and
  • enhance creativity and innovation, including entrepreneurship, at all levels of education and training.

Erasmus+, the EU programme for education, training, youth and sport, helps tackle youth unemployment by boosting young people’s personal development, skills and employability. With a total budget of €14.7 billion, it will help over 4 million (mostly young) people to study, train, gain work experience or volunteer in another country. Erasmus+ boosts the job prospects and the personal development of young people by giving them the skills they need in the labour market and society, both now and in the future. The European Commission has proposed to double funding for Erasmus to €30 billion in the next long-term EU budget (2021 to 2027).

The EU has set up a number of other initiatives to make it easier for people to study, train or work abroad. European countries, trade unions and employers cooperate to improve vocational and educational training through the Copenhagen process. One result is the European Credit System for Vocational Education and Training and quality assurance network, which help people work and study abroad. The Bologna process and the European Higher Education Area make it easier for people to move between education systems within Europe by promoting mutual recognition of periods of study, comparable qualifications and uniform quality standards.

The Europass set of documents helps workers apply for jobs abroad by presenting their skills and qualifications in a standard Europe-wide format, more easily understood by employers.

Research and innovation

The €77 billion research and innovation programme Horizon 2020 is helping the EU to boost growth and jobs and tackle some of our biggest challenges.

Research and innovation are essential to our economy and society. They are at the heart of European efforts to create quality jobs and to boost growth and investment. They also provide us with the knowledge and solutions to tackle both urgent problems such as the 2014 Ebola outbreak and long-term societal challenges such as climate change.

At the same time, research and innovation help make people’s lives better through improvements in areas such as healthcare, transport and energy, and are the launch pad for countless new products and services that can improve quality of life and strengthen our economic performance.


What the EU does

The EU is the world’s biggest knowledge factory, accounting for almost a third of global science and technology production. However, in the face of increasing competition, the EU needs to get better at turning excellent research and innovative ideas into successful products and technologies. All EU Member States have their own research policies and funding schemes, but many important issues can be best tackled by helping researchers and innovators in different countries to work together. This is why research and innovation is supported at EU level, in particular through the Horizon 2020 programme.

Horizon 2020 is the biggest ever EU research and innovation programme, investing €77 billion of funding over 7 years (2014-2020), in addition to the other public and private investment that this money attracts. It is achieving breakthroughs, discoveries and world firsts both in the lab and by taking great ideas from the lab to the market.

Horizon 2020 has three main aims, which are to:

  • boost excellent science, including through the European Research Council, and training and career development for researchers under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions;
  • promote industrial leadership in areas such as nanotechnologies, biotechnology and information and communications technology, and through support for companies and entrepreneurs; and
  • tackle our biggest societal challenges, including health, transport, energy, climate action and protecting freedom and security.

The European Commission also aims to develop policies that encourage excellent research and boost innovation. New policies and actions can be grouped under three main themes: open innovation, open science and open to the world.

Regional policy

Regional policy targets all regions and cities in the European Union in order to support job creation, business competitiveness, economic growth and sustainable development and to improve citizens’ quality of life.

Investing in research and innovation centres in San Ġwann, Galway and Cottbus; modernising the airports of Riga and Wrocław; improving urban mobility in Athens, Sofia and Cluj-Napoca; preserving Mont-Saint-Michel and safeguarding Pompeii; developing broadband infrastructure across Lithuania; supporting small and medium-sized enterprises in Utrecht and Paredes; renovating the urban centres of Santa Coloma de Gramenet and Liège; renewing wastewater treatment in Trenčín and Slavonski Brod; and promoting the use of information technologies in universities in Nicosia and Ljubljana – these are just some examples of the thousands of projects co-funded by the EU’s regional policy in regions across Europe.


What the EU does

Regional policy underpins European solidarity, boosting economic growth and improving quality of life through strategic investment. It dedicates the bulk of its funding to help the EU’s less-developed countries and regions to catch up and so reduce the economic, social and territorial disparities that still exist in the EU.

Regional policy is jointly managed by the European Commission and the Member States and their regions, which choose the projects that will be co-financed by the EU, under programmes agreed in advance with the European Commission. EU funds are always topped up with national (private and/or public) funds.

Each programme is drawn up through a collective process involving stakeholders at the European, national, regional and local levels, social partners and civil society. This partnership applies to all stages of programming, from design, through management and implementation, to monitoring and evaluation.

Through the Interreg programmes, regional policy pays particular attention to the needs and potential of border regions.

In order to reach these goals and address the diverse development needs of all EU regions, €259.7 billion, a quarter of the total EU budget, is available for regional policy in 2014-2020. These resources are used to finance strategic transport and communication infrastructures; to favour a transition to a more environmentally friendly economy; to help small and medium-sized enterprises to become more innovative and more competitive; to create new and lasting job opportunities; to reinforce and modernise education systems; and to build a more inclusive society. Further information on the European Structural and Investment Funds can be found at!RG44xN.


The EU’s transport policy helps keep the European economy moving by developing a modern infrastructure network that makes journeys quicker and safer, all while promoting sustainable and digital solutions.

Europe needs efficient transport connections to drive trade, growth, and employment. Transport is a major contributor to the economy: transport services alone accounted for around €664 billion in gross value added (the contribution to the economy) in 2016, and employed around 11 million people.

The EU’s transport policy is focused on creating a single European transport area with fair competition conditions for and between the different modes of transport.


What the EU does

Thanks to the EU, the last 20 years have seen considerable progress in Europe’s transport sector, leading to safer skies, seas and roads; decent working conditions for transport workers; more and cheaper mobility options for travellers and businesses; and fast progress towards cleaner transport and digital mobility solutions.

Funded through the Connecting Europe Facility, with a budget of over €24 billion, the EU’s transport infrastructure policy aims to connect the continent from east to west and from north to south by closing the gaps between national transport networks; removing bottlenecks to the smooth functioning of the single market; and overcoming technical barriers such as incompatible standards for rail traffic. The EU supports research and innovation and the effective deployment of new green transport technologies, for example through new rules promoting clean vehicle technologies. The EU is also steering the transition towards connected and automated driving.

The transport single market is crucial for the whole EU economy. By building a single market for aviation and advancing on the Single European Sky initiative, flying continues to become easier and cheaper. Licensed rail companies can now offer their services anywhere in the EU, which enhances competition and connectivity. Similarly, opening up the maritime market has allowed shipping companies to operate in more countries. Through the single market, lorries can provide services in countries other than their country of registration, reducing the number of empty return journeys.

Safety and security are paramount. The number of deaths on Europe’s roads halved between 1992 and 2010. While progress has been made, 25 300 people still lost their lives in road accidents in 2017. This is why the EU works actively to improve road safety. Unsafe airlines are banned from flying in Europe and the EU has introduced tighter rules on maritime safety. EU transport policy also helps and protects people in other ways when they travel. Air, rail, ship or bus passengers travelling in the EU have rights when they experience delays or cancellations.

Agriculture and rural development

The common agricultural policy ensures a stable food supply, produced in a sustainable way at affordable prices for the EU’s over 446 million consumers. It also supports jobs and growth in rural areas.

The common agricultural policy is applied in all EU Member States and funded under the EU budget. It supports the EU’s food and farm sector, one of the major sectors of the economy, which provides some 44 million jobs. In 2016 around €61 billion (some 38% of the EU budget) was invested in supporting farmers to produce food in a sustainable way, while also promoting growth in the rural economy and a living countryside. The common agricultural policy also supports environmentally and climate-friendly farming practices across the EU, and encourages healthy lifestyles.


What the EU does

The common agricultural policy provides support through the following means.

  • Direct payments that support farm incomes. Farming can be a risky and costly business. The weather and agricultural market conditions are often unpredictable and farm output and incomes can be badly affected. This is bad for farmers, and also for consumers as the food-supply chain may be affected. The lion’s share of the EU’s farm budget (72%) is allocated to direct payments to farmers on condition that they follow strict food safety, environmental and animal health and welfare rules. Benefits for the environment and climate include protection of soils and biodiversity, and the maintenance of permanent pasture, which is a very effective means of locking carbon away, helping to reduce global warming. Direct payments help pay farmers for the provision of public goods that benefit society as a whole, but which are not paid for by the market.
  • Market measures to deal with difficult situations, such as a sudden drop in demand due to a health scare, a fall in prices due to temporary oversupply or the impact of unforeseen geopolitical developments and Rural development programmes (co-financed by Member States) that foster innovation and competitiveness to make rural areas attractive places in which to live and work. This includes the modernisation of farms and support for young farmers, as well as traditional and organic food production.
  • Restoring ecosystems dependent on agriculture and forestry and promoting resource efficiency and the shift towards a low-carbon and climate-resilient economy are also high priorities, accounting for 51.7% (about €51 billion) of the total rural development budget for 2014-2020.

