European Parliament
in action
Highlights 1999-2004

Parliament - an overview
Elections to the EP
How the Parliament works
and other procedures
Budgetary powers
Budgetary control
Democratic oversight
Statute of Members and
of European political parties
Temporary committees
and committees of inquiry
Other EU institutions
Reform of the EU
Citizens' rights
Justice and home affairs
External relations
Environment /
Consumer protection
Transport / Regional policy
Agriculture / Fisheries
and monetary policy
Employment and social policy / Women's rights
Internal market / Industry / Energy / Research

EPP-ED PSE Group ELDR GUE/NGL The Greens| European Free Alliance UEN EDD/PDE

A fully-fledged law-making body

What does the European Parliament do? As in any democracy, it monitors the executive and the use of public funds and passes laws. Initially, however, its role within the Community was rather different. The Assembly, as the European Parliament was then called, was merely 'consulted' on legislative matters, and its opinion was not binding. Law-making was the preserve of the governments, meeting together as the Council of Ministers. Yet over time, as successive treaties have come into force, MEPs have acquired greater legislative clout. In many policy areas Parliament is now a joint legislator on equal terms with the Council, under the codecision procedure.

The 1957 Treaty of Rome made the legislative process an arrangement with two players, of which it was said 'the Commission proposes, the Council disposes'. An assembly of indirectly elected members met, but had virtually no influence over Community legislation. Nowadays, the power of legislative initiative remains the preserve of the European Commission, but the Council and Parliament may make a formal request to it to submit a legislative proposal. More importantly, Parliament may now substantially amend the content of draft EU legislation. The codecision procedure, which places the Council and Parliament on an equal footing, was first introduced by the 1992 Maastricht Treaty in fifteen areas (including the internal market, research, the environment, consumer policy, education and health).

The Treaties of Amsterdam and Nice have increased the number of areas subject to the codecision procedure, so that codecison now covers some forty or so EU policy areas. The number of players involved has now increased from two to three: the Commission still proposes, but now both the Council and Parliament dispose, and they do so in areas that directly affect the daily lives of Europe's citizens.

This move towards a parliamentary democracy will continue. The Convention on the Future of Europe would like to see the codecision procedure applied to no less than 80 areas, in which the Council for its part would take decisions by majority vote: these include asylum, immigration, border controls, judicial cooperation in criminal matters, police cooperation, culture and civil protection. Only issues affecting the constitutional order of the Member States or sensitive areas such as taxation and some areas of social policy, together with foreign and defence policy, would be exempt from this arrangement.

A user's guide to the codecision procedure

As the body responsible for ensuring that the Treaties are implemented and that common policies and the internal market function smoothly, the European Commission draws up all legislative proposals, which it submits to Parliament and the Council.

Once the Commission proposal has been considered in committee, Parliament begins by adopting its opinion at first reading by a simple majority of the votes cast in plenary. In most instances it introduces amendments to the proposal. The Commission then decides whether to approve them, in full or in part, and submits an amended proposal to the Council.

If the Council approves the amendments by qualified majority (except in areas where a unanimous vote is required, such as culture, freedom of movement and social security) the proposal is adopted. Otherwise it adopts a 'common position' at first reading. Once the Council's common position has been forwarded to Parliament, MEPs have three months in which to take a decision on it.

At second reading an absolute majority of MEPs (314 of the 626 elected Members in the case of the outgoing Parliament) is required to adopt the text, either amended or unamended.

If Parliament expressly approves the common position (or fails to take a decision within the three-month deadline), the act is adopted immediately. Conversely, if Parliament rejects the common position the procedure stops immediately and the act is not adopted.

In most cases, however, Parliament adopts amendments to the common position, which are then put to the Commission for its opinion, and the matter returns to the Council in the form of an amended Commission proposal. At this stage the Council votes by qualified majority on Parliament's amendments, though it needs a unanimous vote on those amendments which have obtained the Commission's negative opinion. The act is adopted if the Council approves all Parliament's amendments no later than three months after receiving them.

By contrast, if the Council does not approve Parliament's amendments the conciliation procedure must be set in motion. A specific conciliation committee is formed for each piece of legislation, made up of equal numbers of representatives from both sides, i.e. 15 representatives or members of the Council and 15 Members of the European Parliament, who always include a vice-president of Parliament, the rapporteur and the chairman of the parliamentary committee concerned. The Commission attends the discussions to try and mediate between the two sides. Generally the conciliation committee manages to reach agreement and drafts what is known as a 'joint text', which is referred to the full Council and the full Parliament for approval. At this third-reading stage the Council takes its decision by qualified majority vote and Parliament by a majority of the votes cast. The act is adopted if the Council and Parliament approve the joint text. However, if either of the institutions has not approved it by the deadline, the procedure stops and the act is not adopted.

Since the Treaty of Amsterdam entered into force in May 1999, a few weeks before the current legislative term began, almost 300 pieces of legislation have been dealt with under the codecision procedure. A successful conclusion has been reached on a quarter of them at first reading and on more than half of them at second reading. A little under a quarter of the dossiers have gone to conciliation; this number is decreasing as greater use is made of informal contacts and 'trialogues' between the three institutions to reach a compromise prior to the conciliation stage. On three occasions to date, agreements reached in conciliation have been rejected by Parliament's plenary: those on the patentability of biotechnological inventions (March 1995), takeover bids (July 2001) and the liberalisation of port services (November 2003). The Commission subsequently drafted a new directive on takeover bids which better reflected Parliament's wishes (see our note on Financial Services).

Other procedures

The consultation procedure, widely used in the early days of the Community, now applies only to 'sensitive' areas on which the Council must reach a unanimous decision (including taxation issues, industrial policy and regional planning) and to two areas in which a qualified majority is required in the Council (agricultural policy and competition). Here, Parliament cannot prevent the Council from adopting the proposed legislation, nor can it force through any amendments. However, the Commission may decide to take account of Parliament's views in an amended proposal, which the Council in turn can only amend by a unanimous vote.

The cooperation procedure was introduced by the Single Act in 1987 to give Parliament's opinions more clout; however, the Council still had the last word. Here, if Parliament rejects the Council's common position the Council can only adopt the legislation unanimously. This procedure has all but disappeared as use of the codecision procedure has become more widespread and now applies only to a limited number of decisions in the field of economic and monetary union.

The assent procedure, introduced by the Single European Act, requires the Council to obtain Parliament's assent to the accession of new Member States and the conclusion of association agreements with non-EU countries. Parliament may accept or reject a proposal but may not amend it. It takes its decisions by an absolute majority of its members. The Maastricht Treaty extended the assent procedure to cover the uniform electoral law for the European Parliament, freedom of movement and right of residence, and regulations concerning the Structural Funds and the Cohesion Fund. Under the Treaty of Amsterdam Parliament's assent is also required for sanctions imposed on an EU Member State for a serious and persistent breach of fundamental rights.

Conciliation committee



  Publishing deadline: 2 April 2004