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European Union Law: EU Decision-Making

An introductory guide to the law of the European Union

EU Decision-Making Resources

Here are some of the resources on decision-making in the EU available through the UIUC Library system. Search the catalog for additional resources.

The Scope of the EU's Decision-Making Authority

The scope of the EU's decision-making authority is limited to those policy areas (or "competences" in EU parlance) that have been expressly delegated to the EU by the Member States.  This delegation of authority is outlined in Part I, Title I, of the consolidated Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.  The Member States retain the authority to legislate and regulate on policy matters that are not expressly delegated to the EU by treaty.

In some policy areas, the EU has exclusive competence, meaning that the Member States have delegated all of their lawmaking authority to the EU.  Other policy matters constitute areas of shared competence between the EU and the Member States.  In some areas of shared competence, the Member States may legislate only to the extent that the EU has refrained from legislating.  In other areas of shared competence, the EU may only supplement legislation enacted by the Member States.  

An important corollary to the concept of shared competences is the principle of subsidiarity, which holds that the EU should refrain from acting when an objective can be accomplished more efficiently by the individual Member States or their political subdivisions.

The following table highlights some of the EU's areas of exclusive and shared competence.  Consult Part I, Title I, of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union for a complete inventory of exclusive and shared competences.

EU Has Exclusive Competence
  • Customs & International Trade
  • Competition Law (Antitrust)
  • Monetary Policy (only for Member States that have adopted the Euro)
Shared Competence -- EU Action Preempts Member State Action
  • Agricultural Policy
  • Environmental Policy
  • Internal Market (free movement of goods, services, labor & capital)
  • Transportation Policy
Shared Competence -- EU May Only Supplement Member State Action
  • Education Policy
  • Economic Policy
  • Employment Policy
  • Foreign, Security & Defense Policy
  • Health Policy

The Legislative Process

The legislative process in the EU is unusual in that the right to initiate legislation belongs not to the legislature, but to a separate institution, the European Commission.  Although the Commission often introduces legislation at the request of the legislature or the Member States, the Commission gets to determine what form the legislation will take.

With the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, most EU legislation is now subject to the Ordinary Legislative Procedure, under which the Commission submits a proposal to both the Parliament and the EU Council.  The Parliament takes the initiative in amending the proposal.  If the Council accepts the Parliament's amendments, the legislation is enacted.  If the Council rejects the Parliament's amendments, it may then submit its own amendments.  If the Parliament takes no action, the legislation is adopted on the Council's terms.  If the Parliament rejects the Council's wording, a conciliation committee may be appointed to hammer out a compromise.  

The EU's foundational treaties also provide for a variety of "special legislative procedures," including the the Consent Procedure and the Consultation Procedure that allow the Council to enact legislation with substantially less input from the Parliament.  In some cases, the Council may bypass the Parliament entirely and enact legislation in consultation with the Commission.  There are even a few circumstances where the Commission can enact legislation on its own without consulting either chamber of the legislature. 

A more detailed discussion of the EU's legislative process can be found in the Guide to EU Decision-Making, written by Professor Steven Peers of the University of Essex, and in The ABC of European Union Law, written by Professor Klaus-Dieter Borchardt of the University of Wurzburg.

Voting Procedures Within the EU Council

To further complicate matters, voting on legislation in the EU Council usually requires more than just a simple majority to pass.  Historically, decisions made by the Council had to be unanimous.  As the EU evolved, a system of super-majority voting gradually replaced unanimity for most types of decisions.  Under the current system, votes within Council are weighted roughly in proportion to each Member State's population. 

Most decisions now require a "qualified majority" to be approved by the Council.  A qualified majority is achieved if both of the following conditions are met:  1) a majority of the Member States (sometimes a two-thirds majority, depending on the issue) vote in favor of the measure, and 2) at least 260 weighted votes are cast in favor of the measure.  The website of the EU Council includes a handy Voting Calculator that can be used to simulate qualified majority voting scenarios.

Member State No. of Votes
France, Germany, Italy, United Kingdom                                                          29        
Poland, Spain            27     
Romania            14
Netherlands            13
Belgium, Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Portugal            12
Austria, Bulgaria, Sweden            10
Croatia, Denmark, Ireland, Lithuania, Slovakia, Finland              7
Cyprus, Estonia, Latvia, Luxembourg, Slovenia              4
Malta              3
Total          352

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