What is the European Union?

What is the European Union?

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


European Union and its Institutions

The European Union is a unique economic and political union between 28 European countries, known as ‘Member States’. Decision making at the EU level involves the following institutions:

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Committee stage: where smaller groups of MEPs discuss specific issues and prepare legislation
  2. Plenary – these are meetings of all MEPs, where they vote on legislation and agree on policies. 


The Disability Intergroup of the European Parliament is an informal grouping of MEPs from all nationalities, and most political groups, who are interested in promoting disability policy in their work at the European Parliament and at the national level.


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


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

  • The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), which represents employers, trade unions and other groups such as professional and community associations, youth organisations, women’s groups, organisations of persons with disabilities, consumers, environmental campaigners, and other groups of Europeans.
  • The Committee of the Regions (CoR), which ensures that the voice of local and regional government is heard. It is composed by mayors, city councillors and other local government representatives. 

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


When Can the EU Make Laws?

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

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


How are EU laws made?

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


Types of Laws

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

Regulations automatically become national law. Directives require the Member States to translate or ‘transpose’ it into national law. For example, the Regulation on the rights of persons with disabilities to travel by air needs to be applied in all European Union countries in the same way as it is written.

A “Directive” must be incorporated into the national legal framework but allows countries to decide on how they wish to implement the law. For example, the “Council Directive 2000/78/EC of 27 November 2000 establishing a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation” was implemented differently in all the member states.

“Communications” are policy documents that explain the position of the EU on certain issues. For example, the European Commission’s Communication on the European Disability Strategy 2010-2020: A Renewed Commitment to a Barrier-Free Europe sets the long term position and goals of the EU regarding disability.

Finally, “Recommendations” and “Opinions” are policy documents that are not binding for the EU countries but have political weight.