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Main actors

1. Working together

Power-sharing in the EU

Member states of the European Union are sovereign states that have decided to pool their sovereignty in some key areas of government. These are areas in which joint operation on a European level is in the interest of the member states. The EU is not, however, a federal state. It is a unique system that has been constantly evolving during its history of over 50 years.

The Union has a legislative and an executive arm and an independent judiciary, supported by a number of other institutions, much like any government.

The three institutions of the EU responsible for making policy and taking decisions are the Council of the European Union (representing national governments), the European Commission (a body representing the collective European interest) and the European Parliament (representing the people).

The powers of the EU institutions are defined in the founding treaties. These have been negotiated by member states and then ratified individually in each country. The original treaty, the Treaty of Rome founded the European Economic Community in 1958. The Maastricht Treaty of 1992 created the European Union and developed it from a purely economic-based union into a more political construction. The other treaties, the Single European Act (1987), the Treaty of Amsterdam (1999) and the Treaty of Nice (2003) all added something significant to the Union, its role and functions.

The next step was set to be the creation of a constitution for the EU, bringing together all the previous treaties and streamlining the enlarged Union’s decision-making and foreign policy, among other things. On 29 October 2004, the heads of state or government and the foreign ministers of 25 member states and three candidate countries, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey, met in Rome to sign the Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe. The ratification process of the treaty, however, ran into difficulties, when French and Dutch citizens rejected it in referendums in 2005. The fate of the constitution was actively discussed during the German presidency in 2007. At the European Council held in June, 2007, in Brussels, the 27 heads of state and governments agreed on the outlines of the new Reform Treaty to replace the rejected Constitution. The final text of the Treaty was approved during the informal European Council in Lisbon on 17-18 October, 2007. The official signing ceremony took place in Lisbon on 13 December 2007. It was hoped that after ratification in the member states, the Reform Treaty would be in force by the time of the European parliamentary elections in June 2009. Most member states started to deal with the ratification in national parliaments. However, Ireland was the only EU country to require that the Lisbon Treaty be ratified through a nationwide referendum. In the June 2008 referendum, Ireland rejected the Treaty, throwing the EU institutional deal into doubt.

However, in December 2008, the French EU presidency negotiated a deal to address the concerns of Irish voters, as set out by the Taoiseach (Prime Minister). These included the potential loss of an Irish Commissioner (under a plan to cut the overall number to 15), an extension of EU tax powers, changes to the Common Security and Defence Policy (which could affect its long-term neutrality), and perceived threats to the right to life, education and family (including abortion).

Lisbon Innovations

Ireland held a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty on 2 October 2009, voting yes by a majority of two to one, with a turnout of 59 per cent. After a decade of talks, two incarnations, and three negative but not fatal referenda, the Lisbon Treaty entered into force on 1 December 2009.

This brings several major changes to how EU institutions work together. The co-decision procedure (see below) now covers most EU policy areas. The Council must now agree almost all EU legislation, including the EU budget, with the Parliament.

Most Council decisions are now made by qualified majority decision. From November 2014, this will be redefined as a double majority: i.e. at least 15 countries, comprising at least 65 per cent of the EU’s population. A blocking minority must include at least four EU countries.

Another change is the public right to petition, also known as the ‘European Citizens’ Initiative’. A million citizens representing ‘a significant number’ of EU states can now ask the Commission to bring forward any ‘appropriate proposal’ on the functioning of the EU.

Decision-making process

The European Commission is the only EU institution that can initiate legislation. However, before doing this it must consult with interest groups and experts to ensure that the Union’s citizens are being properly served. It meets regularly with committees of experts from national governments and their agencies, and also meets with European-level representative organisations from a wide range of sectors, including industry, public services, trade unions, consumer groups, regional organisations and NGOs. Many of these groups maintain a presence in Brussels to lobby the Commission, as they know that the best time to influence new legislation is before it becomes an official proposal.

Once the Commission has adopted a proposal for new legislation, this is then submitted to the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. They may either accept it as it is, propose amendments or throw it out altogether (though this is rare). In many cases, the Commission also consults the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions, the two ‘official’ EU advisory bodies, whose opinions are entirely non-binding.

Co-decision procedure: The most common procedure for adopting EU legislation is known as ‘co-decision’, whereby the Council and Parliament share law-making power. First the Parliament then the Council carries out a first reading of legislation proposed by the Commission. If the position of both institutions is identical, the legislation is adopted directly. There are no time limits at this stage, so the Council may not complete its first reading for months or even years after the Commission makes its proposal.

If there are differences of opinion, the proposal returns to the Parliament, then the Council, for a second reading. From here on, time limits are applied to the process. If at any stage both positions coincide, the legislation is adopted. Where differences remain, a combined ‘conciliation committee’ tries to agree upon a joint text which must then be confirmed separately by both institutions. The Commission participates throughout. If no joint text can be agreed, or if the joint text is rejected, no legislation will be adopted.

Council aims to reach consensus, but decisions in many areas can be taken with a ‘qualified majority’ – whereby the number of votes a member state has is roughly proportional to its size. However, unanimity is required in some sensitive fields.

In some cases, where member states have been reluctant to give power to the Parliament, the ‘consultation procedure’ is used. Here, Parliament is only entitled to give its opinion on the legislative proposal – but must be given the opportunity to do so – before the Council adopts legislation. In these cases, the Council is usually required to act unanimously.

In some cases, Parliament is required to give a simple ‘yes-no answer’. Known as the ‘assent procedure’, this is used, for example, to confirm the members of the Commission, or to approve an agreement signed with a non-member country.

Once adopted: Once EU legislation has been adopted, the Commission is required to make sure it is implemented properly and fully – and within any time limits set – in all member states. The Commission (or member states) may bring actions before the Court of Justice against member states for failure to fulfill their obligations under EU law. The Court’s role is to sort out any differences that may arise between national and European laws, and to ensure that EU legislation is interpreted uniformly throughout the member states.

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