Understanding european legislative procedure

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This page aims to explains the rules of procedure of the European Parliament.

The purpose[modifier]

The purpose of the european legislative procedure is to create EU law which will rule each member state and european citizen. It does so by mainly two means: Regulation and Directive.

Regulation[modifier]

A regulation is a legislative act of the European Union that becomes immediately enforceable as law in all member states simultaneously. Regulations can be distinguished from directives which need to be transposed into national law. As such, regulations constitute one of the most powerful forms of European Union law and a great deal of care is required in their drafting and formulation. When a regulation comes into force, it overrides all national laws dealing with the same subject matter and subsequent national legislation must be consistent with and made in the light of the regulation.

Directive[modifier]

A directive is a legislative act of the European Union that does not become immediately enforceable but needs to be transposed into national law by the member states. It can be distinguished from regulations which are self-executing and do not require any implementing measures. Directives normally leave member states with a certain degree of freedom as to the exact rules to be adopted. Occasionally, the laws of a member state may already comply with this outcome, and the state involved would be required only to keep its laws in place. More commonly, member states are required to make changes to their laws (commonly referred to as transposition) in order for the directive to be implemented correctly. This is done in aproximately 99% of the cases. If the national legislation does not adequately comply with the requirements of the directive, the European Commission may initiate legal action against the member state in the European Court of Justice.

The actors[modifier]

The Commission[modifier]

The European Commission is the executive body of the European Union responsible for proposing legislation, implementing decisions, upholding the Union's treaties and day-to-day running of the EU.

The Commission operates as a cabinet government, with 27 members of the Commission (informally known as "commissioners"). There is one member per member state, though members are bound to represent the interests of the EU as a whole rather than their home state. One of the 27 is the Commission President (currently José Manuel Durão Barroso) proposed by the European Council and elected by the European Parliament. The Council then appoints the other 26 members of the Commission in agreement with the nominated President, and then the 27 members as a single body are subject to a vote of approval by the European Parliament.

The term "Commission" is used either in the narrow sense of the 27-member College of Commissioners (or College) or to also include the administrative body of about 23,000 European civil servants who are split into departments called Directorates-General and Services.

The Council[modifier]

The Council of the European Union is part of the essentially bicameral EU legislature, representing the executives of EU member states, the other legislative body being the European Parliament. The Council is composed of several configurations of 27 national ministers (one per state). The exact membership of the configuration depends upon the topic; for example, when discussing agricultural policy the Council is formed by the twenty-seven national ministers whose portfolio includes this policy area.

The Presidency of the Council rotates every six months among the governments of EU member states.

Its decisions are made by qualified majority voting in most areas, unanimity in others. Usually where it operates unanimously, it need only consult the Parliament. However, in most areas the 'ordinary legislative procedure' applies meaning both Council and Parliament share legislative powers equally, meaning both have to agree for a proposal to pass. In a few limited areas the Council may initiate new EU law itself.

The Parliament[modifier]

The European Parliament is the directly elected parliamentary institution of the European Union. Together with the Council of the European Union and the European Commission, it exercises the legislative function of the EU.

The Parliament is currently composed of 754 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). It has been directly elected every five years by universal suffrage since 1979.

It does not possess legislative initiative, as most national parliaments of European Union member states do, but the European Commission is accountable to it. In particular, Parliament elects the President of the Commission, and approves (or rejects) the appointment of the Commission as a whole. It can subsequently force the Commission as a body to resign by adopting a motion of censure.

The President of the European Parliament is currently Martin Schulz (S&D), elected in January 2012.


Political make up of Parliament as of January 2012:

Name Acronym Number (and %) of MEPs Political orientation
Confederal Group of the European United Left / Green United GUE/NGL 34 (4.5%) Strongly left-wing
Greens/European Free Alliance Greens/EFA 58 (7.7%) Diverse, generally left-wing
Socialists and Democrats S&D 190 (25,2%) Centrist to left-wing
Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe ALDE 85 (11,3%) Centrist
European People's Party EPP 271 (35,9%) Centre-right
European Conservatives and Reformers ECR 53 (7%) Centre-right
Europe of Freedom and Democracy EFD 33 (4,4%) Anti-EU
Non-attached members NI 30 (5%)

As you can see, no political group may obtain the required majority alone, meaning that compromises must always be sough.

The Committees[modifier]

The Parliament has 20 Standing Committees consisting of 28 to 86 MEPs each (reflecting the political makeup of the whole Parliament). They meet twice a month in public to draw up, amend to adopt legislative proposals and reports to be presented to the plenary.


