Making decisions at EU level

EU-REPORT – By Pierre V. Costa

Different European Institutions take part in the EU’s decision-making process.

In the forefront, the European Commission proposes texts to the European Parliament and the Council. The Economic and Social Committee and Committee of the Regions are also consulted.

Readers of this magazine noticed that there are several types of legal acts which are applied: regulations, directives, decisions, recommendations and opinions.

An EU regulation is a law applicable and binding in all the 28 member states. This means that the regulation does not need to be passed into a national law.

An EU directive is a law binding the member states or a group of member states to achieve a particular objective. Usually, directives must be transposed into a 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.

An EU decision can be addressed to the member states, a group of people or even individuals. It is binding in its entirety.

EU Recommendations 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.

The ordinary legislative procedure, also known as the “co-decision procedure”, is the most common procedure for adopting the EU legislation.

This places the European Parliament and the EU Council on an equal footing, and the laws passed using this procedure are joint acts of the European Parliament and the EU Council. It applies to a great majority of EU legislation covering a wide range of fields such as consumer rights, environmental protection und transport. Under the ordinary legislative procedure, the EU Commission makes a proposal, which must be adopted by both the Parliament and the Council. On receipt of the proposal, the process proceeds as follows:

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

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, though some issues may remain to be finalized at the meetings of the relevant ministers. The EU Council will come to a political agreement on the legislation. This may happen before or after the EU Parliament votes. Once the Parliament has voted, the political agreement will be converted into a formal common position. If the EU Council position is different from the Parliament’vote the legislation passes onto a second reading in order to resolve the differences. Representatives of the Parliament and the Council often meet informally to try to agree between themselves before formalising their positions. If they do agree, the EU 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 the 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’s and the Council’s positions can be discussed and various elements are time limited.

It is possible that the Parliament and the Council will agree at this stage. If the two institutions cannot come to a common decision on the proposed legal act, it is passed to a Conciliation Committee comprised of an equal number of representatives of the Parliament and the 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, the legislation, is passed to the Parliament and Council again so that they can adopt it as a legal act. It will then be published in the Official Journal in 24 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 EU Commission can take member states to court and ask for 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.

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