Maritime affairs and fisheries

The EU protects our seas and oceans, while ensuring that they remain economically and environmentally sustainable as a driver for jobs, growth and innovation.

Seas and oceans are drivers for the European economy. The ‘blue’ economy generates gross value added (the contribution to the economy) of billions of euro every year. Blue growth is the strategy to harvest the potential of sustainable growth in the marine and maritime sectors as a whole.

The EU’s common fisheries policy aims to make sure that fishing and aquaculture (the farming of fish under controlled conditions) are environmentally, economically and socially sustainable so as to provide a source of healthy food for current and future generations of EU citizens. Its goals are to foster a dynamic yet sustainable fishing industry, including the conservation of resources and protection of the marine environment, while ensuring fair standards of living for fishing communities.


What the EU does

The seas and oceans provide us not only with food, jobs, transport and recreation, but also – thanks to research and technological progress – pharmaceuticals, minerals and sources of renewable energy. While underpinning these new opportunities, the EU also plays an important role in promoting the responsible and sustainable exploitation of seas, both in Europe and globally.

The EU has introduced marine protected areas to safeguard marine ecosystems and biodiversity, along with the services these ecosystems provide. In these areas human activity is restricted for conservation purposes.

The common fisheries policy and the integrated maritime policy are financed through the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, which, for the 2014-2020 period, is providing over €6.4 billion to help fishermen and women adapt to sustainable fishing, create jobs for the sector and diversify the economy in coastal communities. The fund provides co-funding to assist Member States in implementing operational programmes and projects, to deliver on the objectives of the common fisheries policy and the integrated maritime policy.

In addition, the common fisheries policy contains a set of rules for managing European fishing fleets and for conserving fish stocks. Stocks may be renewable, but they are finite. To prevent overfishing, quotas for Member States set limits on how much of each species can be caught. To do away with the wasteful practice of fishing fleets dumping unwanted fish, a landing obligation is gradually being implemented.


The EU has some of the world’s highest environmental standards, which protect nature and people’s quality of life, green the economy and achieve careful and rational use of natural resources.

Environmental challenges know no boundaries. That is why we must tackle them through cooperation both within the EU and with the rest of the world.

Protecting the environment and promoting sustainable growth go hand in hand. Environment policy can play a key role in creating jobs and stimulating investment. Green innovations can be implemented and exported, making Europe more competitive and improving people’s health and well-being.


What the EU does

The 7th EU environment action programme guides the EU’s environmental policy until 2020, and sets out a vision of where the EU should be by 2050. This includes living in an environment where nothing is wasted, natural resources are managed sustainably and biodiversity is protected, valued and restored.

The programme concentrates action in three key areas:

  • protecting, conserving and enhancing the EU’s natural capital;
  • turning the EU into a resource-efficient, green and competitive low-carbon economy; and
  • safeguarding EU citizens from environment-related pressures and risks to health and well-being.

The EU is working to safeguard natural resources and halt the decline of endangered species and habitats. Natura 2000 is a network of protected natural areas across the EU, where sustainable human activities can coexist with rare and vulnerable species and habitats. Water, air pollution and chemicals are among people’s top environmental concerns. To safeguard people from environment-related pressures and risks to health and well-being, EU policy aims to guarantee safe drinking and bathing water, improve air quality, reduce noise and reduce or eliminate the effects of harmful chemicals.

Using materials and resources for as long as possible, and designing products to be more durable and easier to reuse and recycle, are among the goals of the EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan. One cornerstone of the Action Plan is the Plastics Strategy, which aims to make all plastic packaging in the EU reusable or recyclable by 2030 and takes action to reduce single-use plastics. Rethinking products’ life cycles will help to manage precious resources more sustainably, minimise waste and make Europe more resilient as regards the supply of raw materials.

Environmental concerns do not stop at the EU’s borders. As the world’s population continues to grow, the EU is playing a leading role in international efforts to promote sustainable development. More action is needed to ensure that air, oceans and other water resources are kept clean, that land and ecosystems are used sustainably and that climate change is kept to manageable levels.


The EU’s energy policies aim to ensure a secure, competitive and affordable supply of energy while meeting its climate targets.

Europe faces a number of major energy challenges. In addition to the basic objectives of ensuring secure energy supplies across the EU at reasonable prices for everyone, there is a growing need to facilitate the shift from a fossil-based economy towards a carbon-neutral system – the so-called clean energy transition. It also needs to become more energy efficient, embrace innovation and new technologies, improve cross-border energy connections and reduce dependence on energy imports.


What the EU does

Each Member State remains in charge of defining its own energy mix, but the coordination of rules at EU level provides a common approach that enhances the overall impact of measures and enables the EU to show global leadership in the fight against climate change. Through the Clean Energy for All Europeans initiative, the EU is currently updating our common rules in a way that will facilitate and encourage future investment and thereby accelerate the clean energy transition and help deliver on the EU’s Paris Agreement commitments.

Decarbonising the EU’s energy system is crucial to reaching our climate objectives, as part of the European Green Deal announced in December 2019. The production and use of energy account for more than 75% of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions.

A further EU initiative is the establishment of the European Energy Union, which will improve synergies with other policy areas, such as transport, research and innovation, digitalisation, the circular economy, and sustainable financing.

Tackling these challenges at EU level will also provide new opportunities in terms of growth and jobs, research, and a more competitive and sustainable energy market. The benefits for consumers should also be significant in terms of their rights to change energy suppliers, lower household bills, and quality of life issues such as less air pollution.

Some of the additional policies and actions that help ensure that the EU meets its goals include.

  • New cross-border networks for gas and electricity (Projects of Common Interest), including projects to better integrate renewables into the grid.
  • Ecodesign and energy labels aimed at driving greater energy efficiency in household products.
  • Supporting EU-wide research and innovation projects aimed at accelerating all aspects of the clean energy transition through the Horizon 2020 framework programme.
  • Contributing to the ITER international fusion project, one of the most ambitious energy projects in the world.

Foreign affairs and security policy

The EU’s foreign and security policy enables it to speak and act as one in world affairs, allowing the Member States to tackle challenges they cannot solve alone and ensuring the security and prosperity of EU citizens.

The policy is implemented by the EU’s foreign affairs chief, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (who is also a Vice-President of the Commission), and supported by the European External Action Service, the EU’s diplomatic service. The EU’s external actions are guided by the principles that inspired its own creation and development, and which it seeks to promote in the wider world, including peace, democracy, the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms.


What the EU does

In 2016 the High Representative/Vice-President launched the Global Strategy for the EU’s Foreign and Security Policy to enhance stability in the European neighbourhood and beyond, boost security and defence and deal with challenges such as energy security, irregular migration, climate change and terrorism. The follow-up on security and defence has been particularly swift, with the adoption of a wide-ranging EU security and defence package in 2016 to see Europe take more responsibility for these areas. The global strategy set the following five priorities for EU action:

The EU supports countries facing conflict and crisis. It is the leading donor in the international response to the Syria crisis, with over €11 billion provided to support the Syrian people, and it continues to support international efforts to bring peace to the Middle East by supporting a two-state solution with a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel. The agreement reached in 2015 on the Iranian nuclear programme demonstrated the EU’s role in leading peace talks on behalf of the international community. In 2018 there were 16 ongoing civilian missions and military operations on three continents. Deployment decisions are made jointly by national ministers from EU countries. Success stories include EU peacekeeping missions in several of the world’s trouble spots, the training of police, soldiers and coastguards, support for state-building in post-conflict situations and fighting piracy off the Horn of Africa. The EU has no standing army, but brings together forces contributed by its Member States under the EU flag.

The European Defence Fund launched in 2017 coordinates, supplements and amplifies national investments in defence so as to increase outputs and develop defence technology and equipment to meet current and future security needs.

EU enlargement

The prospect of membership is a powerful stimulus for democratic and economic reforms in countries that want to become EU members.

The EU was created to foster peace, prosperity and European values across the continent. Enlargement is the process whereby European countries join the EU. Since it was founded in 1957 the EU has grown from six countries to 27. In bringing other countries into the EU, one of the aims is to deepen the solidarity between the people of Europe and increase their prosperity and opportunities while respecting and preserving diversity.


What the EU does

Any European country may apply for membership if it respects the democratic values of the EU and is committed to promoting them. Countries can only become a member of the EU if they fulfil the conditions for accession. Enlargement policy is therefore instrumental in encouraging and helping countries to achieve three key criteria:

  • political stability, wherein the countries’ political institutions guarantee democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities;
  • a functioning market economy and the capacity to cope with competition and market forces in the EU; and
  • the ability to take on the obligations of membership, including adherence to the aims of political, economic and monetary union.

During the enlargement process the Commission helps countries wishing to join the EU to meet the necessary criteria for membership, and supports them in implementing the related economic and democratic reforms. When the negotiations and accompanying reforms have been completed to the satisfaction of both sides the country can join the EU if all existing Member States agree. The current candidate countries are: Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey. Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo* are potential candidates.

