European Union Decision Making


The European Union (EU) decision making process is quite a complex perform which involves more than one institution most of the times. The European council, the European parliament, and the European commission’s are the key players within this key complex and multi-party process.

More than the past five decades the European Parliament (EP) has motivated from being a mainly consultative assembly to being a genuine co-legislature. The growth in the European Parliament’s powers was accompanied by a revaluation of its Standing Committees.

The European Parliament (EP) is now generally seen as a co-legislator with the Council is a comparatively new development. It did not enjoy any effective rights of participation in the legislative process for more than three decades. As an assembly it started out with only two key powers: the supremacy to pass a motion of censure against the High Authority and the power to be consulted by the Council on selected legislative proposals. The opinions given in this traditional consultation procedure were non-binding.

The Single European Act (SEA) 1987 represented a key step promote for the EP. It manifest the inauguration of a new triangular relationship between the Council, the Commission and the EP by introducing the co-operation procedure, which significantly enhanced inter-institutional dialogue, giving the EP the first opportunity to loosen its legislative power and to make use of its agenda-setting powers.

The positive experiences structure of the co-operation procedure, the EP’s legislative competencies were extended by the Treaty on European Union (TEU) commonly known as the Maastricht Treaty, 1993. Through the co-decision procedures beginning the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) were, granted the power of veto in several policy areas, for the first time.

The EP’s role considerably strengthened by the Treaty of Amsterdam (1999), especially as regards its involvement in the legislative process. The procedure of co-decision has been extended from 15 to 38 Treaty areas or types of Community action and now applies to new areas within the fields of transport, environment, energy, development co-operation and certain aspects of social affairs. A new element in the Amsterdam Treaty is the reform of the co-decision procedure. Most significantly, a legislative act can now be adopted at the first reading if either the EP fails to suggest amendments to the Commission proposal or the Council agrees to the changes suggested by the EP.

The EP’s powers were accompanied by a revaluation of the EP Standing Committees. In the EU policy-making process they have become a key element and can be seen as a very important contribution to the determining of legislation.

Operating Mode

The EP Standing Committees have been described as the “legislative backbone” of the EP (Westlake 1994, p. 191). Under the proficiency of these committees everything that could possibly be dealt with by the EP, which officially examine only questions referred by the Bureau. The proposals in the practical political process, incoming legislative directly go to the responsible committee or committees.

EP committees Development

By 1953, committees have played a vital role within the EP from its setting up: seven committees had already installed by the Common Assembly. In 1979, after the direct elections, 16 standing committees were established. By the year of 1999 their number gradually increased to 20. At that point there was a growing feeling, however, that the number of committees should be reviewed with the main objective of distributing the new legislative obligations resulting from the Amsterdam Treaty more evenly (Corbett; Jacobs; Shackleton 2000, p. 105)

The number of EP Standing Committees was subsequently reduced from 20 to 17 after the June 1999 elections. They each cover a particular area or policy field of the EU’s activities and now have been reshuffled for the purpose of: (Christine Neuhold, 2001)

  • merging issue clusters (external economic relations has been merged with “industry and research and the Committee on Regional Policy now deals with policies concerning transport and tourism),
  • emphasizing new priorities (e.g. equal opportunities now has a more prominent role in the Committee on Women’s Rights and the same is true for human rights in the Committee on Foreign Affairs),
    ensuring greater committee oversight.

The EP’s committee structure does not correspond to any particular model. The Foreign Affairs, Human Rights, CFSP committee is, according to Westlake, clearly modeled on its equivalent in the United States Senate, but has far fewer powers (Westlake 1994, p. 135).

Key players in committees

We usually found that committee proceedings are to a large size formed by key players in the committee: committee chairmen, vice-chairs and rapporteurs, generally whose role is well known, and also draftsmen of opinion, shadow rapporteurs and committee co-ordinators.

