The process by which EU Law is passed is somewhat different to that in the UK. It is based on a method of co-decision between the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, which represents the governments of the member states.

Legislation can only be proposed by the European Commission, though sometimes it does this at the request of the European Parliament, as Chris Davies (Liberal Democrat MEP for North West England 1999–2014) said “Here I started to have an impact from day one [as opposed to a lack of influence as an opposition MP in Westminster], and there has not been a month since when words I tabled did not end up in legislation.”

The procedure at first may seem complex, but it is relatively simple to understand if you’re willing to give it a chance!

A diagram of how EU law is passed
A Diagram of how EU Law is Passed

A law starts in the European Commission, either acting of its own will, or at the request of the Parliament or the Council of Ministers. Whilst drafting the proposal, the Commission will work with relevant Parliamentary Committees (made up of MEPs from different countries focussing on one particular area of laws), which can propose amendments and produce reports relating to the proposal to help guide the Commissioners making the proposals.

The resulting proposal is then passed to the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, the Parliament deliberates first and adopts its position on the matter — sending this onto the Council. If the Council agrees with the position, then the law is adopted; if, however, the Council disagrees then it must submit its own position back to the Parliament with explanations — again, if the Parliament agrees then the law is adopted, if not then one of two scenarios occur:

  1. A majority of MEPs (i.e. 50%+1) can outright reject the proposal and the law is defeated entirely.
  2. The Parliament can adopt a new position based on further amendments to the Council’s most recent proposal.

The first scenario kills the proposal and that’s the end. The second results in the Council needing to agree to the Parliament’s position — if the two bodies disagree once more, then the proposal is taken to what is called a Conciliation Committee, made up of an equal number of Council members and MEPs. This Committee has six weeks to agree a compromise — failure to do so results in the failure of the proposal — if a common position is agreed, then the proposal is put back to Parliament and the Council for a vote. This is the final time the proposal will be considered, a failure in either body and the law has failed.

One complication to the procedure is that the voting system used in the Parliament is different to the one used in the Council. Countries are allocated seats in the Parliament proportionally based on population, but in the Council each country is represented by one member which changes depending on the matter at hand — George Osborne, for example, would represent the UK if an economic proposal is being discussed. The Parliament can approve or defeat a text based on a simple majority, that is to say 50%+1 of voting members.

The Council uses something called Qualified Majority Voting, this means that the proposal needs to be backed by 55% of countries, which represent at least 65% of the EU population in order to pass. If neither of those two conditions are met, then a proposal can be blocked if four or more countries vote against it (14% of the current 28 members) — regardless of  their population. 

Certain areas still require a unanimous vote, including membership negotiations and approval, the EU budget, and citizenship rights.