The prospect of membership is a key driver of transformation in the Western Balkans and helps to foster reconciliation and stability. A new strategy was launched in early 2018, reconfirming a credible enlargement perspective for the Western Balkans and announcing the EU’s enhanced engagement with the region. While it is clear that no candidate is ready yet, in the future the Member States will be greater in number. Accession candidates must give the rule of law, justice and fundamental rights the utmost priority.

Turkey is a key partner of the EU in essential areas such as migration, counterterrorism, energy, transport, the economy and trade. However, Turkey has been moving further away from the EU’s core values and principles and therefore its accession negotiations have effectively come to a standstill.

  • This designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UNSCR 1244/1999 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence.

European neighbourhood policy

As a key element of the EU’s foreign policy, the European neighbourhood policy focuses on stabilising the region in political, economic and security terms.

The European neighbourhood policy governs the EU’s relations with 16 of its closest eastern and southern partners. It translates the EU’s wish to build on common interests with partner countries and a commitment to work jointly in priority areas. These include the promotion of democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights, as well as enhancing economic development, the investment climate and social cohesion. Strengthening the state and the societal resilience of the EU’s partners is a priority in the face of the threats and pressures they are experiencing, including the challenges associated with migration and mobility.

European neighbourhood policy

What the EU does

The European neighbourhood policy offers a framework for more effective and stronger partnerships based on common interests and action on both sides. The principal objectives of this policy are to:

  • stabilise neighbouring countries by addressing economic development, employability and youth, transport and energy connectivity, migration, mobility and security;
  • promote the key EU interests of good governance, democracy, the rule of law and human rights; and
  • facilitate cooperation at regional level, for example through the Eastern Partnership and the Union for the Mediterranean.

The key initiatives that put the policy into practice are:

  • the Eastern Partnership: a joint initiative to deepen and strengthen relations between the EU and six eastern neighbours: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine; and
  • the southern neighbourhood: a framework of cooperation between the EU and 10 partner countries: Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Palestine*, Syria and Tunisia.

Cooperation takes place at bilateral level (with individual partners), at regional level (with two or more partners from the east or the south) or across the neighbourhood, depending on the nature of the action. The European Neighbourhood Instrument supports the comprehensive approach by the EU towards its partners and is the key EU financial instrument for cooperation with the European neighbourhood policy countries in the years 2014-2020.

  • This designation shall not be construed as recognition of a state of Palestine and is without prejudice to the individual positions of the Member States on this issue.


The EU champions free trade. With every €1 billion in exports supporting 14 000 jobs in Europe, the EU fights for open, rules-based markets, a level playing field and the highest international standards.

The EU is the largest trading power and one of the most open economies in the world. 90% of future global growth is forecast to come from outside Europe’s borders and a third of our national income depends on trade. The EU has the exclusive power to legislate and conclude international trade agreements under areas covered by its common commercial policy, based on World Trade Organization rules, on behalf of its Member States.


What the EU does

The EU’s trade policy covers trade in goods and services, but also matters such as the commercial aspects of intellectual property and foreign direct investment.

Trade deals are not an end in themselves; they also project European values and principles around the world, which is why all new trade agreements negotiated by the EU include provisions on sustainable development, notably environmental protection and labour conditions. The recent deals with Japan, Mexico and the Mercosur bloc are the first trade agreements to include a commitment to the Paris climate agreement.

The EU stands for open and fair trade and fights against protectionism. It uses trade defence and market access measures to defend its companies and citizens against unfair competition and unfair trade practices.

The EU has trade agreements in force with 72 partners around the world, such as the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, which has abolished customs duties on 98% of products, saving EU businesses up to €590 million annually. In 2019, the EU reached a new agreement on trade with the Mercosur trading bloc (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay), signed a trade deal with Vietnam and saw its trade deal with Japan enter into force. The agreement with Japan could increase EU exports to Japan by more than a third and save €1 billion in customs duties.

The Commission handles trade negotiations transparently, systematically publishing negotiating texts, reports of negotiating rounds and explanatory documents, and reports regularly to the European Parliament and the Member States.

The EU stands for open markets, but it is not a naïve free trader. It maintains a balance between being open and ensuring that rules are respected and that EU industries are protected against unfair trade and unjustified barriers. Since 2014 the EU has removed nearly 90 market access barriers in non-EU countries, affecting a range of EU industries and exports worth some €8.2 billion a year. It has also imposed over 30 trade defence measures, protecting over 350 000 jobs.

International cooperation and development

Development lies at the heart of the EU’s foreign policy, with the EU providing over half the world’s cooperation funding.

The EU’s relationships with the rest of the world are based on solidarity and cooperation. Challenges like climate change, violent extremism, trafficking and irregular migration are no respecters of borders, and only by working with partner countries in the developing world can we tackle extreme poverty.


What the EU does

The EU sees development cooperation not as ‘charity’ but as an investment in a viable, shared future. The EU is thus a leading advocate of the UN’s 2030 agenda for sustainable development, and its own European consensus on development of May 2017 sets out how the EU will focus on ‘people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership’ in working towards the 2030 agenda’s sustainable development goals.

The EU’s aim is to take on the causes of poverty. This means not just helping to provide decent access to food, clean water, healthcare, education and land; not just developing vital transport and energy infrastructure and a clean environment. It also means building and strengthening democracy, human rights (including equality between women and men) and the rule of law. Without these things it is not possible to develop safe and stable societies in which people can prosper and local businesses can invest and grow, and generate lasting jobs.

The EU’s 140 diplomatic missions (‘delegations’) work with partner countries around the world to design long-term programmes. Once approved by the European Parliament and the Member States, these programmes are managed on the ground using money from the general EU budget and a special European Development Fund. Altogether, from 2014 to 2020, the EU will deploy some €82 billion in external funding through grants, tenders and support for national budgets, and, increasingly, by using EU funding as ‘seed money’ to encourage local public and private investment.

Humanitarian aid and civil protection

The EU, together with its Member States, is the world’s leading humanitarian aid donor, providing and coordinating relief assistance to people in areas hit by disasters in Europe and around the globe.

The EU provides relief assistance to the people affected by crises. In 2017 EU aid of €2.2 billion helped more than 120 million people in over 80 countries. The EU aims to:

  • save and preserve life, prevent and alleviate human suffering and safeguard the integrity and dignity of populations affected by natural disasters and man-made crises;
  • provide rapid response to emergencies both inside and outside the EU;
  • reduce disaster risks, for example by employing strategies aimed at mitigating the consequences of climate change;
  • improve disaster preparedness, for instance by developing early warning systems;
  • ensure a smooth transition when an emergency operation comes to an end, by linking up with development aid strategies;
  • strengthen the overall resilience of populations, for example by investing in measures to help them prepare for future disasters; and
  • protect and ensure the future of children caught up in man-made or natural disasters.

What the EU does

The EU responds to crisis situations through the European Commission’s Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO), which ensures rapid and effective delivery of EU relief assistance through its two main instruments: humanitarian aid and civil protection. The EU is a leading humanitarian donor in many crises, including the following.

  • Emergency relief to displaced people inside Syria and refugees in neighbouring countries.
  • Humanitarian assistance to refugees and internally displaced people in Greece, Iraq, Turkey and Yemen.
  • Life-saving humanitarian projects in the worst affected communities in South Sudan and the Central African Republic.
  • Helping communities in disaster-prone areas to better prepare and recover. Every euro spent on preparedness saves up to seven euros that would be spent in the aftermath of disasters.

The EU sends teams to help out in many crises within the EU and across the globe through its Civil Protection Mechanism, for example:

  • coordinating and co-financing the transport costs of firefighting operations in Europe during a particularly intense summer fire season in 2017;
  • sending expertise, teams and equipment to countries affected around the world by earthquakes (Iraq, Mexico), floods (Albania, Peru) and epidemics (Uganda, Bangladesh) in 2017;
  • helping people affected by hurricanes Irma and Maria in the Caribbean in September 2017.

Justice and fundamental rights

The EU guarantees a range of fundamental rights for its citizens and protects them from discrimination, while the EU’s common justice area helps solve cross-border legal problems for both citizens and businesses.

The EU is not simply a single market for goods and services. Europeans share values that are spelled out in the EU treaties and the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which guarantee rights to EU citizens (any person who holds the nationality of an EU country is automatically also an EU citizen). The EU also makes life easier for Europeans who study, work or get married in other EU countries by building bridges between the different national legal systems across the EU. A borderless and seamless common justice area will ensure that citizens can rely on a set of rights and can access justice throughout the continent.


What the EU does

This set of rights is secured by the EU and includes the following.

