Frequently Asked Questions
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How is the EU governed?
The EU is a union of Member States in which the power and influence of every country transcend national boundaries or interests to share in decision-making and vote on issues concerning the collective body. The EU is governed by the principle of representative democracy, with citizens directly represented at EU level in the European Parliament and Member States represented in the European Council and the Council of the EU.
On what basis are laws adopted in the EU?
Decision-making in the EU is based on a set of fundamental values. All laws adopted by the EU follow the principles of human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and human rights. These values are laid out in the Lisbon Treaty and enshrined in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.
The Treaties specify those policy areas in which the EU can take decisions and adopt laws. EU competence refers to the ability of the EU to take a decision on a specific matter.
There are three categories of competence in the EU:
- Exclusive competence: decisions are taken between the Member States only at EU level, such as on monetary policy and the customs union.
- Shared competence: priority is given to EU legislation over domestic law. When there are no EU laws on a particular subject, Member States can legislate within the national institutions. Policy areas where shared competence applies includes the environment, agriculture, and research.
- No competence: the EU cannot legislate in an area which is not conferred to it in the treaties.
The EU can support, and even join, initiatives by the Member States in areas such as research, culture, tourism and humanitarian aid.
Who takes decisions in the EU?
Decision-making in the EU is generally done through a co-decision-making procedure, where both the European Parliament and the Council of the EU must agree on the final text of a proposed legal act before it is adopted. This is known as the Ordinary Legislative Procedure (OLP).
What are the main EU institutions? What are their roles?
There are three main EU institutions involved in the decision-making process:
- The European Commission
The executive branch of the EU, the one which puts forward laws and takes care of administration.
The European Commission is responsible for proposing new laws, overseeing their implementation, making sure that the EU treaties are being adhered to and takes care of the administration of the EU.
The European Commission is made up of 27 Commissioners, one from each Member State. Each Commissioner has a specific portfolio and the President of the European Commission (Ursula von der Leyen) oversees the administration of the Commission.
- European Parliament
The legislative branch of the EU, the one which represents EU citizens in its discussion and approvals of proposed laws
The EP reviews and votes on laws proposed by the European Commission. It is a co-legislator with the Council of the EU in the decision-making process. Both European Parliament and Council of the EU need to agree on the final text of the law.
Its members (referred to as MEPs) are directly elected by EU citizens and together they form different political groups. MEPs gather in different committees (22 in all) in order to discuss and reach a common position on specific legislative proposals. The president of the European Parliament is David Sassoli.
- Council of the European Union
The Council of the EU is a decision-maker (just as the European Parliament) representing Member States’ governments and discusses and approves proposed laws.
The Council represents the governments of the EU Member States. Together with the European Parliament, it serves to amend and approve proposed laws. The Council meets in 10 different formations, each tackling a specific subject-area. Responsible Ministers from all Member States meet in their respective formations. During these meetings, proposed laws are discussed and either approved or amended. The European Parliament and the Council of the EU may also decide to reject a proposal.
The Council is presided by a different EU Member State every six months. This is called a rotating presidency. During its presidency, the Member State chairs meetings and ensures continuity in the Council’s work.
Apart from the three institutions involved in the decision-making process, there is also the European Council, which is made up of the Heads of State or Government of the EU Member States. Its main task is to set the EU’s political agenda and provide political and strategic direction to the EU. It meets four times a year and is chaired by the President of the European Council (Charles Michel).
The Council of Europe is not an EU institution.
What are the different types of legal acts in the EU?
There are a number of different legal instruments, which serve different purposes and are applied in different ways. The following are examples of the most common legal acts:
A directive sets out a goal for EU Member State to achieve. The Member State may decide how this goal is achieved during the transposition phase. Transposition is a procedure by which a Member State implements an EU directive in its national legislation. This is generally done over a period of 2 years from the adoption of the EU directive. However, each directive specifies the date by which the national laws must be adapted.
