4. How are laws created and enforced?

Many people view the EU decision making process as very complex; however, it is not that different from many national legislative processes.

Most EU legislation is passed through what is known as the ordinary legislative process (this used to be called co-decision), in which the Commission drafts a proposal, then both Parliament and Council discuss, amend and vote on the proposal through two ‘readings’.

At the end of the process, both Council and Parliament must reach an agreement on the final proposal, which then enters into law on publication in the EU’s ‘Official Journal‘.

Many democracies use a similar approach at national level – a civil service that drafts legislation, two ‘houses’ of parliament (in the UK the House of Commons and the House of Lords), and then some sort of process for the two houses to reach and agreement.

The ordinary legislative process in a bit more detail

The first stage is the Commission publishing a legislative proposal (often after a request from Council). This proposal then goes to the Parliament, initiating the first reading…

The first reading has two key elements:

  • The European Parliament debates the proposal in its committees (most environmental legislation has the Environment Committee as lead committee), amendments are tabled and voted on in committee, then the report passes to the whole parliament, who vote on it (and further amendments) in plenary.
  • Council, the Member States, examines the legislation in detail; most of this discussion happens in a working group of civil servants. Many decisions are made at this technical level, or the levels just above it (e.g. COREPER – made up of Ambassadors), though some may remain to be finalised at the meetings of the relevant ministers. Council will agree a political agreement on the legislation – this may happen before or after the parliament votes. Once the parliament has voted, the political agreement will be converted into a formal Common Position.

If the Council Common Position is different from the Parliament’s vote, then the legislation passes into second reading in order to resolve the differences. If there is no difference – which is rare and only usually happens in very uncontroversial situations – then the legislation will become law.

  • This is called a First Reading agreement.

Second reading will then begin, following a similar pattern to 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. Second reading is a faster process than first reading, as only differences between Parliament and Council positions can be discussed, and various elements are time-limited.

It is possible that Parliament and Council will agree at this stage (a second reading agreement); if they don’t then the Conciliation process will be used to force a compromise.

Once a final text is agreed, and all translations have been done, the legislation will be published in the Official Journal of the European Union. 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.

Secondary legislation

An increasing number of EU laws use secondary legislation – delegated and implementing acts or comitology for detailed implementation (e.g. restricting individual pesticides). These processes are similar to ‘regulations’ in the UK system, for example.

A number of different secondary processes exist, but in all cases the Commission & Member States have much more power than the Parliament. It’s a complex area, with variations in how many Member States must support the Commission proposal for it to become law, and the extent to which the Parliament gets a say. The Commission has an explanatory page on their web site.

How is EU legislation implemented and enforced?

There are two main types of EU legislation:

  • Directives must be incorporated in Member State law – each Directive includes a date by which this implementation must have been completed
  • Regulations are legally binding in all Member States from the date(s) stated within them.

The Commission can take Member States to court and fine them if EU legislation is not implemented. In the most extreme cases, Member States can be subject to a daily fine – this happened to Greece when they were fined for poor waste management on Crete.

Almost all enforcement of EU legislation occurs within the Member States. This leads to complaints about uneven implementation of regulations in different countries, but at the moment there is no sign that Member States wish to give more power to the Commission in this area. A small number of regulations are enforced at EU level, notably competition law, such as antitrust cases.

For more information

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