  • Rules preventing discrimination on grounds of sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation.
  • The right for everyone to have their personal data protected thanks to the new rules (the so-called GDPR) which entered into force in May 2018.
  • The Charter of Fundamental Rights, which brings together all the personal, civic, political, economic and social rights enjoyed by people in the EU. These are guaranteed by the European Union where EU law is at stake.
  • The EU’s justice and fundamental rights policies: the coordination of justice rules, minimum standards across the EU and access to justice on equal terms in all countries are key issues. For example, victims of crime have a common set of minimum rights wherever they are in the EU. This coordination also helps citizens to use their right of free movement and businesses to trade and operate throughout the EU’s single market.

The EU also strives to strengthen mutual trust between the courts and administrations of the EU Member States so they recognise each other’s judicial decisions. This is especially important in civil cases such as divorce, child custody or maintenance claims. Eurojust facilitates cooperation between national justice authorities to help fight serious crimes such as corruption, terrorism, and drug trafficking and distribution, while the European Arrest Warrant has replaced lengthy extradition procedures to return suspected or convicted criminals back to the country where they will be or have been tried. The newly-established European Public Prosecutor’s Office, due to start work in 2020, will investigate, prosecute and bring to judgment crimes against the EU budget, such as fraud, corruption or serious cross-border VAT fraud.

Food safety

EU action on food safety protects the health of people, animals and plants at every step from farm to fork, while helping Europe’s food industry to thrive.

The EU’s food-safety policy aims to guarantee that safe and nutritious food is produced or imported into the EU, from healthy plants and animals, while enabling the food industry, Europe’s largest manufacturing and employment sector, to operate under the best possible conditions. It safeguards health at every stage of the food chain by preventing food contamination and promoting food hygiene, plant health and animal health and welfare. EU food-labelling rules also provide consumers with information important to their health.


What the EU does

The basic principles of the EU’s food safety policy are defined in the EU’s general food law, which ensures a high level of protection for people’s health and consumer interests, while ensuring the single market works efficiently. The European Food Safety Authority provides scientific advice on food-related issues to help protect people, animals, plants and the environment.

The General Food Law also created procedures and tools to manage emergencies and crises. One example is the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed that helps ensure that food that does not comply with European rules is removed from the shelves. Whenever significant outbreaks of animal disease or food poisoning affect consumers, EU authorities can follow the movement of food products via the TRACES (Trade Control and Expert System) electronic system.

The EU also ensures animal health and welfare in the agri-food chain. If there is an outbreak of animal disease, the EU has mechanisms in place to act swiftly. Plant health rules protect crops, fruit, vegetables and forests from harmful pests and disease from being transported across the EU or imported from abroad.

Reducing food waste has enormous potential to save resources and money and reduce the environmental impact of food. The EU is tackling food waste while ensuring food safety by clarifying relevant EU rules to facilitate action by all players (public and private) and by promoting the sharing of innovation and best practices in this area.


EU consumer policy safeguards consumers’ rights, ensures products are safe, helps people make informed choices when they buy goods and services, and offers tools to solve problems if something goes wrong.

The EU’s single market offers consumers access to greater choice, flexibility, quality and value for money. But it can also pose challenges to consumers, especially in fast-developing areas like digital, energy and financial services. The EU’s consumer policy ensures that people’s rights will be upheld if they encounter any problems when buying goods or services from other EU countries, including online. This helps to build consumer trust across the EU, which is also good for businesses trading across borders in the EU’s single market.


What the EU does

The EU offers consumers a set of practical rights to be used when something goes wrong.

  • Minimum standards for passenger rights have been set across all modes of transport, including information, assistance and compensation if cancellation or long delays occur.
  • When shopping online consumers have 14 days to reconsider their purchase and withdraw. They may always return a product within 2 weeks and get their money back.
  • Since June 2017 roaming fees have been abolished. Europeans travelling within the EU pay domestic prices for roaming calls, SMS and data.
  • If an item bought in the EU (whether online or in a shop) is different from how it is advertised or does not work properly, the consumer has the right to at least a free repair or replacement.
  • Since 2016 new EU rules on mortgage credits have ensured clear information in advertisements and timely information to consumers before signing a contract.

The EU also provides help to resolve disputes with traders quickly and efficiently. These low-cost, fast procedures can be used for both domestic and cross-border disputes. The online dispute resolution platform allows consumers and traders to resolve disputes over online purchases entirely online. The European Consumer Centres Network provides free help and advice to consumers on their cross-border purchases.

Stringent safety standards apply to toys, electrical appliances, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, and strict rules ensure that unsafe products are recalled from the market. Over 200 different unsafe products are notified via the EU’s Rapid Alert System for dangerous non-food products each year.

Banking and financial services

The EU is working to ensure the financial system remains strong and secure and that the single market offers consumers and businesses the financial products they need.

Financial institutions and markets play a vital role in the stability and growth of the EU economy. They provide funding to households and businesses, allow people to save and invest, provide insurance against risks and facilitate payments.

A failure of the financial system can have wide-ranging consequences. The 2008 financial crisis showed that no single EU country can manage the financial sector and supervise financial stability risks alone. In the wake of the crisis the EU carried out ambitious reforms to strengthen the financial system and the EU’s ability to deal with future financial and economic shocks. This includes strengthening the rules to protect deposits in case of bank failure.


What the EU does

The EU aims to build a strong, secure financial sector by strengthening the supervision of financial institutions and regulating complex financial products. The European Commission continues to work on maintaining a stable and resilient financial system and addressing the remaining risks while keeping the regulatory framework up to speed with technological and economic developments.

The single rulebook created common rules for supervising bank capital requirements, improved protection of depositors and managing failing banks. The banking union transferred bank supervision and resolution from national to EU level in the 19 Member States of the euro area. The capital markets union creates the necessary framework to mobilise capital in Europe and channel it to all companies, including small and medium-sized enterprises, and infrastructure projects that need it to expand and create jobs.

There is not as yet a fully integrated EU single market for consumer financial services, which still operate largely on a national basis. This makes it difficult for consumers to access or transfer financial products like bank accounts, credit cards, mortgages and insurance across borders. The EU is working on making financial services work better for consumers and small investors. For example, it has taken measures to guarantee an EU-wide right of access to basic bank accounts. It also seeks to further harness the potential of digitalisation and technological developments to improve consumer access to financial services.

The EU has presented an Action Plan on sustainable finance, which is investment that takes into account environmental, social and governance considerations. This is part of the capital markets union’s efforts to connect finance with the specific needs of the European economy to the benefit of the planet and our society. It is also one of the key steps towards implementing the Paris Agreement and the EU’s agenda for sustainable development.


EU competition rules aim to ensure that all companies compete fairly and equally in the single market to the benefit of consumers, businesses and the European economy as a whole.

Together with national competition authorities and national courts, the European Commission enforces EU competition policy and rules to ensure that companies compete fairly with each other. This helps to reduce prices and improve quality, encourages innovation and efficiency and creates a wider choice for consumers.

What the EU does

The Commission takes action in regard to:

  • cartels or other illegal arrangements between companies to avoid competing with each other or to set artificially high prices;
  • cases where major players abuse their dominant position on markets to try to squeeze out competitors or charge excessive prices;
  • company mergers and takeovers that could restrict competition in the single market;
  • financial support (state aid) from EU governments to companies, which may distort competition in the single market by favouring some companies over others; and
  • promoting competition culture internationally so that EU companies enjoy fair competition on markets elsewhere in the world.

EU investigations into anti-competitive practices can cover not only goods but also professions and services. The Commission monitors the assistance Member State governments give to businesses to ensure that it does not give certain companies an unfair advantage over their competitors. State aid may be allowed if it helps or promotes disadvantaged regions, small and medium-sized businesses, research and development, environmental protection, training, employment or culture.

In 2016 and 2017 the Commission fined the members of a truck producers’ cartel of six leading companies that produce more than 90% of medium-sized and heavy trucks sold in Europe: Scania, Daimler, DAF, Iveco, MAN and Volvo/Renault. The Commission fined the six companies a total of €3.8 billion. This money goes into the EU budget, thereby reducing taxpayers’ contribution.

Big firms are barred from using their bargaining power to impose conditions that would make it difficult for their suppliers or customers to do business with their competitors. For example, in 2017 the European Commission fined Google €2.42 billion for abusing its market dominance as a search engine by promoting its own comparison shopping service in its search results and demoting those of competitors. And in July 2018 Google was fined another €4.34 billion for imposing illegal restrictions on Android device manufacturers. Search for cases here.


While national governments are responsible for setting tax rates and collecting taxes, the EU ensures that people or businesses from another Member State are not discriminated against and that taxes do not hinder the EU’s single market.

Member State governments are broadly free to design their tax laws according to their national priorities. However, in doing so they must respect certain fundamental principles, such as non-discrimination and respect for free movement of goods and services in the single market. More and more companies and individuals are active in more than one country, making it easier for them to try to pay the least tax possible (‘tax avoidance’) or to not pay taxes due (‘tax evasion’) through legal means. A single country cannot tackle these issues on its own, so EU Member States work together to make sure that taxation is fair.