Member States are required to fully implement the act as is. A regulation automatically applies to all Member States and there is no need to be introduced into national law. In fact national laws are sometimes changed to avoid conflict with EU regulations.
Decisions are addressed to specific parties such as Member States, national authorities, groups of people and individuals. Decisions only bind the parties to whom they are addressed. Through its decisions, the EU can confer rights to a third party as well as stop a particular activity.
Recommendations have no binding force and are usually issued by the European Commission in preparation for future legislation.
European Commission Communications: even though these communications are not laws, however they are important statements of EU policy on given subjects (not laws). These communications are typically addressed by the European Commission to the co-legislators (European Parliament and Council of the EU). They are typically used to communicate policy initiatives which would be undertaken in the European Commission.
What is the main procedure used to adopt laws in the EU?
The Ordinary legislative procedure (OLP) is the most common way for the legislators of the EU (European Parliament and Council of the EU) to reach an agreement on the final text of a proposed law. It takes the following steps:
- The European Commission submits a proposal for a law
- The European Parliament and Council of the EU start discussing the proposal separately. This is called the first reading
- The Council may adopt a political agreement prior to the European Parliament’s first reading position. known as a general approach. This can speed up the OLP and facilitate an agreement between two institutions as it gives the European Parliament an indication of the council’s position prior to their first reading opinion. The Council of the EU’s final position, however, cannot be adopted until the European Parliament has delivered its own first reading opinion
- The Council may also adopt a partial general approach. This occurs when an agreement is reached between Member States on specific parts of legislative proposal but is unable to fully agree on other aspects. This also helps to speed up the OLP while giving Council of the EU the opportunity to discuss further.
- During the first reading, the European Parliament and Council of the EU can either approve or amend the proposal respectively. They both need to reach an agreement on the final text
- A second reading takes place if an agreement between the 2 institutions is not yet reached. During this reading both institutions can put forward new amendments.
- If they still cannot reach an agreement, both institutions enter negotiations, where the European Commission is also involved to provide its opinion. This is referred to as trilogue negotiations.
The OLP is the way in which most laws are adopted by EU institutions, however there are cases where certain proposals must be agreed upon by all Member States. Unanimity within the Council of the EU is required in the following policy areas: taxation, social security or social protection, the accession of new countries to the EU, foreign and common defence policy and operational police cooperation between EU countries.
What is the role of civil society in the EU’s decision-making process?
Civil society is vital to the EU’s decision-making process. Civil society organisations have crucial on-the-ground experience which is vital to ensure that the EU’s decisions are taken with the best interests of different sectors in mind. Their feedback and opinions are crucial for a more transparent and efficient policy-making process.
In fact, the EU provides various opportunities to citizens and civil society organisations to have their say on new laws being proposed as well as existing ones. By participating in online public consultations and other feedback mechanisms launched by the European Commission, citizens and civil society can provide their feedback, ideas, concerns to the EU’s initiatives.
MEUSAC is also here to facilitate this dialogue by gathering the feedback of Maltese civil society on an array of EU policies. The aim of this consultative exercise is to ensure that, as much as possible, Malta’s position on various EU laws and policies has considered the Maltese civil society’s feedback.
What happens when a law in the EU is breached?
EU law is breached when, for example, an EU Member State fails to transpose (implement) EU directives into national law. In this case, the European Commission may take legal action against the Member State by launching a formal infringement procedure. The procedure takes a number of steps, laid out in the EU treaties which may lead to the European Commission referring the issue to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU).
The CJEU’s role is to interpret EU law and makes sure that this is applied the same way across all EU Member States. It is also the institution which settles legal disputes between Member States and EU Institutions.
Before referring the matter to the CJEU, the European Commission notifies the Member State about its findings and sends a formal request to the Member State to comply with EU law. If the Member State does not prove its compliance, the EC can then refer the case to the CJEU. Financial penalties can be imposed on the Member State if it is found guilty of breaching EU law by the CJEU. However, most infringement cases are solved before the matter is referred to the court.