If you find the governing institutions of the European Union (EU) a bit confusing, this article is designed to help take some of the confusion away...
Many people find all the different institutions and all the acronyms puzzling. I must confess I did too until a few days ago! There are, for a start, several bodies with the word "Council" in their names, and it's very easy to mix them up.
The Council of Europe: This is not an EU institution, and is not connected with the government or running of the EU. It is an intergovernmental organisation, based in Strasbourg. One of its aims is to protect human rights, and also to promote European culture and to combat social problems such as racism. It was founded in 1949 and it drew up the European Convention on Human Rights, and set up the European Court of Human Rights to decide on issues arising from that Convention.
The European Commission: This is a non-elected body, whose function is to advise on and propose new legislation. It has no power to make any policies into law, but once a policy has become law, it is the Commission's duty to put it into effect.
The European Council: This is composed of the heads of state and government of the member states, with the President of the European Commission, who meet, on average, about four times a year to agree on broad EU policies and to monitor progress. These meetings are often dubbed as "summits" because leaders of governments are involved.
The Council of the European Union: The main policy and legislation making organisation of the EU. This used to be called the Council of Ministers, and it is composed of government ministers from all the member states. In former times, all decisions had to be achieved by a unanimous vote. In practice, this system was found to be difficult, since one country could use its power of veto to block a decision. So the system of Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) was brought in. Under this system, each country has a number of votes according to its population size. The vote is carried if there are 73.9% of these QMV votes in favour.
The European Parliament: A parliament of representatives, organised on a similar model to a national parliament. Representatives are elected to represent a local constituency of their own country as a Member of the European Parliament (MEP). In the past, the role and function of the EP has been rather uncertain, but one of the provisions of the recent Lisbon Treaty is that the EP is to be strengthened, and its purpose more clearly defined.
I hope this little article helps you to more easily find your way around the confusing maze of councils, commissions, and institutions that make up the EU government system.