The chairmen and three vice-chairmen are its formal officeholders within each committee. When sensitive votes are held in plenary, the chairman presides over the meetings of the committee and can contribute considerably to shaping legislation. The function of the vice-chairmen is generally to stand in for the chairman when he/she is not available. Once a committee has decided to draw up a report or an opinion it nominates a rapporteur (when the committee bears primary responsibility) or a draftsman (when it has to give an opinion for another committee) (Corbett, Jacobs, Shackleton 2000, p. 108, 117).

The group co-ordinators play an important role separately from the official officeholders. A co-ordinator selects by each political group who is responsible for allocating tasks to the group members as its main spokesperson. By opposition political group(s), mainly to monitor the work of the rapporteur are appointed the so-called shadow rapporteurs.

By political groups the EP committees are composed on a cross-party basis and the composition process is organized in various ways through procedural rules, and by way of bargaining. Assigning leadership positions within committees is formally based on the d’Hondt procedure, whereby political groups have the choice of which committee they want to chair in an order determined by the size of the group (Christine Neuhold, 2001).  The individual (both full and substitute) members are chosen by the political groups with the aim of ensuring that each committee reflects the overall political balance among the groups in the EP(Christine Neuhold, 2001).

The pivotal role of the committee chairmen, a position that has been described as a “prized office for MEPs” (Hix 1999), can be illustrated by the contrasting examples of two different directives. Even though the committee chairs were heavily lobbied in both cases, especially by industry, the outcome was highly different

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Normally the selection of rapporteurs and draftsmen is decided within the individual committees by a system, which is more or less the same in all committees. Each political group has, according to its size, a quota of points. The group co-ordinators then discuss reports and opinions to be distributed, decide how many points each subject is worth and make bids on behalf of their group, the bids based in theory (but not always in the practical political process) on the relationship between the number of points already used by the group and the original quota (Corbett, Jacobs, Shackleton 2000, p. 117).

Political groups Significance within committees

If committees are the legislative backbone of the EP, the political parties are its “lifeblood” or the “institutional cement pasting together the different units of the Parliament” (Williams 1995, p. 395). Each party group in the EP represents a very “heterogeneous collection of established groups and temporary alliances” (Raunio 2000, p. 242). For the legislative period of 1999-2004 eight political groups are represented in the EP (and a number of non-aligned members). In the elections of June 1999 the PES lost more than 30 seats while the EPP-ED gained 52 and now holds (with 233 seats) a 53-seat majority over the PES. It must be pointed out, however, that these two large political groups together hold more than 66 % of all EP seats. In comparison the European Liberal Democratic and Reformist Group (ELDR), which is the third strongest party within the EP, has only 50 members, i.e. 8 % of the seats (EU Committee of the American Chamber of Commerce in Belgium 1999, p. 13).

Political groups have their own staff, in which the total number of employees to which a group is entitled, is linked to the group’s size and based on the number of languages used in the group. (Christine Neuhold, 2001). Within the larger groups between two to three staff members observe and follow the work done by each committee, whereas one official might be responsible for observing the work of three or four committees in smaller groups (Raunio 2000). A variety of functions perform within the groups by the staff. One very main aspect is to follow and to prepare the committee proceedings and to support the rapporteur i.e. the shadow rapporteur in their political work. The existing task this involves varies from committee to committee. For example in the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development the respective administrator is responsible for drawing up voting lists, whereas in the environment committee the Political Group Staff would only bring the voting lists into a readable form. When trying to co-ordinate their positions or exchanging views the rapporteur might in selected cases not negotiate with the shadow rapporteur but with the responsible administrator (Christine Neuhold, 2001).

Expertise and openness significance of committee debates

EP committees can exploit a growing pool of expertise. When it comes to supporting the rapporteur or draftsman of opinion in the performance of their task the EP Committee Secretariat is attributed great importance. The officials help increase the functional capacity of the EP by assisting the individual MEPs and the committees. The committee staff not only provides scientific and technical information, but also gives advice on “political” issues (Christine Neuhold, 2001). Separately from the Committee Secretariat interest groups are another important source of information. For the representation of interests Lobbyists gradually notice the importance of the EP. MEPs act in so far as possible as representatives of the “European people”, however if they are elected by local constituencies. They have to integrate interests with relevance to Europe as a whole and are therefore contacted by actors working within the myriad of networks to be found in the EU system of multi-level governance (Benz 2001, p. 7). Wessels reports that average MEPs have roughly 109 contacts with interest groups from the national and supranational level each year. In total this amounts to some 67,000 contacts and interest groups annually (Wessels 1999, p. 109).

