The Institutional Structure

The European Union’s institutions are the European Council, the European Parliament, the Council of Ministers, the Commission, the Court of Justice of the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the Court of Auditors. Each institution shall act within the limits of powers conferred on it by the Treaties. It is incumbent on the institutions to practice mutual, sincere cooperation (Art 13 TEU). The first five institutions are particularly relevant for the rest of this study and will therefore be presented in more detail. Among the many other bodies of a different nature, mention should be made of the Economic and Social Committee and the Region Committee: these have an advisory function and assist the European Parliament, the Council, and the Commission.

The European Council

The European Council is the EU’s highest political body. It ‘shall provide the Union with the necessary impetus for its development and shall define the general political directions and priorities thereof’, but has no legislative function.[1] [2] The European Council consists normally of Heads of State or Government, together with its President and the President of the Commission.15 The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy also participates. The European Council meets twice every six months and makes decisions by consensus, unless otherwise provided in the Treaties with respect to a particular issue. The President of the European Council represents the Union externally in matters covered by the common foreign and security policy. Such representation should, however, not override the authority of the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and this makes for some confusion about the more precise division of powers between the two institutions (Art 15 TEU).

As regards the environment, the European Council has, since October 1972 when environmental policy was first discussed within the Community, often made statements related to EU environmental programmes and priorities. Since the early 1980s, these statements have been more or less regular, and have included guidelines for the work of the environmental institutions.

Given the similar names, it is important not to confuse the European Council with the institution termed the Council (or the Council of Ministers), which plays a central role in the EU legislative process.

  • [1] Art 15(1) TEU.
  • [2] The European Council elects its president, by qualified majority, for a term of two and a halfyears, renewable once. Art 15(1) TEU.
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