Who makes the decisions in the EU?


I have become increasingly frustrated that so many people, including journalists and UK politicians, do not seem to know how the EU actually works and who is responsible for making the decisions on legislation. Over and over again I hear that unelected bureaucrats are in charge and people endlessly talk about the democratic deficit. The reason they do that is that they have been fed this misinformation by the majority of the press and media for years.

I thought it was about time to try and put the record straight. Having been both an MP and then an MEP I can genuinely say that I had more power to shape legislation as an MEP than I did as an MP even though I was a front bench spokesperson.

Most legislation in the EU has to be passed by both the MEPs and the Council which are made up of Ministers from each Member State that is why I get so frustrated when people say that unelected bureaucrats make the decisions. They are usually under the misapprehension that the Commission are the ones who actually legislate.

The Commission will draw up legislation either on their own initiative or because enough Member States want it or their has been a citizens’ petition. It will then go to the Committee responsible in the European Parliament, The Council and Member States. The European Parliament can actually reject it right away, accept it as it is or amend it.

When I was on the Employment and Social Affairs Committee of the European Parliament we generally would amend it. That would be done by all parties on the committee and would be voted on first by the committee and then by the full Parliament. The amended legislation would then go to the Ministers from all Member States for their approval or not. If they approved it, it would then become law and would have to be enacted by a certain date.

If they didn’t agree with our proposal it would come back to our committee for us to look at possible further amendments which would then go back to the Council once the committee and full Parliament had voted on it. If they again disagreed with our proposal we would then go into what was called conciliation and a committee would be set up of equal members of the Council and the European Parliament and it could take anything up to six weeks to get agreement. If the Council and Parliament could not agree after this time the legislation would fall. If we reached agreement it would then go back to the Parliament for a final vote and would be formally signed by representatives from both the Parliament and the Council.

At no time during this process did the unelected Commission have any decision making powers, they would act as civil servants helping us to redraft the legislation in line with what the Parliament and Council had agreed.

The Commission then had the task to make sure that the Member States enacted the legislation in the time frame that had been agreed by the Parliament and the Council.

I hope this explains in some way why I get so frustrated when I hear people say that unelected bureaucrats are making the decisions!

* Liz Lynne is former MEP for the West Midlands and is a board member of EEF - the Manufacturers’ Organisation.

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  • To me this confuses elected with democratic. Personally, I believe in the primacy of the Nation state and governments elected by the people to serve the people not in commissions that serve the interests of governments.

  • Phil Beesley 18th Apr '16 - 3:16pm

    If you use toilet detergent Brand X, 99% of germs are allegedly killed and you only have to worry about 1%. Similarly with the EU rule making process, 99% of regulations are quickly sorted out (because they are as harmless or harmful as most household germs). Few of us need to think about EU quality regulations for portable power adapters except for the rare occasions when rules are abused; it is a sensible result for consumers.

    However, the EU’s 1% irritates a lot of people. It is not solely an English or British thing to disagree with EU regulation.

    The Council of the European Union comprises Appointees with a capital A; Liz Lynne proclaims “that is why I get so frustrated when people say that unelected bureaucrats make the decisions”; I suppose that is partly why UK citizens disbelieve politicians.

    Liz Lynne: “… I can genuinely say that I had more power to shape legislation as an MEP than I did as an MP even though I was a front bench spokesperson.”

    Sadly that statement contradicts the concept of subsidiarity, making decisions at the most appropriate level of citizenship. More power?

    I’ll vote Remain as a sceptic.

  • Thank you for this. I too have been frustrated. It is good that someone with the authority of having been involved can explain clearly and concisely.

    The leaders and ministers of the EU states negotiate and make decisions in the European Council and the Councils of Ministers.

    All of these leaders and ministers have democratic legitimacy. If it comes to a vote, these ministers have more voting weight if they represent larger populations. The EU commission, den Här Junker and the other commissioners can only do what the EU leaders and ministers tell them.

    The decisions are scrutinised by and put before the EU parliament, whose representatives are voted for by the electorate. No other international or multinational organisation to which the UK belongs has such democratic structures.

    People need to wake up to the importance of their MEPs and make sure that they hold to account policies that governments have agreed at EU level in the way that they want. Caracatus perhaps overstates it, but there has been an appalling lack of understanding of the importance of MEPs and what they do. As a party we could at least have been behind the nomination of Guy Verhofstadt for Commission President. When I voted Lib Dem, I was also trying to vote for Verhofstadt.

    Glenn, it is the representatives of “governments elected by the people to serve the people” who are instructing the commissions, do try to read the article. Is it the independent scrutiny from MEPs in the Parliament that you object to?

