Influencing Policy-Making in Europe

The Policy Lunchbox network was today joined by Sirini Withana, Policy Analyst at the Institute of European Environmental Policy. Sirini led a fascinating discussion to explain the structures and processes of policy-making in the European Union. The EU has grown from a loose organisation of six Member States in the 1950’s, established to deal with economic issues, to a coalition of 27 Member States which now generates over 80% of the UK’s environmental policies.

Sirini began by outlining the three main structures of the European Union: the European Commission; the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union.

The European Commission
The European Commission is essentially the ‘civil service’ of the EU, politically independent and in charge of initiating European community policy. The Commission comprises the ‘College of Commissioners’ and ‘Commission’s Services’. Within the College each Member State is represented by one Commissioner, appointed for a five-year term. The UK Commissioner is Lady Catherine Ashton, also HIgh Representative of Foreign Affairs. The Commission’s Services is the permanent apolitical administration for the the Commission, charged with preparing policy proposals. The Commission’s Services is organised into Directorates, such as DG Environment and DG Research. Within DG Research, the Joint Research Centre provides scientific and technical advice to the Directorates.

The European Parliament
The European Parliament meanwhile is composed of 736 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), directly elected by the electorate in Member States. Of these, 72 MEPs are from the UK. Each MEP has a five-year term of office. MEPs organise themselves into political groups within the Parliament, of which there are currently seven, with the European People’s Party (EPP), a centre-right group, currently the largest and most powerful.

The European Parliament shares the power to make laws and control over the EU budget with the Council of the European Union.

Legislation proceeds through the work of specialist Parliamentary Committees, of which there are 20. Once a proposal has been put forward by the Commission, a lead Committee is identified to take this forward, with an MEP from this Committee appointed to act as a ‘rapporteur’, leading the work on this area of legislation by the Committee. Once the Committee has considered the proposal and collated information a report will be presented and voted on at a plenary session of all MEPs.

The Council of the European Union
As already mentioned above, the Council of the European Union passes legislation and has control of the EU budget, jointly with the European Parliament. The Council meets in nine different ‘formations’, one of which is the ‘European Council’, which represents Member States’ interests and comprises the Heads of State of each EU member country. The current (first) President of the European Council is Herman Van Rompuy. The Presidency (Chair) of the other eight ‘formations’ of the Council of the European Union rotates between Member States, once every six months.

Decision-Making: European Parliament and Council of the European Union
Decision-making usually occurs via a process of ‘Ordinary Legislative Procedure’. The European Commission tables a proposal which is then allocated to one of the nine ‘formations’ of the Council of the European Union. The Parliament and Council then take it in turns to consider the proposal and issue a formal opinion upon it. If both bodies disagree at this stage, a ‘second reading’ of the proposal takes place. If there is still no agreement after this stage a ‘Concilliation Committee’ is formed. If after the process of Concilliation the two parties still do not agree the proposal is dropped.

The UK feeds into this process through the UK Permanent Representation to the EU (UKRep), which receives its negotiating mandate from the UK Government.

Following this very useful overview, Sirini offered a few tips for how best to influence policy-making in the EU:

– Keep track of upcoming developments: review the annual strategy and work programme for the EU, one launched in March and the other in the autumn each year;
– Influence the development of proposals: identify the desk officer working on a particular proposal and engage with them; respond to open consultations;
– Exercise influence during the legislative process: engage with the rapporteur (MEP) leading the development of legislation for a particular Parliamentary Committee and engage too with other MEPs on that Committee. Many will not be specialists in the area they are reviewing and will welcome input;
– Influence the UK Government, thereby influencing the negotiating position put forward by UKRep.

Overall, Sirini encouraged us to ‘stay ahead of the game’, influencing policy at the earliest opportunity. Identifying and building relationships with key people in Brussels, including through receptions and events, is important, as is providing clear, concise and evidence-based input. Being clear about the steps in the EU decision-making process will help organisations to target their input in the most effective way.

Policy Lunchbox is a network for policy professionals maintained by the Biochemical Society and British Ecological Society. For details of forthcoming events please see the Policy Lunchbox webpage on the Biochemical Society website.