EU Decisions Process

EU-REPORT – By Pierre V. Costa

Many of our readers are interested to know the responsible institutions taking part in the EU’s decision-making process. It concerns the EU Commission, the European Parliament, the EU Council, the Committee of the Regions and the Economic and Social Committee. Usually, the EU Commission proposes new legal acts that are then adopted by the European Council and by the Parliament after consultation of the Committee of the Regions and the Economic and Social Committee.


There are several types of legal acts, which are applied in different ways:

A REGULATION is a law that is applicable and binding directly in the different EU member states.  It does not need to be passed into national law by the member states, although national laws may need to be changed to avoid conflicting with the adopted EU Regulation.

A DIRECTIVE is a law that binds the member states or a group of member states to achieve a particular objective. Usually, directives must be transposed into national law to become effective. Significantly a directive specifies the result to be achieved: it is up to the member states individually to decide how this is done. For our businesses, a good example is the “aerosol directive”.

A DECISION can be addressed to member states, groups of people or even individuals. It is binding in its entirety. Decisions are used, for example, to rule on proposed mergers between companies.

RECOMMENDATONS and OPINIONS enable the EU institutions to express a view to member states, and in some cases to individual citizens, that is not binding and does not create any legal obligation on the person or entity addressed.


Every proposal for a new legal act is in accordance with a particular article of a treaty, which is called the legal basis of the proposal. This determines which legislative procedure must be followed.


The majority of laws are made following a process known as the “ordinary legislative procedure”. This procedure also known as the co-decision procedure, is the most common procedure for adopting EU legislation. This places the European Parliament and the Council on an equal footing and the laws passed using this procedure are joint acts of the Parliament and the Council. It applies to the great majority of EU legislation covering a wide range of fields such as consumer rights, environmental protection and transport. Under the ordinary legislative procedure the EU Commission makes a proposal which must be adopted by both the EU Parliament and the Council. On receipt of the proposal the process proceeds as first or second reading.


The European Parliament debates the proposal in its relevant committees. Any amendments to the proposal are tabled and voted in these committees. The proposal then passes to the whole Parliament which votes on it in plenary session.

After, the Council and the member states examine the legislation in detail, most of this discussion happens in a working group of civil servants. Many issues can be resolved at this technical level, or the levels just above it, though some issues may remain to be finalized at the meetings of relevant ministers. The Council will come to a political agreement on the legislation. Once the Parliament has voted this political agreement will be converted into a formal common position. If the Council common position is different from the Parliament’s vote, the legislation passes into a second reading in order to resolve the differences.

Representatives of the Council and Parliament often meet informally to try to agree between themselves before formalizing their positions. If they do agree the Council will adopt exactly the same text as the Parliament and the proposal will become law. This is called a first-reading agreement.


If no agreement was found at first reading, the second reading will then begin. It follows a similar pattern to the first reading, but this time with the Parliament examining and voting on the changes proposed by Council, and then the Council considering what the Parliament proposes. The second reading is a faster process than the first reading, as only differences between the Parliament and the Council’s positions can be discussed, and various elements are time limited. 

It is possible that the European Parliament and the Council will agree at this stage (a second-reading agreement). If the two institutions cannot come to a common decision on the proposed legal act, it is passed to a “Conciliation Committee” comprised of a legal number of representatives of the European Parliament and Council. This conciliation procedure, has become rare. Most legal acts are adopted following the ordinary legislative procedure during the first or second reading.

Once a final text is agreed, and all translations have been done, the legislation is passed to the Parliament and the Council again so that they can adopt it as a legal act. It will then be published in the Official Journal of the European Union in the EU’s 24 official languages. The legislation will specify when it must be implemented in the member states, or when it comes into force in the case of a regulation. The Commission can take member states to court and ask them to be fined if EU legislation is not implemented. Almost all enforcement of EU legislation occurs within the member states. This can sometimes lead to complaints about uneven implementation of the rules in different countries. Some decisions are enforced directly at EU level, notably competition law, such as antitrust cases. When making decisions in a number of policy areas, the Parliament, the Council and the Commission consult the “European Economic and Social Committee”. Its members represent the various economic and social interest groups that collectively make up organized civil society. The Parliament, the Council and the Commission must consult also the “European Committee of the Regions” on matters of relevance to the Regions. But the opinions of both advisory committees are not binding upon the EU institutions.

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