    Comments about unelected elite or undemocratic EU always seem to reduce to outrage that one country does not have a divine right to lord it over the other 27.

  • The Commission are elected politicians anyway. The far left particularly like to bash Cecilia Malmstrom over the TTIP as “unelected”, but she was an elected liberal politician in Sweden.

  • I read the article.

  • Philip UK. I wrote about the ordinary lesislative procedure which is the main way that legislation is passed. There is also the special legislative procedure where the Council of Ministers are able to legislate on their own. Having said that the Council still has to seek consent or consult the Parliament. If they have to get consent, the Parliament cannot amend legislation but they can reject it. When they consult, the Parliament can delay the legislation as the Council are not able to proceed until they receive parliaments position. It is used for things like international agreements. You can find out more on the European Commission website.

  • Leon Duveen 18th Apr '16 - 8:15pm

    The problem is that most of our politicians and our media are wedded to our adversarial political system and don’t understand the consensual approach of European politics. They simply can’t grasp that opposing parties can work together to produce a better result that you get when you have a single party (on less them 35% of the vote) being able to ram any stupidity through Parliament while the “opposition” can only sit and bay it’s indignation.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 18th Apr '16 - 8:19pm

    Good to have a contribution from Liz Lynne, a common sense Liberal Democrat.

    I have to agree with Glenn above ,obviously Liz is correct , but we must recognise that a not particularly democratic tendency can be dominant in an elected body , as it is at times in respect of the EU.

    Bureaucracy is at the top of all organisations .The EU is no worse than others and better than some , such as the NHS or BBC !However there is a desire by too many in charge of the EU that is to control and regulate as an ideology .

    We need more like Liz Lynne !

  • @ Lorenzo Cherin

    It’s so easy to have a throw away line and chuck brickbats at the NHS and the BBC. Before you do just consider the alternatives.

    The BBC is a public service broadcaster with a remit to be impartial and balanced. In my view it is even when there is a comment I may disagree with. The alternative is to have more of the Murdoch and Desmond (both virulent right wingers with no pretension of impartiality and a record of extremely dodgy business practice). They are no friends of liberalism of any hue.

    Equally, do you really want an American health system when so many cannot afford health care ? I, for one, cherish the NHS with all its faults and problems – many of which are down to Conservative policies via Jeremy Hunt and Andrew Lansley. The NHS saved my life five years ago and I will forever be grateful.

    Be careful what you wish for, Lorenzo.

  • Lorenzo CherinSuperb 19th Apr '16 - 12:57am

    David Raw

    I do not criticise the NHS or BBC above in any way warranting your response , but I respect your views but not keen at all on your tone or arguments .

    To start with I alluded to the bureaucratic top heavy nature of all big organisations .You cannot tell us the NHS and BBC are not that !So much expenditure and high salaries are wasted in it .Do you , while we are at it think local council chief executives should be on two hundred thousand while elected councillors are paid part time nothing stipends ?!

    Your history , ideology and experience mean you hold your view point and cannot see that another has its place too, based on much that is as important .

    I work in the creative industries .I believe in public broadcasting .I do not need to have a monopoly that pays huge sums to managers and executives even when they fail miserably , to support the efforts of the creative and the talented .And I do not denigrate the contribution of good journalists or other workers in Sky or other channels because I do not like their shareholders .

    My experience is very different to yours on the NHS , though on the day after the anniversary of the death of my father who received excellent treatment in it , I shall on that issue as well present myself as a constructive critic .My wife , who , incidentally , is of American origin , so I need no lectures on their awful system , was injured in a car accident many years ago , here , in Britain .Because of the poor , negligent at worst and cumbersome at best , system and level of care we have experienced , in a myriad of ways that could have been avoided , she is in pain still!I am glad for you , be careful what you presume , please , David !

  • Lorenzo CherinSuperb 19th Apr '16 - 12:58am

    P. S.

    I did not add the superb above , a technical error ?!

  • Richard Sangster 19th Apr '16 - 8:17am

    We now, at last, name Catherine Bearder as our MEP in ‘FOCUS’ leaflets, a small but essential step.

    I recently had a letter on the subject published in a local paper. It needs others to do the same.

  • Stephen Booth 19th Apr '16 - 9:34am

    Well done Liz. If one thing distinguishes the Lib Dems from the rest it is that we speak truth unto the nation. Labour and Tory constantly distort and lie about issues to gain crude advantage. We see it locally and nationally. In Stevenage, a Labour controlled council claims success in getting a road in a ward resurfaced when the roads are all the responsibility of the Tory controlled county council and the county councillor in that ward is a Lib Dem and has been campaigning and lobbying for years to get the road done! Meanwhile the witless Tory MP seems to think the £3.5m the council gets from car parks can just be cut without impact on services.
    So well done Liz, this is a benchmark article to use on doorsteps and in the press. For far too long we’ve allowed this argument about the EU being undemocratic to fester away.

