The three main institutions of the European Union operate mainly, though not exclusively, from Brussels. The European Parliament carries out its committee work and the majority of its business in Brussels, heading off for Strasbourg for around twelve, three-day plenary sessions per year. It’s the only EU institution to meet and debate in public, and has been directly elected since 1979. There are currently 736 MEPs, and they sit in political blocks rather than national delegations; members are very restricted on speaking time, and debates tend to be well-mannered consensual affairs, controlled by the President, who is elected for a five-year period by Parliament itself – although this mandate is often split in two and shared by the two biggest political groups. The Conference of Presidents – the President of the Parliament and Leaders of all the political groups – meet to plan future parliamentary business. Supporting and advising this political edifice is a complex network of committees from agriculture to human rights.
The European Council consists of the heads of government of each of the member states and the President of the European Commission; they meet twice every six months in the much-publicized “European Summits”. However, in between these meetings, ministers responsible for different issues meet in the Council of the European Union, the main decision-making structure alongside the European Parliament. There are complex rules regarding decision-making: some subjects require only a simple majority, others need unanimous support, some can be decided by the Council alone, others need the agreement of Parliament. This political structure is underpinned by scores of Brussels-based committees and working parties, made up of both civil servants and political appointees.
The European Commission acts as the EU’s executive arm and board of control, managing funds and monitoring all manner of agreements. The 27 Commissioners are political appointees, nominated by their home countries, but their tenure has to be agreed by the European Parliament and they remain accountable to the MEPs. The president of the Commission is elected by the European Parliament for a five-year period of office. Over twenty thousand civil servants work for the Commission, whose headquarters are in Brussels, mainly in the Berlaymont and adjacent Charlemagne building on rue de la Loi as well as other buildings in the Schuman area.