The Parliament’s Role
The EU cannot legislate in areas which are purely of national concern. This includes areas such as education, housing, income tax and national health services.
Areas covered by EU legislation include consumer protection, environmental standards, subsidies for economic development, competition policy, safety standards and some aspects of employment law.
EU legislation is normally adopted jointly by the European Parliament and the Council, which is composed of ministers from national governments of each of the 28 Member States. Both Parliament and Council hold two readings of draft legislation and if, by then, they have not agreed on the same text, a conciliation committee negotiates a compromise, which must then be approved by Parliament and Council.
This detailed scrutiny ensures that European legislation is acceptable both to the representatives of national governments and to MEPs whom the electorate has directly chosen to represent them – democratic accountability.
The European Commission
Initial proposals for EU legislation are researched and then proposed by the European Commission. It is composed of 28 individuals, proposed by each EU national government and approved by the European Parliament.
The Commission holds office for five years, subject to Parliament’s continuing approval. It can be dismissed by Parliament during its term of office.
Part of an MEP’s job is to keep tabs on the Commission and on the civil servants working under the authority of the Commission. Contrary to what the tabloids would have you believe, the total number of civil servants working for the Commission is fewer than work for a medium-sized city council.
However, they must be held accountable so Commissioners and their staff regularly appear before European Parliamentary committees to be questioned, to explain what they are up to and to be cross-examined.
The Council of the European Union (often referred to as the Council of Ministers or simply The Council)
In the Council, government ministers from each EU country meet to discuss, amend and adopt laws. Ministers have the authority to commit their governments to the actions agreed on in the meetings. Together with the European Parliament, the Council is the main decision-making body of the EU.
It should not be confused with the European Council – which is a quarterly summit attended by EU leaders to decide the general direction of EU policy making – or the Council of Europe, which is not an EU body at all.
The Council’s role is to negotiate and adopt EU laws, together with the Parliament based on the initial proposals from the Commission. The Council also adopts the annual EU budget in partnership with the Parliament.
How the legislative process works
A Member of the European Parliament, working in one of the parliamentary committees, will write a report on a proposal for a legislative text presented by the European Commission which is the only institution empowered to initiate legislation.
The relevant parliamentary committees then vote on the report and in most cases vote on amendments to it from the various political groups.
When the text has been revised and adopted in plenary, Parliament has then formally adopted its position. This process can then be repeated based on whether an agreement can be reached with the Council who are co-legislators.
On certain issues (such as taxation) the European Parliament gives only an advisory opinion known as a consultation.
The Parliament also has the power of political initiative which means it can ask the Commission to present legislative proposals for laws to the Council. It plays a genuine role in creating new laws, since it examines the Commission’s annual programme of work and says which laws it would like to see introduced.