What the EU does

The EU does not have a direct role in raising taxes or setting tax rates. The EU’s role is to oversee national tax rules to ensure they are consistent with certain EU policies such as:

  • promoting economic growth and job creation;
  • ensuring the free flow of goods, services and capital around the EU in the single market;
  • making sure businesses in one country do not have an unfair advantage over competitors in another;
  • ensuring taxes do not discriminate against consumers, workers or businesses from other EU countries.

The governments of all Member States must agree when it comes to making EU decisions on tax issues so that the interests of every EU country are taken into account. For some taxes, such as value added tax or excise duties on petrol, tobacco and alcohol, Member States have agreed to broadly align their rules and minimum rates to avoid unfair competition within the single market.

The tax laws of one Member State should not allow people or businesses to escape taxation in another. EU-wide action is essential to tackle the problem. Following the adoption of an EU action plan in 2012 many legislative steps have been taken to fight tax fraud, evasion and avoidance.

Close coordination between tax administrations also helps to prevent companies from exploiting loopholes between different countries’ systems with the aim of reducing the amount of taxes they pay.


The EU’s customs union means that all Member States are working together to ensure that goods imported into the EU circulate freely and that they are safe for people, for animals and for the environment.

A customs union means that the countries involved apply the same tariffs to goods imported into their territory from the rest of the world, and apply no tariffs internally. In the case of the EU this means that there are no customs duties to be paid when goods are transported from one Member State to another.

The EU customs union is one of the few exclusive competences of the European Union. The European Commission proposes legislation on EU customs affairs and makes sure it is being implemented.


What the EU does

In practice, the EU’s customs union is managed by the national customs services acting as if they were one. They protect consumers from goods that could be dangerous or bad for their health and protect animals and the environment against plant and animal diseases. They also contribute to the fight against organised crime and terrorism and make sure European treasures are not smuggled out.

The customs services also prevent illegal exports of waste, since protecting the environment is one of their key tasks. For businesses, the customs union means that regardless of where goods enter the EU the same rules apply, and once the goods have cleared customs they can circulate freely or be sold anywhere within the EU customs territory.

In 2016, for example, almost 313 million customs declarations were handled by more than 2 000 EU customs offices working 365 days a year.

The EU’s customs policy currently focuses on the following areas:

  • making sure all Member States work together effectively and efficiently within the customs union;
  • proposing legislation and procedures to ensure better security and safety for citizens as well as to facilitate legitimate trade;
  • helping EU countries to exchange information that could be useful for customs agencies; and
  • making sure goods can move freely from one Member State to another in the EU’s single market.

Culture and media

The EU works to preserve Europe’s shared cultural heritage and make it accessible to all. It supports the arts and helps our cultural and creative industries to thrive, specifically through the Creative Europe programme.

Culture and creativity are at the core of the European project and at the heart of the EU’s cultural policy. Europe’s rich cultural heritage and dynamic creative sectors bring immense enrichment, pleasure and a sense of identity to millions of people.

The EU seeks to protect cultural heritage and diversity across countries and to harness the cultural and creative industries’ contribution to the economy and society. EU policy also looks to meet common challenges such as the shift to digital production and content, or how to encourage innovation in the cultural sector. The New European Agenda for Culture contains concrete actions to harness the full potential of culture.


What the EU does

The Creative Europe programme aims to strengthen Europe’s cultural and creative sectors and provide funding for around 3 700 cultural organisations, 250 000 artists and cultural professionals, over 7 000 cinemas and 2 800 films, and 4 500 book translations during its 7-year lifespan. It is investing €1.46 billion to:

  • promote European cultural and linguistic diversity;
  • drive economic growth and competitiveness in the creative sectors;
  • help the creative and cultural sectors make the most of digital technologies and develop new business models; and
  • bring creative works to a wider audience in Europe and internationally.

Creative Europe also promotes initiatives such as EU prizes for cultural heritage, architecture, literature and music, the European Heritage Label and the European Capitals of Culture. The 2018 European Year of Cultural Heritage aimed to encourage more people to discover and engage with Europe’s cultural heritage and to foster a sense of belonging to a common European space.

The Commission also coordinates policymaking, research and reporting on a range of topics, from media literacy and digital distribution to cultural heritage preservation or culture in external relations. Furthermore, it fosters cooperation and peer learning between Member States.

The EU’s audiovisual and media policy aims to ensure that, like other goods and services, audiovisual media (film, TV and video) are subject to EU-wide rules to ensure they can circulate freely and fairly in the single market, regardless of how they are delivered. The EU also supports the development and distribution of European films and other content, with the goal of promoting cultural diversity.


Through its youth policies and programmes the EU aims to make sure young people can participate fully in all areas of society and to give them more opportunities in education and the job market.

The social inclusion of young people is vital for European society and democratic life. The EU’s youth strategy promotes young people’s transitions to adulthood, health and well-being, participation in society, involvement in voluntary and solidarity activities, and employment and entrepreneurship. The EU’s youth policies also offer young people the chance to fill any gaps in their education and skills, enabling them to better adapt to challenges and contribute to positive change in society. This is particularly relevant as youth unemployment is still significantly high.


What the EU does

The EU runs several programmes and initiatives to help young people in Europe to play a more active role in society and benefit from experiencing another country. These include the following in particular.

  • Erasmus+ is the EU’s programme to support education, training, youth and sport in Europe. With a budget of €14.7 billion, it provides opportunities for over 4 million Europeans to acquire knowledge and skills through experiences abroad such as study, traineeships, apprenticeships, youth exchanges, teaching, training, youth work and sport.
  • The Commission emphasises the need for structured dialogue as a means of mutual communication between young people and decision-makers in order to get first-hand input from young people on policies that matter to them. Organised into 18-month cycles, each cycle of structured dialogue focuses on a specific theme and gives young people the chance to have their voices heard on this topic.
  • The Erasmus for young entrepreneurs programme helps provide new or young European entrepreneurs with the skills necessary to start and run a small business.
  • The European Solidarity Corps is an EU initiative aiming to provide opportunities for young people to express their solidarity by taking part in activities in their own country or abroad that benefit communities and people around Europe.
  • The youth guarantee, with funding of €8.8 billion, supports youth employment by ensuring that all young people under 25 receive a good-quality, concrete offer of a job, apprenticeship, traineeship or continued education within 4 months of leaving formal education or becoming unemployed.

The European Youth Portal provides information on these and other EU initiatives for young people across Europe, while EURES, the European Job Mobility Portal, also helps connect jobseekers and companies offering a job.


The EU promotes the health benefits and positive values associated with sport, supports cooperation between policymakers and dialogue with sports organisations and tackles problems such as doping, match-fixing and violence.

Sport and exercise are an integral part of life for millions of Europeans. Besides promoting better health and well-being, sport can help tackle issues such as racism, social exclusion and gender inequality. Sport also provides significant economic benefits and is an important tool in the EU’s external relations. The EU’s policy on sport is now mainly carried out through the Erasmus+ programme.


What the EU does

The EU focuses on sport as a means to keep people healthy, create communities, nurture social inclusion and promote equal opportunities.

  • Erasmus+ co-funds initiatives to help develop, share and implement innovative ideas and practices to promote grassroots sport. ‘Erasmus+ Sport’ helps develop sport’s European dimension, boosting cooperation between sports organisations, public authorities and other parties.
  • Sport can bridge social divides, empower people and provide opportunities to develop leadership skills. EU Member States applying for European Social Fund and European Regional Development Fund grants are encouraged to include projects that promote social inclusion through sport. The #BeInclusive EU Sport Awards recognise organisations using the power of sport to increase social inclusion for disadvantaged groups.
  • The European Week of Sport encourages Europeans to be active in their everyday lives.
  • The European Commission encourages sport organisations to implement good governance.
  • The European Commission is gradually integrating sport into bilateral agreements with countries outside the EU.

Cooperation between EU Member States on sport is agreed through a multiannual EU work plan for sport. The latest one (for the 2017-2020 period) defines three priorities: the integrity of sport, the economic dimension of sport, and sport and society. The European Commission works together with Member States and stakeholders to promote the role of sport and to find solutions to problems facing European sport.

The Eurobarometer survey on sport and physical activity shows that EU citizens are not exercising enough. The EU’s health policy promotes exercise both through the sharing of good practices between EU countries and with interested parties, and through the EU platform for action on diet, physical activity and health, which provides a forum for tackling adverse trends.

The EU physical activity guidelines (2008) and the Council recommendation on promoting health-enhancing physical activity across sectors (2013) show how national policies can encourage activity. The Tartu Call for a Healthy Lifestyle (2017) includes a list of 15 actions to promote healthy lifestyles.


The EU budget helps to deliver on the things that matter to Europeans. By pooling resources at EU level, Member States can achieve more than they could by acting alone.

