With all the chat about a certain referendum in Scotland, it’s been easy to forget there’s another major* election quite soon, for the European Parliament on May 22nd. I thought it would be worth sharing how the EU makes laws, if only to clarify what exactly it is we are voting for.
Making EU Law is no straightforward process, but I’ve tried my best to simplify and explain it here. I’m happy to make any corrections if required, and hopefully any other Euro-geeks out there will enjoy!
The European Council (not the Council of the European Union- more on them in a second- or the non-EU council of Europe, the EU doesn’t seem to be very good at finding unique names for its institutions) is made up of the heads of state or heads of government of each country and can informally be thought of as the EU’s head of state.
The European Parliament (the Parliament) is a 766-member entity, elected by the people of the EU under varying methods (which I’ll discuss in a later post). For example, the UK is split up into constituencies, but Germany is one big constituency with an electorate of 80 million. The number of MEPs a country gets depends on its population, ranging from 99 (Germany) to 6 (Malta, Estonia, Cyprus, Luxembourg). Many parties elected combine with parties with similar ideologies from across the continent called Political Groups. The current largest is the European People’s Party (EPP), a centre right grouping which has no UK members, but does contain Ireland’s Fine Gael. It is the largest, but not a majority. Some parties, such as UKIP and the DUP, aren’t members of a political group and are known as Non-Inscrits. You may not serve in the European Parliament and your national parliament at the same time. It’s the only body directly elected by EU citizens, which is a bone of contention for some.
The European Commission (which I will refer to from now on as The Commission) is a body composed of 28 members- one from each EU state. Their first duty is to the EU and not their home state, and their role is similar to that of the UK cabinet in that they are the ones who propose legislation.
It is formed when the European Council puts forward a potential President. The Parliament approves or rejects this choice, and if successful, the President and the European Council jointly appoint the other members of the Commission (commissioners), and again, these are subject to a vote in Parliament.
The Council of the European Union (which I will call The Council – if I refer to the European Council, I will use its full name) is a 28-member body, again one from each member state whose members change according to the nature of the law being discussed. Each seat is filled by the member of the country’s government responsible for this area- for example, law relating to fiscal policy will mean that the UK Chancellor attends, while law relating to internal security will require the Home Secretary.
Making the law
I’ve put this bit in italics so you know where to skip to, but it is quite interesting. The idea is that national governments (the Council) and the people (Parliament) should have an equal say in the creation of legislation.
The Commission proposes legislation, and the Parliament debates it and votes on it. If the Parliament rejects it, the law is effectively dead. If not, the Parliament will adopt a position on the proposed law, that is, it will decide on how they want to word it. The law is then passed on to the council. If it likes what Parliament has said, then the law passes. Otherwise, the council may change the wording and send it back to Parliament. If Parliament approves or doesn’t take action, then the law passes. Otherwise, they may re-word it and pass it back to the council.
If the Council still doesn’t approve, a special committee is formed between Council and Parliament members to come up with a joint text. If it can’t, then the law fails. If it does, then the law will pass if a majority of both entities approves it.
All this is done under the watching eye of the European Commission, which looks at the wording of laws at each stage. If, when wording is changed, the Commission doesn’t like it, it lets the Council know. When this happens, the Council’s decision must be unanimous before the law can pass.
When the law passes, national governments are required to adopt it, unless they have agreed a specific opt-out.
So…what are we voting for then?
A good question. In this process, the Parliament does not propose the legislation, it merely responds to it. In essence what’s going on is we are electing someone to answer the question “How would you respond if I asked you…” on your behalf and to negotiate with the Council in your best interests. This isn’t quite the same as a UK General Election where you are indirectly electing the Government (who asks these questions) as well.
However, even a small say is better than no say, is it not?
Next time, I’ll cover the voting process. By the way, if you’ve ever played Football Manager, you’ll already have encountered the world of EU legislation!
*major as in “national”. Turnouts for EU elections generally indicate the public sees them as anything but “major”.