A remarkable improvement in the EP’s activities is a great increase in the organization of public hearings by the committees. These hearings can serve up numerous purposes: they can facilitate the identification of or familiarization with a particular issue, assist a committee in the scrutiny of draft legislation, and facilitate identification of preferences. A remarkable example is the drinking water directive: a public hearing, involving a wide range of experts and interested parties, was conducted on the revision of this directive. The key conclusion reached was that there is a critical need to evaluate the existing series of directives and decisions on water quality. Consequently of this hearing particular deficits and problems within this context were recognized and methods of reform were proposed.

Relations of EP committees with other EU institutions

The connection between the EP and other institutions on the European level has evolved extensively with the introduction of first the co-operation and later the co-decision procedures. Co-operation marked an end to the old bipolar relationship between Council and Commission and the beginning of a triangular relationship in which the EP’s legislative input was limited at the outset, though it gradually increased later (Westlake 1994, p. 137).

Relations with other institutions throughout the legislative process during co-decision

The introduction of the co-decision procedure by the Treaty of Maastricht has been regarded as a major step forward for the EP and “the cause for parliamentary democracy” at the EU level (Shackleton 2000, p.325). Negotiation between the Council of Ministers and the EP committees has established by the new Treaty provision.

As soon as the Amsterdam Treaty took effect these contacts were intensified, mainly as a result of the possibility of concluding the procedure at first reading. Both institutions have paid close attention to the “Joint declaration on the practical arrangements for the new co-decision procedure” of May 1999, which encourages appropriate contacts with the aim of “bringing the legislative procedure to a conclusion as quickly as possible” (Christine Neuhold, 2001).

Each Council Presidency is in contact with the responsible EP committee, and the respective Minister approaches the committee to present the priorities of the Presidency’s programme and also illustrates the particular achievements at the end of the six-month period.

Even after Amsterdam there are no clear procedural guidelines for the first reading. The most contentious question is how to mandate the representatives of the EP for negotiating with the Council. An additional open question is which members of the Council and EP hierarchy should meet with whom. At the first reading as a means of speeding up the procedure the EP sees the possibility of reaching an agreement, but not something that should be accepted at any cost.

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Within the conciliation procedure a process of exchange has developed where both sides are open to make concessions, but at a price that differs according to each set of negotiations (Shackleton 1999, p. 331). The procedure has evolved significantly since its introduction by the Maastricht Treaty, “where a lot was not written down” and even the basic procedural issues were not always clear.

Considering the problems of conciliation, the so-called trialogue meetings are of great significance during its preparation. These sessions, neither the Treaty nor the EP Rules of Procedure, have been formed to an extent under the motto “necessity is the mother of invention”. They were answer back to the gap left in the Treaty between the Council’s second reading and convention of the conciliation committee.

The Treaty provisions do not require what, should happen after the Council has given its view on the EP’s second-reading amendments and before the delegations meet in the conciliation committee. There were occasional bilateral contacts between Council and EP during the first year and a half after the Maastricht Treaty came into effect, but no structured dialogue. As a result both institutions attempted to find compromises in a room, which could hold over 100 persons. Only in the second half year after the Treaty came into effect was the conclusion finally drawn that this was not an efficient forum for institutional dialogue and that conciliation needed to be prepared by a smaller group (Shackleton 1999, p. 333).