The EU budget supports a wide range of policies implemented within the European Union and has helped the EU to consolidate its strong role in the international arena, as a leader in the fight against climate change and as the largest donor of humanitarian and development aid in the world.

During the economic and financial crisis, the EU budget proved to be a powerful instrument to support investment. With national budgets in many Member States under severe strain, the EU budget, and the Structural Funds in particular, emerged from the 2008 crisis as a stabilisation factor investing in growth and jobs. Most recently, the budget has also underpinned the management of the EU’s external borders and the European response to the refugee crisis and to the threat of organised crime and terrorism.


What the EU does

The EU agrees long-term budget plans that provide a stable basis for implementing the budget over a period of at least 5 years. The current EU long-term budget covers 2014-2020 and allows the EU to invest around €1 trillion over that period. In May 2018 the European Commission presented its proposal for the EU’s long-term budget from 2021 to 2027.

The annual budget is decided democratically. First the European Commission proposes a draft budget. Then the national governments (acting through the Council of the European Union) and the directly elected European Parliament approve the EU budget, usually before the beginning of the year. Some 94% of the budget is spent in the Member States, mainly on fostering jobs and growth in Europe, as well as outside the EU on development and humanitarian assistance, while only 6% is spent on EU administration.

The annual EU budget in 2019 was around €165.8 billion – a large sum in absolute terms, but only about 1% of the wealth generated by EU economies every year. About 80% of the EU budget is financed from national contributions based on gross national income and value added tax.

Following an annual recommendation by the Council, the European Parliament decides whether to give its final approval, or ‘discharge’, on the way the Commission has implemented the EU budget. This procedure ensures full accountability and transparency, and when granted, the discharge leads to the formal closure of the accounts for a given year.

Fraud prevention

The European Anti-Fraud Office ensures taxpayers’ money is put to the best possible use by investigating cases of fraud, corruption and illegal activities involving EU funds.

Corruption and fraud can seriously harm the economy and undermine the trust of citizens in democratic institutions and processes. Institutional corruption, however, is not the only threat. Cigarette smuggling, evasion of import duties on shoes and clothes, receiving subsidies for growing oranges on farms that do not exist – there are many examples of fraud, large and small, that can cost European taxpayers money.

To counter these threats, the European Anti-Fraud Office (also known as OLAF) investigates fraud, corruption and other illegal activities involving EU funds, along with serious misconduct by EU staff and members of the EU institutions, and helps the institutions formulate and implement policies to prevent and detect fraud. OLAF is part of the European Commission, but acts in full independence in its investigative mandate.


What the EU does

When a case of suspected corruption or fraud of EU funds is assessed and proved to be substantiated by the European Anti-Fraud Office, an investigation is launched. These investigations can involve interviews and inspection of premises. OLAF will also coordinate inspections by Member State anti-fraud agencies involved in the case.

After an investigation is concluded, OLAF recommends action to the EU institutions and national governments concerned: this usually includes launching criminal investigations, financial recoveries or other disciplinary measures. It then monitors how these recommendations are implemented.

National customs authorities carry out regular joint customs operations with OLAF (and other EU agencies) to stop smuggling and fraud in certain high-risk areas and on identified routes. For example, in 2017, joint customs operations financed by the European Anti-Fraud Office led to the seizure of 75 million cigarettes, as well as tens of thousands of other counterfeit products.

OLAF also contributes to the development, monitoring and implementation of the EU’s anti-fraud policies, working closely with the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union.

3 How the European Union makes decisions and takes action


The European Union is based on the rule of law. This means that every action taken by the EU is founded on treaties that have been approved voluntarily and democratically by all EU countries. The treaties are negotiated and agreed by all the EU Member States and then ratified by their parliaments or by a referendum.

The treaties lay down the objectives of the European Union and set out the rules on how the EU institutions operate, how decisions are made and the relationship between the EU and its Member States. They have been amended each time new Member States have joined the EU. From time to time they have also been amended to reform the European Union’s institutions and to give it new areas of responsibility.

The last amending treaty, the Lisbon Treaty, came into force on 1 December 2009. Earlier treaties are now incorporated into the current consolidated version, which comprises the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

More recently, the EU agreed upon the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union, an intergovernmental treaty that obliges participating countries to have firm rules to guarantee balanced public budgets and strengthens the governance of the euro area.

Decision-making at EU level involves various European institutions, in particular:

The advisory bodies (the European Economic and Social Committee and the European Committee of the Regions) and national parliaments also play a role.

Generally it is the European Commission that proposes new laws and the European Parliament and the Council (also called the Council of the European Union) that adopt them. The Member States and the EU institution or institutions concerned then implement them.

The European Parliament

The European Parliament is elected by EU citizens in direct elections held every 5 years. Each Member State elects a number of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs); seats are allocated on the basis of the population of each Member State. The Parliament meets in both Brussels and Strasbourg. The current European Parliament President is David Sassoli.

MEPs organise themselves into political groups, and also into committees that examine proposals for new legislation in different policy areas.

In terms of decision-making, the Parliament is responsible for the following.

  • Approving, amending or rejecting EU laws, together with the Council of the European Union, based on European Commission proposals. The Parliament also shares with the Council equal responsibility for adopting the EU budget (proposed by the European Commission).
  • Deciding on international agreements.
  • Deciding on enlargements of the EU.
  • Electing the President of the Commission, based on a proposal from the Member States, and then approving the full Commission.
  • Reviewing the Commission’s work programme and requesting that it propose legislation.

The Parliament’s work comprises two main stages.

  • Committees to prepare legislation: the Parliament has 20 committees and two subcommittees, each handling a particular policy area. The committees examine proposals for legislation, and MEPs and political groups can put forward amendments or propose to reject proposed legislation. These issues are also debated within the political groups before they decide how to vote on a particular subject.
  • Plenary sessions approve, amend or reject legislation: this is when all the MEPs gather in the chamber to give a final vote on the proposed legislation and the proposed amendments. These plenary sessions are normally held in Strasbourg, with any additional sessions held in Brussels.

Work in the European Parliament’s eighth term ended on 18 April 2019. In a direct vote on 23-26 May, citizens in the EU member states elected MEPs to form the new Parliament. More information on the outcome of the 2019 European Elections and the forming of the new Parliament can be found on the European Parliament's website.

The European Council

The European Council, based in Brussels, is made up of the Heads of State or Government of all of the EU Member States, the President of the European Commission and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

The European Council brings together EU leaders to set the EU's political agenda. It represents the highest level of political cooperation between the EU Member States. The European Council takes the form of (usually quarterly) summit meetings between EU leaders, chaired by the President of the European Council. The President can also convene additional meetings to address urgent issues. In July 2019, the European Council elected Charles Michel as its President for the period from 1 December 2019 to 31 May 2022.

The European Council generally decides issues by unanimity, or by qualified majority in some cases.

The European Council:

  • decides on the EU’s overall direction and political priorities, but does not pass laws;
  • deals with complex or sensitive issues that cannot be resolved at lower levels of intergovernmental cooperation;
  • sets the EU’s common foreign and security policy, taking into account EU strategic interests and defence implications;
  • nominates and appoints candidates to certain high-profile EU-level roles, such as the President of the European Commission or the President of the European Central Bank.

On each issue, the European Council can:

  • invite the European Commission to make a proposal to address it;
  • pass it on to the Council of the European Union to deal with.

The Council

Together with the European Parliament, the Council is the main decision-making body of the EU. It is also known as the Council of the European Union. In the Council government ministers from each Member State meet to discuss, amend and adopt laws and to coordinate policies. The ministers have the authority to commit their governments to the actions agreed on in the meetings. The presidency of the Council rotates among the EU Member States every 6 months, and is responsible for chairing all Council meetings and setting the agendas.

The Council:

  • negotiates and adopts EU laws, together with the European Parliament, based on proposals from the European Commission;
  • coordinates EU countries’ policies;
  • develops the EU’s foreign and security policy, based on European Council guidelines;
  • concludes agreements between the EU and other countries or international organisations;
  • adopts the annual EU budget jointly with the European Parliament.

The ministers who attend are those that deal with the policy being discussed. For example, environment ministers meet in the Environment Council. The ministers meet several times a year to make decisions relating to the EU, though government officials have meetings all year round to discuss the policy details.

To be agreed, decisions usually require a qualified majority, which is defined as 55% of the Member States representing at least 65% of the total EU population. However, certain topics like foreign policy and taxation require a unanimous vote (all Member States in favour) and a simple majority is required for procedural and administrative issues.

The Council is not to be confused with the Council of Europe, which is not a European Union body but an international organisation that was set up to promote democracy and protect human rights and the rule of law in Europe. It comprises 47 European countries, including the Member States of the EU.

The European Commission

The European Commission is the main institution that runs the day-to-day business of the EU. It is the only EU institution that can propose legislation (often after a request from the European Parliament or the Council), though it is the Parliament and the Council that vote on it. Most people working in the Commission are based in Brussels or Luxembourg, however there are ‘representation’ offices in all the capitals of the EU Member States.

