What do the voting, decision making, and legislative processes look like within the EU? (2/4)

The political world is a complex one, and European climate policy is no different. Filled with different committees, voting stages, and legislative packages, there is a lot for any person to unpack. So to help you, the outdoor community, better understand the institutions and processes that determine the fate of our beloved outdoor spaces, we give you “EU Policy 101”. This four-part series narrows down the playing field, offering some fundamental basics towards understanding EU climate policy. We hope you will tune in and learn a little more about the politics shaping our natural world’s future. After all, you can’t solve the problem until you ask the right question.

Last week, the first instalment of our EU Climate Policy series, covered four major European Union legislative institutions; the European Commission, the European Parliament, the European Council, and the Council of the European Union. While each has a distinct function in the EU’s system of institutional balances, they still need to work together in order to create, pass, and enforce climate legislation. Of course, many other institutions exist to help this process.So, in this second post, we dive deeper into how the EU’s voting, decision-making, and legislative processes look.

Who Plans and Proposes New Laws or Policies?

The European Commission is responsible for the planning, preparing, and proposing of new European legislation. Legislation means the creation and circulation of (new) laws. We call this the “right of initiative” However, the Commission accepts direct suggestions for action from a variety of sources, including:

– the European Council (heads of state or government of each EU country)
– the Council of the European Union (government ministers from each EU country)
– the European Parliament (whose members directly elected by EU citizens)
– EU citizens

Once legislation is on the table, the Commission must make a political commitment to deliver on a certain number of items within a given year. Items under focus must go through a “call for evidence” process. This process describes the problems, objectives, requirements for action, policy options, and strategy. Ultimately, items must be of proven importance based on whether:

– They are a politically sensitive and/or essential new law or policy
– They are evaluating an existing law or policy
– They reference an existing bundle of related laws and/or policies

Remember, anyone interested in or affected by, an existing or proposed law or policy can share their views by sending in comments or position papers. This includes everyday European citizens, just like you! Find current initiatives and policies where you can have your say here

Who Are These Proposals Sent To?

Once the European Commission has written up a potential law or policy, it is time for step two: The “co-decision” procedure. Although, in more recent years, the process has come to be called “the community method“. This is the forwarding of a proposal to the EU Parliament and the Council of the EU for a joint decision. For the rest of this blog post, we will refer to the Council of the EU simply as “the Council.”

How Are Proposals Accepted or Denied?

At the first reading, Parliament will collectively decide on a position (by simple majority)  and then pass it on to the Council. It is adopted if the Council agrees (by qualified majority) with Parliament’s position and the official wording of the law or policy. If the Council disagrees, they will adopt their own position and pass it back to Parliament, explaining the rejection. At this point, the EU Commission will also inform Parliament of their position for input and perspective. 

At the second reading, the law or policy is automatically adopted if Parliament approves (by simple majority*) the Council’s updated text or fails to agree. Parliament has two other options:

#1. If they reject the Council’s text, the law or policy has failed. An absolute majority** of MEPs are needed for this.

#2. If they modify the text, the law or policy will be returned to the Council for a second review. These amendments also require an absolute majority of MEPs. At this stage, the Commission gives its opinion again – this time to the Council. If this opinion includes rejected amendments, the Council must vote unanimously*** rather than by majority. It is adopted if the Council approves this second text within three months. 

If the Council does not approve this second text, a specially selected committee, known as the “Conciliation Committee”, draws up a joint text based on the two positions. The proposal has failed if this committee cannot agree on a common text within six weeks. If this committee approves the text, the Council and Parliament (acting by majority) have a third reading to approve the text. If either fails to do so, the proposal is not adopted.

This back and forth process is the ordinary legislative procedure for most proposals. Negotiations and discussions between the Council, the Parliament, and the Commission are referred to as “trilogues”. For a visual overview of the legislative process, check out this cool visual provided by the European Parliament!

Who Enforces Newly Accepted Proposals?

Having now agreed on a new proposal, the Council and Parliament will first adopt the new text before all EU member states must adopt and apply the new text. After that, the Commission is responsible for monitoring whether EU laws are applied correctly and on time by the member states. Here, the Commission’s role is known as the “guardian of the treaties.”

Even so, the Council or the Parliament still has some power here; they can authorise the Commission to adopt non-legislative acts to ensure laws are appropriately implemented or updated to reflect developments in a particular sector. 

Feel free to read more about how the Commission ensures the correct implementation of EU law or how the legislative process of evaluating and updating laws works.


Next Week…

Ok, so we know how the EU’s legislature is structured and how the voting process goes for new proposals. But where does the EU currently stand on climate policy, and what is the European Green Deal? Tune in next week to find out!

* A proposal adopted by simple majority is approved if the number of “yes” votes are higher than the number of “no” votes.

** An absolute majority is the majority of all members of the European Parliament (including those absent or not voting). In its present configuration with 751 MEPs, the threshold for an absolute majority is 376 votes.

*** Under unanimous voting, abstention does not prevent a decision from being taken.