In light of the smaller number of persons taking part in trialogues, namely

  • the vice-president concerned;
  • the chairman of the responsible EP committee;
  • and the rapporteur

At the level of the trialogue and only have to be “rubber-stamped” in conciliation a large percentage controversial issue is already solved. The optimistic function of the trialogue is illustrated by the directive on end of vehicle life. At second reading the EP adopted a total of 32 amendments. In a series of trialogue meetings, compromises were reached regarding a considerable number of amendments

Study conducted on the effect the co-decision procedure has on the EP committees has shown that co-decision has led to a structural concentration of the bulk of the workload on only three out of 20 Permanent Committees. The three committees dealt with the majority of the draft legal acts submitted under co-decision were: (Christine Neuhold, 2001)

  • Committee on the Environment (36.7 %);
  • Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs and Industrial Policy (25.9 %);
  • Committee on Legal Affairs (16.9 %).

As regards the amount of time needed to conclude a co-decision procedure, the analysis reflects that the Committee on the Environment – with the heaviest co-decision burden of all committees – stabilized the amount of time required for adoption. The Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs and Industrial Policy and the Committee on Legal Affairs have even reduced the time needed for the adoption of legislative acts considerably since co-decision was introduced in 1993 (Maurer 1999, p. 29).

Role of EP committees within the implementation process

One more significant issue is the process of implementing legislation. In the system of comitology, EP committees play only a marginal role. Comitology is a short-hand term for the process by which certain powers of implementation are delegated to the Commission. The comitology committees are composed of representatives of Member State governments and as such are not democratically elected (Bradley 1997). Since installation of the first comitology committees, the EP has put forward far-reaching demands as regards its involvement in the comitology system. Translating them into political science terms, they could be summarised in the following manner (Hix 2000):

  1. clear definition of legislative and executive matters so that the executive authority would be strictly responsible for implementing measures;
  2. when implementing acts have been adopted by way of co-decision in the legislative process, the EP should be put on an equal footing with the governments of the Member States;
  3. limitation of the executive powers of the Member State governments (at least to a certain extent);
  4. the right of the EP to examine all draft implementing acts before they are adopted with the implementation timetable;
  5. the right of the EP to veto legislation before it is implemented.

Connection to EU citizens: the problem of accountability and responsibility

The concept of accountability for this study is defined in two ways: primary, to be accountable is seen to be in a position of stewardship and thus to be called to answer questions about one’s activities and administration. This is very much connected to ensuring a certain degree of openness and transparency within the decision making process. Choices and debates have to be broken down in such a way that citizens are able to understand them and have a certain degree of insight into decision-making processes. Second, to be accountable is perceived as being “censurable” or “dismissible” (Bealey 1999, p. 2; Lord 1998).

Because of the fact that they are directly elected, the members of the EP are directly accountable to their electorate. Though, the electoral procedures of the EP are questionable as regards the principle of political equality. Concerning accountability, it is also doubtful whether electors are adequately informed about the EP’s activities, and they seem to have insufficient motivation to monitor the EP by participating in elections: the average turnout of 49 % in the 1999 EP elections speaks for itself(Christine Neuhold, 2001).

The complex EU decision-making procedures are not transparent and sometimes rather difficult to describe and understand, when the process reached by a majority. European parties be unsuccessful to organize dependable factions and the relationships between the EP and other EU institutions, specially the Council, are difficult to comprehend. One of the problems the EP is presently facing is that the EP does not have the authority of a legislature. As a co-legislator together with the Council, it cannot be held accountable for decisions it makes on its own (Benz 2000, p. 16).

Additionally, there is no European government that can be held accountable to the EP. The EP has to give the rights of its vote of approval to the Commission and to the Commission President. By vote of censure, it can also force the entire Commission to resign. The EP hence has the power to vote the Commission out of office.

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Though, it is not the EP but the European Council that selects the President and the members of the Commission. In consequence the composition of the executive is not based on the results of European elections. Changes to the Treaties do not have to be ratified by the EP, nor are members of the EP present at Intergovernmental Conferences held with the aim of Treaty reform (Raunio 2000, p. 231).

By this study it has been reflected, complex forms of inter-institutional bargaining make it difficult to pinpoint what decisions were taken by whom. Main decisions are taken in smaller groups such as the trialogue that permit for the achievement of consensus with other institutional actors such as the Council. However, the conclusion of complex deals obscures who has won or lost on particular issues.