The Commission is composed of the College of 27 Commissioners, one from each EU Member State, and including the President, Ursula von der Leyen, and Vice-Presidents.

Once the Commission President is nominated, the Council of the European Union nominates the other 26 Members of the Commission in agreement with the nominated President, and the Members as a single body are then subject to a vote of approval by the European Parliament. The Commissioners are the Commission’s political leadership during a five-year term. Each Commissioner is assigned responsibility for specific policy areas by the President.

The staff of the Commission are the equivalent of the civil service in a Member State, and are organised into departments, known as directorates-general and services, similar to ministries at national level.

The decisions of the Commission are made based on the collective responsibility of the College of Commissioners. All Commissioners are equal in the decision-making process and equally accountable for these decisions. They do not have any individual decision-making powers, except when authorised in certain situations.

There are eight Vice-Presidents (including three Executive Vice-Presidents and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy) who occupy these roles in addition to the usual Commissioner’s portfolio. The Vice-Presidents act on behalf of the President and coordinate work in their area of responsibility, together with several Commissioners. The political guidelines presented by President von der Leyen in July 2019 set six headline ambitions for Europe.

In general, decisions are made by consensus, but votes can also take place. In this case, decisions are made by simple majority, with every Commissioner having one vote. The relevant directorate-general then takes up the subject. This is usually done in the form of draft legislative proposals.

Consultative committees

The consultative committees (the European Economic and Social Committee and the European Committee of the Regions) have an advisory role towards the European Parliament, Council and Commission. They provide opinions on proposed legislative acts. The European Economic and Social Committee represents organised civil society and the European Committee of the Regions represents local and regional authorities.

National parliaments

The 27 national parliaments of the Member States contribute to the good functioning of the EU by scrutinizing their governments in relation to the activities of the European Union and have a number of rights, including the right to express their concerns in relation to draft legislative acts.

National parliaments send reasoned opinions to the Commission when they see a draft legislative act breaching the principle of subsidiarity. If certain conditions are met, the Commission reviews its proposal, and explains publicly whether it will maintain, amend or withdraw its proposal.

The Commission is also in constant political dialogue with national parliaments, which send their opinions on any legislative or political initiative of the Commission or on any political subject on their own initiative.

European Central Bank and European Investment Bank

The European Central Bank is an independent institution of economic and monetary union to which all EU Member States belong. It makes its decisions without seeking or taking instructions from governments or other EU institutions. Its main purpose is to maintain monetary stability in the euro area by ensuring low and stable consumer price inflation.

The European Investment Bank is the bank of the European Union. It is owned by the Member States and its mission is to lend money for investments that support the EU’s objectives. Its focus is on increasing the EU’s jobs and growth potential and on supporting climate action and the EU’s policies beyond its borders.

European Union agencies

The work of the European Union is assisted by a number of EU agencies, which are separate legal entities set up to perform specific tasks under EU law. They work on issues and problems affecting the everyday lives of people living in the EU. They have a major impact, providing EU institutions and Member States with specialised knowledge in diverse areas, such as cybersecurity, safety of food and medicines, environmental protection, fundamental rights and border security.


Various institutions take part in the EU’s decision-making process, with the European Parliament, the Council and the European Commission at the forefront.

Usually the European Commission proposes new legal acts that are then adopted by the Parliament and the Council. On some occasions, the Council may do this alone.

To ensure that EU action meets its objectives in the most efficient way, the European Commission assesses the expected and actual impacts of policies, legislation, and other important measures. It also involves citizens and stakeholders at every stage of the policy cycle, from planning to proposal to implementation to review and subsequent revision.

To announce new legislative initiatives or planned evaluations of existing legislation, the European Commission publishes inception impact assessments or roadmaps. The potential economic, social and environmental consequences of proposed measures are analysed and reported in impact assessments that accompany legislative proposals.

And what about legislation or initiatives that are already in force? Once implemented for a sufficient period of time, initiatives are evaluated to check their performance against standard criteria. As part of this, the Regulatory Fitness and Performance Programme (REFIT) identifies opportunities to reduce regulatory costs and simplify existing laws.

There are several types of legal acts, which are applied in different ways.

  • A regulation is a law that is applicable and binding in all Member States directly. It does not need to be passed into national law by the Member States, although national laws may need to be changed to avoid conflicting with the regulation.
  • A directive is a law that binds the Member States, or a group of Member States, to achieve a particular objective. Usually, directives must be transposed into national law to become effective. Significantly, a directive specifies the result to be achieved: it is up to the Member States individually to decide how this is done.
  • A decision can be addressed to Member States, groups of people or even individuals. It is binding in its entirety. Decisions are used, for example, to rule on proposed mergers between companies.
  • Recommendations and opinions enable the EU institutions to express a view to Member States, and in some cases to individual citizens, that is not binding and does not create any legal obligation on the person or entity addressed.

Every proposal for a new EU legal act is in accordance with a particular article of a treaty, which is called the legal basis of the proposal. This determines which legislative procedure must be followed.

The majority of laws are made following a process known as the ordinary legislative procedure.

Ordinary legislative procedure

The ordinary legislative procedure, also known as the co-decision procedure, is the most common procedure for adopting EU legislation. This places the European Parliament and the Council on an equal footing, and the laws passed using this procedure are joint acts of the Parliament and the Council. It applies to the great majority of EU legislation, covering a wide range of fields such as consumer rights, environmental protection and transport. Under the ordinary legislative procedure the Commission makes a proposal, which must be adopted by both the Parliament and the Council. On receipt of the proposal the process proceeds as follows.

The first reading

  • The European Parliament debates the proposal in its committees. Any amendments to the proposal are tabled and voted on in these committees. The proposal then passes to the whole Parliament, which votes on it (and further amendments) in plenary session.
  • The Council and the Member States examine the legislation in detail; most of this discussion happens in a working group of civil servants. Many issues can be resolved at this technical level, or the levels just above it, though some issues may remain to be finalised at the meetings of the relevant ministers. The Council will come to a political agreement on the legislation – this may happen before or after the Parliament votes. Once the Parliament has voted the political agreement will be converted into a formal common position. If the Council’s common position is different from the Parliament’s vote the legislation passes onto a second reading in order to resolve the differences.
  • Representatives of the Parliament and the Council often meet informally to try to agree between themselves before formalising their positions. If they do agree the Council will adopt exactly the same text as the Parliament and the proposal will become law. This is called a first-reading agreement.

The second reading

  • If no agreement was found at first reading, the second reading will then begin. It follows a similar pattern to the first reading, but this time with the Parliament examining, and voting on, the changes proposed by Council, and then the Council considering what the Parliament proposes. The second reading is a faster process than the first reading, as only differences between the Parliament’s and the Council’s positions can be discussed, and various elements are time limited.
  • It is possible that the Parliament and the Council will agree at this stage (a second-reading agreement). If the two institutions cannot come to a common decision on the proposed legal act it is passed to a Conciliation Committee comprised of an equal number of representatives of the Parliament and the Council. This conciliation procedure has become rare. Most legal acts are adopted following the ordinary legislative procedure during the first or second reading.
  • Once a final text is agreed, and all translations have been done, the legislation is passed to the Parliament and the Council again so that they can adopt it as a legal act. It will then be published in the Official Journal of the European Union in the EU’s official languages. The legislation will specify when it must be implemented in the Member States, or when it comes into force in the case of a regulation.

The Commission can take Member States to court and ask for them to be fined if EU legislation is not implemented. Almost all enforcement of EU legislation occurs within the Member States. This can sometimes lead to complaints about uneven implementation of the rules in different countries. Some decisions are enforced directly at EU level, notably competition law such as antitrust cases. See Part 3 of this section Ensuring EU laws are respected for more information.

Who else is consulted?

When making decisions in a number of policy areas, the Parliament, the Council and the Commission consult the European Economic and Social Committee (of which Luca Jahier is the President).

The Parliament, the Council and the Commission must consult the European Committee of the Regions (of which Karl-Heinz Lambertz is the President) on matters of relevance to the regions.

The committees’ opinions are not binding upon the EU institutions.

In addition, other institutions and bodies may be consulted when a proposal falls within their area of interest or expertise, for example the European Central Bank for proposals concerning economic or financial matters.

National oversight

National parliaments receive draft legislative acts at the same time as the European Parliament and the Council. They can give their opinion to ensure that decisions are made at the most appropriate level. EU actions are subject to the principle of subsidiarity, which means that, except in the areas where it has exclusive powers, the EU only acts where action will be more effective at EU level than at national level. National parliaments monitor the correct application of this principle in EU decision-making and can give ‘reasoned opinions’ when they consider that the principle is not being respected.

