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Law-making

September 26, 2016

In the European Union several bodies share responsibility for adopting legislation. The main legislators are the European Parliament and the Council, whereas it is up to the European Commission to initiate new legislation.

A student standing in front of a bookshelf in a library and taking a book of the shelf.

To execute its functions, the European Union (EU) adopts legal acts. These EU legal acts can take the form of a regulation, directive, decision, recommendation or opinion:

  • All parts of a regulation are binding for Member States and directly applicable, i.e. it is not necessary to transpose them into national law before they take effect in the Member States.
  • In the case of directives, only their objective is binding for the Member States. Unlike regulations, directives must be transposed into national law by the Member States.
  • All parts of a decision are binding.
  • Recommendations and opinions are not binding.

All three bodies - the European Commission, the Council and the European Parliament - are involved in the adoption of legal acts such as regulations, directives and decisions. In the area of labour and social affairs, the ordinary legislative procedure (Article 294 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, TFEU for short) is commonly used. In the area of social policy, the European Union and the Member States share competences (Article 4 (2) TFEU). The responsibilities of the EU are limited to supporting and complementing the activities of the Member States in the fields laid down in Article 153 TFEU. However, here it is worth mentioning that the European term social policy is broader than the German Sozialpolitik.

It is the prerogative of the European Commission to propose new legal acts. In the field of labour and social affairs it is usually the Directorate General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion which performs this task. Under the ordinary legislative procedure, the European Commission transmits its proposal for a new legal act to the European Parliament and the Council. The Members of the European Parliament are directly elected by EU citizens. In the European Parliament, the European Commission’s proposals in the area of labour and social affairs are discussed by the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs (EMPL). The Council is composed of the representatives of the Member States. The Council initially discusses proposals in the council working parties (e.g. in the working party on social questions) where representatives of the national ministries or of the permanent representations of the Member States negotiate on behalf of their countries. The Committee of Permanent Representatives of the governments of the Member States of the European Union (Coreper) then discusses the proposal with a view to reaching an agreement or compromises which are then presented to the Council for adoption. The Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council (EPSCO) takes the final decision on the proposal.

Under the ordinary legislative procedure there can be up to three readings in the European Parliament and the Council before a decision on the adoption of a legal act is reached. When the European Parliament and the Council do not succeed in arriving at a joint draft, the adoption of a legal act has failed.

Throughout the entire procedure it is possible to hold informal trilogue negotiations. Trilogue negotiations are attended by representatives of the European Parliament and the Council Presidency with the European Commission serving as a mediator. The goal of the trilogues is to reach compromises at an early stage before the adoption of positions by the parties and to conclude the legislative procedure as swiftly as possible.

When adopting legal acts in the areas of social security, the social protection of workers, the protection of workers against dismissal, co-determination and the working conditions of third-country nationals, a special legislative procedure applies. Under this special procedure, the Council takes a unanimous decision after having consulted the European Parliament. However, at the proposal of the European Commission and after having consulted the European Parliament, the Council can reach a unanimous decision to apply the ordinary legislative procedure in these areas, too.

Here you can access adopted European legislative acts.