+44 (0)20 7799 6677

EU lawmaking

PDF version

Writing and passing laws in the EU involves the cooperation of the European Commission with the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament to both write and pass new laws.  How these institutions work together in forming legislation depends upon the type of legislation being passed.

Overall System
The overall direction of European law-making is set by the European Council, made up of national heads of government, which meets four times a year to agree the EU’s long-term goals. They set guidelines for the Commission to follow and also pass powers to the Commission to act on policies including the single market, social policy, asylum policy, the Common Agricultural and Fisheries policies, Justice and Home Affairs and Foreign and Security Policy. EU law is divided into ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ legislation. The treaties (primary legislation) establish the goals and basic rules for all EU action. The Commission can propose two types of laws (secondary legislation): directives and regulations which follow the rules and goals of the treaties. Directives are laws designed to achieve a particular result such as equal opportunities for men and women in work. Although these laws are binding on member states, they may be incorporated into national legislation by whatever method the member state wishes. Regulations are rules applying to all EU members and are immediately enforceable and override any national laws on the same subject. Regulations often involve setting standard procedures for industry to follow, such as food labelling regulations.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ensures that that existing EU law is followed correctly and also has the power to review new legislation to ensure that it is legal under existing EU law. The Commission or member states can take legal action against another member state government if they feel laws are not enacted properly.

Passing New Laws
Only the Commission has the ability to propose new laws. Before proposing new initiatives, the Commission prepares ‘Impact Assessments’ which assess the potential economic, social and environmental consequences they may have. They also consult with non-governmental organisations, local authorities, and representatives of industry and civil society. Citizens, businesses and organisations can also participate in this consultation procedure via the public consultations website.

Drafting EU laws can take anywhere between 12-18 months. The European Parliament and the Council of the European Union then examine the proposals and suggest amendments before voting on whether the law should pass. There are several ways in which the Parliament and Council can examine laws:

Ordinary Legislation – The most common method is ordinary legislative procedure, where the Council and Parliament must both agree on the wording of the legislation.  After the first reading of the legislation by both bodies, the Parliament can propose amendments.  The Council then accepts, rejects or makes further amendments to the bill. If Parliament does not accept this, then the Commission can either withdraw the legislation or a ‘Conciliation Committee’ is convened between the Parliament and Council to try to adopt a joint text that they both agree on. If this is successful within a six week deadline, the law is passed, if not, it is rejected.

Special Legislation – This is used in some sensitive policy areas. Under the special legislative procedures, the Council of the EU is in practice the sole legislator but must either consult or obtain the consent from the European Parliament depending on the case. The objective is to simplify the EU’s decision-making process by making it clearer and more effective. The EU’s annual budget is adopted under a special legislative procedure.

Member states have an absolute right of veto on certain important issues. National governments can also raise objections to EU laws up to eight weeks after they are first proposed. If one third raises an objection – a yellow card – the proposal must be reviewed by the Commission who can decide whether to amend or maintain it. If a majority raises an objection– an orange card – the proposal is reviewed but should the Commission decide to maintain the proposal without amendments, the Council or European Parliament can strike it down immediately.


In theory, all EU laws should be binding on all member states but countries can sometimes negotiate to opt out of a particular piece of legislation. This means the member state concerned is granted a derogation from the law. These usually only last for a limited period and are designed to allow countries extra time to adapt to a particularly controversial new law. Rarely an opt-out can be permanent due to an internal state of emergency.

Implementing New Laws

Once legislation has been passed into law, it needs to be implemented. ‘Comitology’ is the process by which EU law is modified or adjusted and takes place within committees chaired by a Commission official. Comitology committees consist of representatives from each EU member state and act as a centre for discussion on implementing measures and as a communication channel between the Commission and the member states’ national authorities.

Publication of Laws

EU regulations, directives and decisions are published in the Official Journal.  Amendments to EU legislation are usually published in new and separate regulations and directives.  Consolidated texts, i.e. the complete version of a basic legal act and all its subsequent amendments, are available on the European Commission’s Eur-lex website.