European Union decision-making

The European Union was created in the wake of the Second World War to promote peace in Europe. Decision-making by agreement and/or consensus was therefore an overriding principle and is still reflected today in the legislative and decision-making processes and in the structures of the main EU institutions.

The EU"s three main institutions, i.e. the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union, acting as a "trio" of institutions, are at the heart of the EU decision-making process and the adoption of Community law.

The Commission, the only institution that has the right of legislative initiative, proposes legislation which, in most cases, must be adopted by the European Parliament, which is elected directly by the citizens, and by the Council of the European Union (composed of representatives of the governments of the 28 Member States). These two institutions must agree - on an equal footing - on the text to be adopted. This process, the most common for the adoption of legislation, is called the  ordinary legislative procedure or" co-decision".

How is European legislation drawn up?

Any new proposal is subject to significant preparatory work by the Commission. When embarking on a new political initiative, the Commission carries out an"impact assessment" to examine any potential economic, social or environmental advantages and disadvantages. In that context, the Commission also enters into consultation with the stakeholders (NGOs, industry, professionals, civil society) and interested members of the public. On technical matters, the Commission is advised by experts.

The draft legislative proposal is also subject to scrutiny by the national parliaments which are invited to express formal reserves if they think the matter would be better addressed at national rather than European level (in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity).

How is European legislation adopted?

The Commission then publishes the legislative proposal which is submitted to the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union for consideration. Opinions are also requested from advisory bodies such as the Committee of the Regions (CoR) and the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC).

The Parliament and the Council may then accept the proposal unchanged - the legislative act is then adopted at first reading - or propose amendments. In the latter case, the text amended by each of those institutions serves as a basis for negotiation during the"trialogues", informal tripartite negotiations between the Parliament, the Council and the Commission with a view to reaching an agreement. In the context of these meetings, the European Commission takes all the necessary initiatives with a view to reconciling the positions of the European Parliament and the Council. If no agreement can be reached, the text is subject to a second reading.

At the second reading, the Parliament and the Council may once again propose amendments before new informal trialogues. At this stage of the procedure, the Parliament may reject the proposal if no agreement with the Council can be reached. If the two institutions reach an agreement on the amendments to be made to the proposal, it may be adopted. Otherwise, a conciliation committee tries to find a compromise solution. At this stage (third and final reading), the Council and the Parliament may reject the proposal.

Special legislative procedures

In certain cases and specific areas (inter alia international agreements, accession of new EU Member States, derogations from internal market rules and competition law), the ordinary legislative procedure is replaced by special legislative procedures where, in practice, the Council acts as the sole legislator. The European Parliament must either approve a legislative proposal or be consulted on it.

In the context of the approval procedure, the Council may adopt legislative proposals after obtaining the approval of the European Parliament. The Parliament therefore has the power to accept or to reject a legislative proposal by an absolute majority, without amendment. The Council must take account of the Parliament"s opinion.

In the context of the consultation procedure, the Council shall adopt a legislative proposal after obtaining the Parliament"s opinion. In this procedure, the Parliament may approve or reject a legislative proposal or propose amendments to it. The Council is not legally bound to take account of Parliament"s opinion, but in line with the case-law of the Court of Justice, the Council must not take a decision without having received Parliament"s opinion.

Openness and transparency in the European Union

The Treaty of Lisbon increased the openness and transparency of EU decision-making, in particular through provisions on public access to some areas of the Council"s work and by publishing the results on the Council"s website. It has been a long road to achieving greater transparency and it is now possible, through various means, to follow the decision-making process from a draft legislative proposal to the vote on its adoption.

Several factors fall within this commitment to transparency, in particular:

  • the Council broadcasts live press conferences, public meetings and debates, whilst the European Parliament also broadcasts its sessions and committee meetings live via the Parliament"s audiovisual service. The European Commission also has an online audiovisual service, with webcasts of the daily press briefing which takes place at midday, during which commissioners and spokespeople update journalists of the Commission"s current work ;
  • several databases are available to interested members of the public to allow them to monitor institutional procedures such as Pre-lex, for monitoring the main stages of the decision-making process and to consult relevant documents, or OEIL, the database of the European Parliament. OEIL is a collection of all documentation relating to legislative proposals and initiatives dealt with by the Parliament and which allows their progress to be tracked throughout the decision-making process ;
  • the results of the Council"s voting on legislative acts is recorded and the Council portal makes it possible to consult the results of previous votes, whilst all the recorded results of voting in the European Parliament are available on the European Parliament portal.
  • Updated 16-06-2015