The circumstances is problematical by the fact that MEPs are like members of any national parliament confronted with a fundamental conflict of roles, specifically that of the competent co-legislator versus the representative of the interests of the people who elected him/her. The previous requires expertise and knowledge and complicated negotiations within the committee and with representatives of the EU institutions. The concluding requires stable contact with the EU citizens. The burden of committee work will require more time and effort of MEPs, making it more difficult to tend to the interests of the “potential voter” With the growth in the EP’s legislative tasks.

Concluding notes

The actual authority of the EP is at least partly based on the work of its committees. In shaping EU legislation they play a vital role. This becomes noticeable when taking a final look at what EP committees achieve:

  1. Operation of economization: From an improved familiarity with the subject, EP committees make processing of a growing workload possible and benefit. To cope with its increasing legislative workload, committees play a vital role in the EP’s quest. This improved burden for committees has not led to a slowing down of the decision-making process.
  2. Information acquisition: This improved familiarity of committee members with particular issues leads to improved specialization, thereby increase the confidence of non-committee members in the work of the committee. It has found that the EP committees constitute an important arena for the communication of interests. MEPs can use a rising pool of expertise from members of the Committee Secretariat on the one hand and on the other hand representatives of interests groups or NGOs.
  3. Co-ordination: Committee members are selected on a cross-party basis and through different means: throughout the political groups, procedural rules, and bargaining. The political groups within the EP have found different means to maximize their influence within committees, for instance by appointing shadow rapporteurs and group co-ordinators. Committees however provide an arena for the political groups to deliberate in order to find the necessary majorities, something not possible in plenary sessions.
  4. Input of smaller political groups: committee membership provides a real chance for representatives of smaller political groups in certain instances for example the Greens/EFA to take part in the shaping of legislation, by appointing the rapporteur for example.
  5. Consensus-building: The EP committee construction can give to consensus-building by providing an arena for detailed deliberation, which is not possible in plenary. It has found that divisions in committees are very issue-specific, and it must be noted that the committee lead very often plays an integrative role.
  6. Publicity: Committee meetings are usually open to the public and also the media. Committees permit members and committee chairs in particular to make publicity, at least when controversial topics such as the BSE crisis are on the agenda.

Beyond this categorization, this provides an overview of how EP committees operate rather more normative, conclusions. The Standing Committees and the EP operate in a very different environment than the committees in national parliaments, a key difference being the lack of a European government directly accountable to the EP and the unique forms of decision-making in the multi-level system of European governance. In this process of relations with other EU institutions, remarkably the Council and the Commission, the EP committees play a vital role. The EP’s work environment brings order and structure by the committee-based division of labor.

Committee’s present personnel and structural resources which build up the negotiating position of the EP vis-à-vis the Council, for instance in the co-decision process. Vital players in committees for example group co-ordinators, chairmen and rapporteurs not only contribute to cohesion and coherence within committees, but play a very important role in finding useful solutions to problems, so raising the committee’s output significantly. It has found that key players are often appointed due to their expertise in the particular policy area, which is sometimes gained throughout work within the industry previous to their parliamentary career. This and the fact that they can use a growing pool of expertise enhances their standing vis-à-vis other institutions. It is also found that political actors who have acquired experience with these very specific forms of inter-institutional negotiations are selected to deal with co-decision, thus contributing to the level of trust and coherence, particularly during conciliation. By the negotiations this is illustrated which dealt with the SOCRATES programme, the revision of the directive on open network provisions regarding voice telephony where the rapporteur was re-appointed, and the Fifth Framework Programme.

Committees enlarge accountability of the EP as much as their meetings are usually open to the public and committee documents for instance draft reports are rather freely available. By meeting visiting groups and spending a large part of the working week in their constituencies, i.e. Member States Committee members also try to build up the link to EU citizens. Moreover committees enable effective communication of relevant (citizen) interests to those involved in the process of governance. Contact with lobbyists has normally become part of the daily business of committee members.

In spite of these positive aspects, EP committees can do little to alleviate general structural deficits regarding accountability and legitimacy within the multi-level system, such as the lack of a European government, which is directly accountable to the EP.

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