List of standing committees as of 8 July 2010 [1]

Committee Acronym Chairperson
Foreign Affairs AFET Gabriele Albertini (EPP)
Human Rights (subcommittee) DROI Barbara Lochbihler (Greens-EFA)
Security and Defence (subcommittee) SEDE Arnaud Danjean (EPP)
Development DEVE Eva Joly (Greens-EFA)
International Trade INTA Vital Moreira (S&D)
Budgets BUDG Alain Lamassoure (EPP)
Budgetary Control CONT Luigi de Magistris (ALDE)
Economic and Monetary Affairs ECON Sharon Bowles (ALDE)
Employment and Social Affairs EMPL Pervenche Beres (S&D)
Environment, Public Health and Food Safety ENVI Jo Leinen (S&D)
Industry, Research and Energy ITRE Herbert Reul (EPP)
Internal Market and Consumer Protection IMCO Malcolm Harbour (ECR)
Transport and Tourism TRAN Brian Simpson (S&D)
Regional Development REGI Danuta Hübner (EPP)
Agriculture and Rural Development AGRI Paolo De Castro (S&D)
Fisheries PECH Carmen Fraga Estévez (EPP)
Culture and Education CULT Doris Pack (EPP)
Legal Affairs JURI Klaus-Heiner Lehne (EPP)
Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs LIBE Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar (S&D)
Constitutional Affairs AFCO Carlo Casini (EPP)
Women's Rights and Gender Equality FEMM Michael Gustafsson (GUE/NGL)
Petitions PETI Erminia Mazzoni (EPP)

The "ordinary legislative procedure"[modifier]

Under the "ordinary legislative procedure", the Commission presents a proposal to Parliament and the Council. The proposal can only become law if both agree on a text, which they do (or not) through successive readings up to a maximum of three.

Committees' examination[modifier]

The committees[modifier]

Before the first reading of any legislative act, the Parliament's President puts a Committee in charge of issuing a report on the proposal ; it is called the Lead Committee. The Chair of that Committee designates one of the members of the Committee as Rapporteur. This 'Rapporteur' leads the drafting of the report. This report will contain amendments to the proposal, accompanied, if appropriate, by short justifications. These are the amendments Parliament will vote on during the first reading.

If the lead Committee wishes to hear the views of other committees, or if other committees wish to submit their views, the Parliament's President may appoint such committees as Opinion Committee. Again, the Chair of each of these committees will appoint a Rapporteur among its members. Each of these Rapporteur will lead the drafting of their Committee's opinion, which consists of amendments aimed to advise the lead Committee.

In both lead and opinion committees, each political group names a Shadow Rapporteur that will lead the negociation within his or her Committee. Rapporteurs and Shadow Rapporteurs are the main, if not mere, MEPs working on a proposal.

The draftings[modifier]

First, the Rapporteurs of lead and opinion committees respectively release a draft report and draft opinions which contain the first sets of amendments (usually less than a hundred) on the basis of which negociations start within each Committe.

A deadline is set until which any member of these committees may propose amendments. These new amendments are published in new draft reports/opinions. At the end, hundreds of amendments can be proposed in each Committee.

As there can be many amendments made on the proposal's key points in each Committee, political groups seek concensus on these points. These concensus are reached through new provisions called compromise amendments (CAs). These CAs might not be approved by every political group, but the purpose of this process is to draft amendments accepted by enough groups to be adopted during the Committee's final vote. This process occurs behind closed doors, perfectly untransparently, which is really problematic as these amendments may be the most decisive of all.

The votes[modifier]

Committees are scheduled to vote on the amendments proposed by their members at different dates. Once all opinion committes have voted, the lead one may vote on its final report. Committes' vote are supposed to be public (as they are broadcasted here) but MEPs usually vote by show of hands and the broadcasts rarely show them all but often focus on the Rapporteurs only. In these circumstances, we cannot know what amendments each MEP has supported or not, which is significantly weakening their political liability.

Many MEPs have not really looked into the proposal and will vote as their Shadow Rapporteur advised them to, but few of them may depart from their group's view (as they are completely free to do). There are only around fifty MEPs voting: any of their vote may be decisive, one way or the other.

Amendments adopted by the Lead Committee are the most important, because they are those on which the Parliament will vote - the only impact Parliament can have on a legislative act. Amendments voted by the opinion comittees only provide guidelines the Lead Committee may use during the drafting and the vote of its own amendments. But they should not be underestimate as they can provide great insight into MEPs views and the proposal's future.

Parliament's vote[modifier]

First reading[modifier]

Parliament may adopt the proposal as it is or propose amendments and send them to the Council. Then, the Council can either adopt the text with those amendments or send back a "common position".

Second reading[modifier]

The Council's "common position" may either be approved by Parliament, or it may reject the text by an absolute majority, causing it to fail, or it may adopt further amendments, also by an absolute majority. If the Council does not approve these amendments, a "Conciliation Committee" is formed (composed of the Council members plus an equal number of MEPs) to seek to agree a compromise.

Third reading[modifier]

Once a position is agreed by the "Conciliaiton Committee", it has to be approved by Parliament, by a simple majority.