How laws are made

There are 3 main institutions involved in EU legislation:

  • the European Parliament, which represents the EU’s citizens and is directly elected by them
  • the Council of the European Union, which represents the governments of the individual member countries. The Presidency of the Council is shared by the member states on a rotating basis.
  • the European Commission, which represents the interests of the Union as a whole.

Together, these three institutions produce ‘Ordinary Legislative Procedure‘ which are the policies and laws that apply throughout the EU. In principle, the Commission proposes new laws, and the Parliament and Council adopt them. The Commission and the 28 member countries then implement them, and the Commission ensures that the laws are properly applied and implemented.

Two other institutions play vital roles:

The powers and responsibilities of all of these institutions are laid down in the Treaties, which are the foundation of everything the EU does. They also lay down the rules and procedures that the EU institutions must follow and are agreed by the presidents and/or prime ministers of all the EU countries, and ratified by their parliaments.

EU Treaties

The European Union is based on the rule of law. This means that every action taken by the EU is founded on treaties that have been approved voluntarily and democratically by all EU member countries.

The Treaty of Lisbon increased the number of policy areas where ‘Ordinary Legislative Procedure’ is used. The European Parliament also has more power to block a proposal if it disagrees with the Council.

Regulations, Directives and other acts

The aims set out in the EU treaties are achieved by several types of legal act. These legislative acts include regulations, directives, recommendations and opinions. Some are binding, others are not. Some apply to all EU countries, others to just a few.

Application of EU law

EU law – which has equal force with national law – confers rights and obligations on the authorities in each member country, as well as individuals and businesses. The authorities in each member country are responsible for implementing EU legislation in national law and enforcing it correctly, and they must guarantee citizens’ rights under these laws.

EU legislation and case-law

EU legislation takes the form of:

  • Treaties establishing the European Union and governing the way it works
  • EU regulations, directives and decisions – with a direct or indirect effect on EU member states.
  • EU case-law is made up of judgments from the European Union’s Court of Justice, which interprets EU legislation.


The processes by which decisions are reached in the Parliament often vary depending on the type of legislation or other decisions being made. Much of the work which influences the final decision taken by the Parliament on a piece of proposed legislation takes place at an informal level, outside the formal Committee meetings and plenary sessions. This includes, for example, lobbying by the public, businesses and other organisations, and meetings with representatives from the Commission, Council or Presidency and bodies such as the Economic and Social Committee.

Within the Parliament, ‘Rapporteurs’ will discuss their report with their colleagues and advisers within political groupings, and there is a considerable amount of negotiating which goes on with MEPs of other political groups in order to try and get as much support as possible for the report.

If a committee report is adopted by the Parliament it then passes to the Council for consideration. What happens at this stage depends on the procedure the proposal falls under.

The number of times a piece of legislation in preparation goes back and forth between players, from the time of the initial proposal to its final adoption as a piece of EU legislation, varies according to the procedure.

Parliament often has to deal with the same proposal twice, as there is frequently a ‘Second Reading’ (if it is co-decision procedure), after the Parliament’s decision the first time round has been considered by the Council and Commission.

How much influence the Parliament’s own decision on a particular proposal has on the final piece of legislation varies – it is just one of a number of institutions involved in forming legislation.

A lot of bargaining and give and take goes on between the different institutions involved. On some matters the Parliament’s opinion must be taken into account, and the legislation cannot be passed without Parliament’s agreement. While on others, the Parliament gives its opinion but this does not have to be taken into account by the Council, which has the final say. This is called the consultation procedure.

It is in the Parliament’s interests that as much as possible is based on co-decision procedure, where its powers are strongest, and as little as possible is based on the consultation procedure, where its powers are weakest.

The procedure a legislative proposal falls under depends, broadly speaking, on its subject area. Since 1997, more EU legislation is subject to co-decision procedure, but agricultural, justice and home affairs, trade, fiscal harmonisation and EMU issues are still not.

More Information: How EU decisions are made