  • Well the commission is the only body which can decide what is going to be debated and is the originator of every regulation rule and law that is nodded through by the elected M E P’s , none of them are elected to the commission and all of them have to vow allegiance to the eu not their own nations so not a single commissioner represents the nation they were born in. Unfortunately the BBC which receives funding, our money, from the eu, is inherently biased and does not report the true facts about the democratic deficiency which is built in to the eu. Even if you take the eu parliament as having any real influence, with only 8% of the members the UK can be outvoted on the nod through legislation that is never debated in the forum. Basically the corrupt, more money has disappeared in the eu than any other level of government in the world, democratically deficient, we have no real democracy in the eu due to the manner in which it was constructed, eu is not what the people of the UK need or want, we were lied to after we joined it and had a referendum on coming out by Heath which was a trade agreement no one in this nation ever voted for ever closer union or the euro which we didn’t join although our politicians were hell bent on getting us in because the eu imposed ERM almost broke the economy. It is a shame that the lib dems are joining in with Camerons project fear and disinformation policy, they should have realised getting into bed with cameron is bad for the party, as shown by the devastation caused to the parliamentary seats by being in the coalition just after the best return to parliament in a long time.

  • @Phil Beesley: I think when Liz says she had more power as an MEP than as an MP, she is referring to her power as an individual within the Parliament, and the power of the Parliament in relation to the other EU institutions, not (as you have automatically assumed) to the power of the EU institutions over national governments. In the Westminster Parliament, the agenda is pretty much stitched up by the government, and with the strict party discipline and large payroll vote, the outcome of most divisions is a foregone conclusion. Individual MPs have very little power in practice. In the European Parliament, there is no payroll vote (due to separation of powers) and party discipline is much weaker than in our national Parliament. Therefore individual MEPs have much greater autonomy than MPs in our Parliament. By Westminster standards, practically all MEPs are party rebels.

    @Caractacus: Absolutely, and I have been saying for a long time that our European election campaigns should be much more political. focusing on what MEPs actually do. We should talk about what we do there as LIBERALS, and contrast it with the other parties’ records in the European Parliament.

  • Phil Beesley:

    “The Council of the European Union comprises Appointees with a capital A”

    The Council being, of course, the institution formed of representatives from national governments. And of course, government ministers are indeed appointees. Yes, they may be elected (but having government ministers in the elected legislature is a democratic deficit, as it compromises the independence of the legislature through the payroll vote) but not as ministers, only as MPs.
    Or did you mean the Commission? Yes, they are appointed, by elected national governments. So not much different from appointment of government ministers. And the President of the Commission is now selected (in an advisory role) by MEPs. Not that you would have known in this country, because none of the UK election campaigns said anything about it, but voters help elect the EU (Commission) President.

  • Phil Beesley 20th Apr '16 - 5:50pm

    @Alex Macfie
    I meant the Council of the European Union, because that is what Liz Lynne wrote about in her description of law making. Some of the UK representatives are UK ministers from the Lords.

    I appreciate Liz Lynne’s attempt to justify (in a democratic sense) EU processes. I suggest that your request for clarification regarding Council or Commission indicates that governance is as clear as mud.

  • Alex Macfie 21st Apr '16 - 6:17am


    “Even if you take the eu parliament as having any real influence, with only 8% of the members the UK can be outvoted on the nod”

    This … never… happens. MEPs don’t organise as national delegations, and they hardly ever vote en bloc by nationality. They sit and vote in party groups based on ideology, the same as in any other legislature. What usually matters in the European Parliament is whether the centre-left or centre-right wins a vote.

  • Alex Macfie 21st Apr '16 - 7:08pm

    @Phil Beesley: The lack of accountability of our ministers or civil servants in the Council is not an EU problem, it is a UK problem, and one that the UK could solve on its own. Representatives should be approved by the national Parliament, and be accountable to Palriament for their decisions. Each country has its own way of sending representatives to the Council, and in most of them they are much more accountable to the legislature than the UK.

  • Richard Underhill 22nd Apr '16 - 12:06am

    “Have you ever asked the people of Greece?”
    Syriza accepted the deal and won another general election.

  • Richard Underhill

    “Syriza accepted the deal and won another general election.”

    That’s true, but they were rather battered into submission.

  • Thank you for this post, very helpful, I have shared it through Facebook. It is good to have an opinion, and some information, from someone with experience, as there are a lot of half truths floating about. I truly think that after this referendum, if we do vote to stay, a lot more needs to be done about educating British people about the EU.

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