Getting involved as a citizen

Every EU citizen has the right to submit a petition to the European Parliament in one of the official languages of the EU, in the form of a complaint or a request, on an issue that falls within the European Union’s fields of activity. Petitions are examined by Parliament’s Committee on Petitions, which makes a decision on their admissibility and is responsible for dealing with them.

Citizens can also participate directly in the development of EU policies by calling on the European Commission to make a proposal on matters on which the EU has the competence to legislate. A European Citizens’ Initiative, as this is called, has to be backed by at least 1 million EU citizens, coming from at least seven Member States. A minimum number of signatories is required in each of those seven Member States.

Citizens can share their views on Commission initiatives at key stages of the policymaking and law-making process. Through the web portal Have Your Say, citizens and stakeholders can contribute in different ways.

  • The Commission first announces a new initiative or an evaluation of an existing policy or law by publishing an inception impact assessment or a roadmap. Citizens and stakeholders have 4 weeks to give feedback, which is published on the same webpage.
  • When working on a new initiative or evaluation, the Commission carries out public consultations via online questionnaires open for 12 weeks.
  • Once the Commission has finalised a legislative proposal and submitted it to the European Parliament and the Council, citizens have another opportunity to comment on it. The feedback period for Commission proposals is 8 weeks, after which the contributions are passed to the Parliament and the Council to be considered in their negotiations.
  • Through the Lighten the load programme, citizens can give the Commission suggestions at any time on how existing laws or policies could be simplified and improved to be more effective and less burdensome.

On the Have your Say web portal, citizens can subscribe to be notified by email when new initiatives are added on topics that they are interested in or to follow developments regarding individual initiatives.

Coordinating the policies of Member States – the example of economic policy

Under economic and monetary union, the EU’s economic policy is based on close coordination of national economic policies. This coordination is carried out by the economics and finance ministers, who collectively form the Economic and Financial Affairs Council.

The Eurogroup consists of the ministers of economy and finance of the euro-area members. It acts to promote economic growth and financial stability in the euro area by coordinating economic policies.

Common foreign and security policy

The common foreign and security policy is the organised, agreed foreign policy of the EU, mainly for security and defence diplomacy and actions. Decisions require unanimity among Member States in the Council of the European Union, but once agreed, certain aspects can be further decided by qualified majority voting. The EU’s foreign policy at ministerial level is represented by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the Commission, currently Josep Borrell Fontelles, who also chairs meetings of foreign ministers.

Concluding international agreements

Each year the Council concludes (i.e. officially signs) a number of agreements between the European Union and non-EU countries, and also with international organisations. These agreements may cover broad areas such as trade, cooperation and development, or they may deal with specific subjects such as textiles, fisheries, science and technology, or transport. The Parliament’s consent is required for all international agreements in fields covered by the ordinary legislative procedure.

Approving the EU budget

The EU’s annual budget is decided jointly by the European Parliament and the Council. If the two institutions do not agree then conciliation procedures are followed until a budget is approved. See Part 4 of this section, Taking action: the EU’s budget for more information.


The Court of Justice of the European Union ensures that EU legislation is interpreted and applied in the same way in each Member State. The Court has the power to settle legal disputes between Member States, EU institutions, businesses and individuals. To cope with the many thousands of cases it receives it is divided into two main bodies: the Court of Justice and the General Court.

If a private individual or a company has suffered damage as a result of action or inaction by an EU institution or its staff they can take action against them in the Court, in one of two ways:

  • indirectly through national courts, which may decide to refer the case to the Court of Justice;
  • directly before the General Court, if a decision by an EU institution has affected them directly and individually.

If someone considers that the authorities in any country have infringed EU law they can follow the official complaints procedure.

How the Court works

Cases are processed in two stages.

  • Written stage. The parties give written statements to the Court, and observations can also be submitted by national authorities, EU institutions and, sometimes, private individuals. All of this is summarised by the judge-rapporteur and then discussed at the Court’s general meeting.
  • Oral stage. This is a public hearing: lawyers from both sides can put their case to the judges and the advocate general, who can question them. If the Court decides an opinion of the advocate general is necessary this is given some weeks after the hearing. The judges then deliberate and give their verdict.

The General Court procedure is similar, except that most cases are heard by three judges and there are no advocates general.

Other EU judicial institutions

The Ombudsman receives and investigates complaints and helps to identify maladministration in the EU institutions and other bodies. Any citizen, resident, association or business of an EU Member State can make a complaint to the Ombudsman.

The European Data Protection Supervisor is charged with protecting the personal information and privacy of EU citizens and residents, stored by the EU institutions in electronic, written or visual form. It also promotes good practice in this field among the EU institutions and bodies.


The EU agrees long-term spending plans (known as the multiannual financial framework) which provide a stable basis for implementing the budget over a period of at least 5 years. This allows the EU to complement national budgets by funding policies with added EU value. The multiannual financial framework lays down the maximum annual amounts (ceilings) that the EU may spend in different categories of expenditure (headings). The current budget covers the 2014-2020 period and allows the EU to invest around €1 trillion over that period in the five areas of EU activities.

The EU’s annual budget is decided jointly by the Parliament and the Council of the European Union. The Parliament debates it in two successive readings, and it comes into force when it has been signed by the President of the Parliament. The Parliament’s Committee on Budgetary Control monitors how the budget is spent, and each year the Parliament decides whether to approve the Commission’s handling of the budget for the previous financial year.

The annual EU budget in 2019 was around €165.8 billion – a large sum in absolute terms, but only about 1% of the wealth generated by the economies of the Member States every year.

The Commission is responsible for managing and implementing the EU budget and the policies and programmes adopted by the Parliament and the Council. Most of the actual implementation and spending is done by national and local authorities but the Commission is responsible for supervising it. The Commission handles the budget under the watchful eye of the European Court of Auditors. Both institutions aim to ensure sound financial management.

Every year, following a recommendation by the Council, the European Parliament decides whether to give its final approval, or ‘discharge’, on the way the Commission has implemented the EU budget. This procedure ensures full accountability and transparency, and when granted the discharge leads to the formal closure of the accounts for a given year.

The European Court of Auditors is the independent external audit institution of the European Union. It checks that the EU’s income has been received correctly, that its expenditure has been incurred in a legal and regular manner and that financial management has been sound. It performs its tasks independently from the other EU institutions and governments.

A modern budget for an EU that protects, empowers and defends

In May 2018 the Commission presented its proposals for a modern, long-term budget for the 2021-2027 period. The proposals are a realistic response to an exceptionally challenging context: technological and demographic change, migration, climate change and scarce resources, unemployment and security threats are compounded by geopolitical instability.

The Commission has proposed to boost funding in areas where the EU can contribute most effectively. This will be done by expanding and modernising existing programmes with a proven track record, and by creating new tailor-made programmes in areas where a fresh approach is needed to help the EU deliver on its ambitions. For example:

  • investing in innovation and the digital economy;
  • creating training and employment opportunities for young people;
  • continuing the EU’s work on a comprehensive approach to migration and border management;
  • building up the EU’s capacity in security and defence;
  • strengthening the EU’s external action and investing in climate action and environmental protection;
  • strengthening the economic and monetary union.

See also the following pages in Section 2: Economy, finance and the euro; Banking and financial services; Taxation; Budget; and Fraud prevention.

Getting in touch with the EU


All over the European Union there are hundreds of Europe Direct information centres. You can find the address of the centre nearest you at:


Europe Direct is a service that answers your questions about the European Union. You can contact this service:

Finding information about the EU


Information about the European Union in all the official languages of the EU is available on the Europa website at:


You can download or order free and priced EU publications at: Multiple copies of free publications may be obtained by contacting Europe Direct or your local information centre (see


For access to legal information from the EU, including all EU law since 1952 in all the official language versions, go to EUR-Lex at:


The EU Open Data Portal ( provides access to datasets from the EU. Data can be downloaded and reused for free, for both commercial and non-commercial purposes.


The European Commission has offices (representations) in all the Member States of the European Union:


The European Parliament has a liaison office in every Member State of the European Union:


The European Union also has delegations in other parts of the world:


The European Union – What it is and what it does

European Commission
Directorate-General for Communication
Editorial Service & Targeted Outreach
1049 Brussels

Manuscript completed in January 2020

The European Commission is not liable for any consequence stemming from the reuse of this publication.

Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, 2020

© European Union, 2020

Reuse is authorised provided the source is acknowledged.

The reuse policy of European Commission documents is regulated by Decision 2011/833/EU (OJ L 330, 14.12.2011, p. 39).

For any use or reproduction of photos or other material that is not under the copyright of the European Union, permission must be sought directly from the copyright holders.

All pictures: © Shutterstock, © Fotolia


Print ISBN 978-92-79-93648-7 doi:10.2775/181831 NA-04-18-778-EN-C
PDF ISBN 978-92-79-93637-1 doi:10.2775/41083 NA-04-18-778-EN-N
HTML ISBN 978-92-76-02226-8 doi:10.2775/923488 NA-04-18-778-EN-Q