The European Union is a complex entity in which sovereignty is shared among the competent EU institutions and the Member States. The EU has its own institutional system in which decisions are taken in all areas of responsibility conferred by the relevant Treaties.
Decision-making at European Union level is the result of interaction between various parties, in particular the 'institutional triangle' formed by the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union and the European Commission. There are however exceptions to this rule, for instance regarding matters in which the Court of Auditors, the Economic and Social Committee, the Committee of the Regions, the European Central Bank or the Economic and Financial Committee also intervene. In certain areas, the Council has sole responsibility for making decisions. This is particularly true for the EU's common foreign and security policy as well as for police and judicial cooperation in criminal cases.
The starting point for the decision-making process is usually a proposal coming from the European Commission, which is the motive power behind Europe's institutional machinery. The other institutions (Parliament and the Council) may also recommend that the Commission make specific proposals. After a proposal has been made, it is usually examined by the two institutions sharing legislative power. The Council and the European Parliament are responsible for the final approval and adoption of acts in the majority of cases.
The EC Treaty provides for a variety of procedures in which the Council and the Parliament play different roles:
Consultation or Single Reading
This procedure requires the Council to consult the European Parliament and take its views into account. However, the Council is not bound by Parliament's position, being obliged only to consult it. In this procedure, which was the most frequently used in the early years of the European Community, the balance of power rested with the Council. However, the Parliament has extended its authority in recent years and the use of this procedure is becoming increasingly less frequent.
The cooperation procedure (Article 252 of the EC Treaty) was introduced by virtue of the Single European Act.. It gave Parliament greater influence in the legislative process by allowing it two readings of Commission proposals. The cooperation procedure was used extensively in the implementation of the single market. The Maastricht Treaty further widened its application, although the Amsterdam Treaty subsequently reduced its scope in favour of the codecision procedure. Since the entry into force of the Amsterdam Treaty, the cooperation procedure has applied only to certain aspects of Economic and Monetary Union.
The codecision procedure was introduced by the Treaty on European Union (Maastricht Treaty, 1992) and is governed by Article 251 of the Treaty establishing the European Community. The procedure gives Parliament the power to adopt instruments jointly with the Council.
The Treaty of Amsterdam (1997) further widened the scope of application of the codecision procedure, while also making it simpler and more comprehensible by placing the Council and Parliament on an equal footing. The Nice Treaty (which has not yet come into force) permits the use of the codecision procedure in the majority of cases.
The assent procedure, whereby the Council must secure Parliament's agreement before certain important decisions can be taken, was introduced by the Single European Act. This procedure is required for the accession of new Member States and certain international agreements.
The Treaty of Amsterdam further extended its application to cases in which sanctions are imposed on a Member State for a serious and persistent breach of fundamental rights.
Decision-making in the Council
The majority of decisions are taken at this level. Decision-making within the Council is a somewhat complicated process. Depending on the policy issue, the Council may take decisions by simple majority, qualified majority or unanimously.
When not otherwise indicated by the Treaty, the Council takes its decisions by simple majority vote. In practice, however, this is rarely the case except in matters of procedure and similar issues.
Qualified majorities are the most frequently used procedure. Each of the member states is assigned a specific number of votes determined in accordance with a weighting that takes into account population, the size of the economy, political influence and other factors. At present, it is necessary to obtain at least 62 out of a total 87 votes in order to obtain approval for a decision. Votes are currently assigned as follows:
10 votes Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom
8 votes Spain
5 votes Belgium, Greece, the Netherlands and Portugal
4 votes Sweden, Austria
3 votes Denmark, Finland, Ireland
2 votes Luxembourg
The qualified majority system is used in matters relating to the single market, competition policy, agriculture, transportation and the environment.
Certain other decisions in matters of taxation, social security, etc. must be taken unanimously. Unanimity is also required in order to make any changes to a Commission proposal. The use of unanimity involves the possibility of a veto, which significantly slows the decision-making process.
The various amendments to the Treaties have gradually increased the scope for the use of qualified majorities. The Nice Treaty extends this system still further, while at the same time modifying the weightings for the votes assigned in the Council in view of the anticipated enlargement. This has led to the introduction of a new system of qualified majorities.
In accordance with a Declaration annexed to the Nice Treaty, a common position has been established by the member States in accession conferences with regard to the votes to be conferred upon each of the candidate countries as and when they join the Union. The distribution of votes is as follows:
29 votes Germany, United Kingdom, France, Italy
27 votes Spain, Poland
14 votes Romania
13 votes Netherlands
12 votes Greece, Czech Republic, Belgium, Hungary, Portugal
10 votes Sweden, Bulgaria, Austria
7 votes Slovakia, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Lithuania
4 votes Latvia, Slovenia, Estonia, Cyprus, Luxembourg
3 votes Malta
The final type of decision-making - unanimity - applies only in a limited, albeit critical, number of issues such as defence/security and enlargement.