• Two presidents representing the European Union attended the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos.
  • One from the European Parliament, the other from the European Commission.
  • But what’s the difference between the two? And what's the European Council?

Many world leaders attended the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, including prime ministers, presidents and royalty from across the globe. The European Union was represented by two presidents, due to its somewhat unusual configuration: a Commission, a Council, and a Parliament.

Ursula von der Leyen is the President of the European Commission. She spoke on the theme ‘Beyond Geopolitics’. “You can either move forward at the exclusion of others – restricting the internet, fuelling nationalism, building the narrative of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ – or take an inclusive approach,” she told the audience.

David Sassoli, President of the European Parliament, told Davos: “We are not equal in the face of climate change. It is time to say, enough of the obsession with profit. The EU Green Deal is our opportunity to fight both climate challenges and inequality.”

So, with two EU presidents attending Davos, what’s the difference between their two areas of the EU. And how do they work together?

The European Commission

The European Commission is the executive arm of the EU. It has 27 Commissioners – one from each member state. They are supposed not to represent the interests of their home nation but to work for the collective good of the EU.

They have a five-year tenure. Von der Leyen took over from Jean-Claude Juncker in December 2019 and her term runs to October 2024. Previously, she was Germany’s defence minister.

The Commissioners are not elected by the citizens of their respective countries. Instead, they are selected via a parliamentary vetting process, and approved by the European Parliament before being formally appointed by heads of EU member governments, who come together as the European Council.

The Commission proposes rules and laws which are then scrutinized and voted on by the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and ministers from national governments, meeting as the Council of the European Union or council of ministers.

The European Parliament

The Parliament is the EU’s directly elected body.

European Parliament seating plan.
Take your places please… The EU Parliament seating plan.
Image: EU Parliament

Before the departure of the United Kingdom, there were 751 MEPs, representing the 513 million citizens of the 28 member states. Of the UK's 73 seats, 27 will be redistributed among the other countries.

MEPs sit in groups defined by political affiliation rather than along national lines and take part in a variety of committees. While most of the time MEPs can be found in Brussels, they convene in Strasbourg once a month, where most of the main debates and votes take place.

Building of the European parliament in Strasbourg - Reflection of Louise Weiss building in water puddle - Fall season
The EU Parliament in Strasbourg.
Image: EU Parliament

The President of the Parliament, David Sassoli, began his career as a journalist in his native Italy and was elected an MEP for the centre-left Partito Democratico.

Speaking at Davos, he described inequality as one of the biggest issues facing Europe, saying: “Environmental challenges can only be solved if we put the reduction of inequality at the centre of political action. Climate challenges and inequality can only be solved together.”

The European Council

The third major EU institution is the European Council, which is made up of heads of state or government of the member states who meet at EU summits. It has its own president, Belgian politician Charles Michel.

Member states have their say on EU legislation by sending their ministers to regular meetings with their counterparts from other EU nations - councils of ministers.

To add to the potential confusion, there is also a body called the Council of Europe, but that is not an arm of the EU.

Common goals

There is a long tradition of cooperation between the World Economic Forum and the European Union, based on shared views and goals – something Von der Leyen referred to during her address. “For too long, humanity took away resources from the environment, and in exchange, produced waste and pollution.”

“I believe, as you do,” she continued, addressing her comments directly to World Economic Forum Founder and Executive President Klaus Schwab, “that we can reconcile our economy with our planet. We can reconcile human development with the protection of our home. But we can only do it together.”