Understanding EU Policy-making

by Sebastian Baciu and Viola Raffaeli

EU Decision-Making

Out of all international organisations, the EU is considered to have some of the most extensive climate protection laws, and it is regarded as a regional and global leader in environmental protection [1]. Nonetheless, the process of EU decision-making can be notoriously overwhelming for citizens to engage with the process, or to appreciate it. It takes place at multiple levels, and involves several bodies and representatives from twenty-seven countries. In short, the EU is often regarded as complex precisely because of its inclusivity, its long history of evolving bureaucracy and flexibility, as well as its commitment to reach agreement among all stakeholders [2]. To properly understand how policy-making works, it is necessary to first understand the role which is played by each of the EU institutions.

The road to policy implementation involves several stages. The first institution which plays a role in EU policy-making is the European Commission. This body is made up of 33 Directorate Generals, known as DGs, each focussing on specific areas, such as health or the environment. Action by the Commission is overseen by a College of 27 Commissioners (one from each Member State), who are nominated by their national governments and approved by the European Parliament [3].

The Commission launches public consultations with the aim of gathering recommendations and suggestions from other EU institutions, NGOs, local authorities and representatives of industry and civil society [4]. Based on this input, Commission experts make proposals for new laws and prepare ‘impact assessments’  that evaluate the potential economic, social and environmental consequences that a new initiative may have [5].

Then the Parliament and the European Council come into play. The parliament is composed of 705 members, who are directly elected by citizens from all Member States during the EU elections. These elections happen once every five years, making the parliament the most representative body [6]. The European Council comprises all EU heads of states and coordinates the efforts to reach compromises between the 27 Member States as all decisions need to be unanimous [3]. EU laws must be approved by both institutions responsible for reviewing and amending the Commission’s proposals.

What complicates the process is that both institutions need to agree on all new amendments originating from both sides. This process is known as ‘codecision’. If they successfully agree, then the Commission’s proposals can go through a second reading and eventually be adopted. If they don’t agree on any amendments, then progress is stunted. The Parliament can declare the proposal void, and the procedure comes to an end. Alternatively, a conciliation committee is set up and tries to overcome the legislative blockade. It is important to note that both the European Council and the Parliament can block the legislative proposal [3]. 

There is a fourth European institution that, although not directly involved in the policy-making process, deserves an honourable mention, and that is the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). The CJEU is responsible for the interpretation of EU law, thereby ensuring that EU law is applied homogeneously across the Member States. The CJEU is also responsible for settling legal disputes between EU institutions regarding the policy-making process itself; for example when one institution — often the European Parliament — claims that it should have been involved in the process [7].

EU Environmental Policy

From a legal perspective, the EU is allowed to act in all areas of environmental policy. Yet in reality, its scope for action is limited; by the principle of national sovereignty and the need for unanimous voting in the Council in key fields for environmental action, such as town and country planning or energy sources [1]. 

The origins of the EU’s environmental policy go back to the Single European Act of 1987, yet the environment became an official policy area with the Treaty of Maastricht (1993), which also introduced the codecision procedure and made majority voting in the Council as a general norm (in practice, unanimity is required for the majority of policy areas) [9]. Another important step was established by the Treaty of Amsterdam (1999) which introduced the duty to design all EU sectoral policies with environmental protection in mind so as to promote sustainable development [9]. More recently, the Treaty of Lisbon (2009) emphasised the need for combating climate change as an important objective of EU policies [9].

[1] Selin, H. VanDeveer, D, Stacy. EU Environmental Policy Making and Implementation: Changing Processes and Mixed Outcomes. Paper presented at the 14th Biennial Conference of the European Union Studies Association, Boston, Massachusetts, March 2015. Available at: https://eustudies.org/conference/papers/download/79 
[2] The EU is extraordinarily complex. But do we want to simplify it? LSE, available at: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/brexit/2017/10/20/the-eu-is-extraordinarily-complex-but-do-we-want-to-simplify-it/ [Last accessed on 25.09.2021]
[3] European Commission. How the Commission Is Organised. Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/info/about-european-commission/organisational-structure/how-commission-organised_en [Last accessed 07.09 2021]
[4] Åse Gornitzka & Ulf Sverdrup (2011) Access of Experts: Information and EU Decision-making, West European Politics, 34:1, 48-70, DOI: 10.1080/01402382.2011.523544 
[5] European Commission. How EU decisions are made. Available at: https://europa.eu/european-union/law/decision-making/procedures_en [Last assessed 25.09.2021]
[6] European Parliament. Members of the European Parliament. Available at: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/meps/en/home [Last accessed 07.09 2021]
[7]  European Union. Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). Available at: https://europa.eu/european-union/about-eu/institutions-bodies/court-justice_en#composition [Last accessed 07.09 2021]
[8] EUR-Lex. The Action for Annulment. Available at: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=LEGISSUM%3Aai0038 [Last accessed 07.09 2021]
[9] European Parliament. Environment policy: general principles and basic framework.Available at: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/factsheets/en/sheet/71/environment-policy-general-principles-and-basic-framework [Last accessed 28.09.2021]
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