About the EEB

How the EU works

Around 80% of environmental laws in EU countries are made in Brussels, so it's clearly important to understand how the EU works. However, the EU system can be confusing. Below are some explanations to clarify the most important aspects of EU policy making.

Our German member, DNR, have written a guide on how Brussels works; read 'Brussels Basics: How does the EU work?'

European Union (EU):

The EU is currently made up of 28 Member States located in Europe.

We often speak about “Europe” making reference to a political area which, in geographical terms, is only about half of the continent. The EU is often used, then, as the most appropriate term.

The EU is less than a federation of states but more than an inter-governmental body, and its power towards Member States depends on the policy area. The international trade relations are almost centralised, as the EU is an economic and political union, while, for example, social and cultural policies are less centralised.

Concerning environmental policies, there is harmonisation at EU level in areas directly affecting the internal market for goods and services, while there are minimum standards and political agreements in many other areas.

Law and Policy making:

Despite the existence of different procedures for different issues, since the Lisbon Treaty entered into force in December 2009 the predominant procedure for EU lawmaking is the following:

The Commission makes a proposal which needs to be approved by Parliament and the Council together to become law. Those two bodies negotiate a final text while the Commission has some influence in this process in its different phases.

EU environmental law and policy:

The EU works with Directives, Regulations, Decisions and Programmes:

  • Regulations are applied directly at EU level
  • Directives need to be transposed into national laws first. This is why Directives are being used more often, as national legal systems differ and because member states have the right, in most cases, to go beyond the minimum requirements of EU law
  • Decisions are seldom used in the environmental field
  • Programmes are set up for a long term approach.

The Commission also produces Strategies and discussion documents which cannot be amended and only commented upon by other institutions.

European Commission:

The European Commission is the executive body of the EU, and it initiates legislation processes and has the task to ensure compliance once laws are adopted. In our view, the Commission often has insufficient means to monitor compliance in the environmental field.

At the moment the President of the European Commission is Jean-Claude Juncker, the Climate Action and Energy Commissioner is Miguel Arias Cañete and the Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Commissioner is Karmenu Vella.


european Council:

It is composed of the senior political leaders of the Member States which in most cases are Prime Ministers, sometimes Presidents.

It gives the political lead, and it has increasingly become involved in specific issues, such as climate and energy. Since 1 December 2014 the President of the European Council has been Donald Tusk.

The Council of Ministers:

It is one of the two legislative bodies in the EU, the other being the European Parliament. The Council is composed of twenty-eight national ministers (one per state). The exact membership depends upon the topic. For instance, when discussing agricultural policy the Council is formed by the twenty-eight national ministers whose portfolio includes this policy area.

It represents the governments in the decision making process on specific issues. It is chaired by Ministers from the EU Presidency. The Presidency rotates every six months.

The European Parliament:

The European Parliament is directly elected by the EU citizens, through national elections and it is currently composed of 751 MEPs. The European Parliament (EP) is organised in political groups, although some MEPs do not belong to any group. However, political division lines are often affected by different national interests and programmes of the national political parties the MEPs belong to.

EP decisions are almost always prepared in EP Committees. Normally the Environment Committee is leading on environmental issues but other Committees can give input as well.

Giovanni La Via of the European People's Party (EPP) group, who is from Italy is currently chair of the Environment Committee.

Other EU Institutions:

The decision making bodies mentioned above have two permanent advisory bodies: the Committee of Regions - composed by politicians active at local and sub-national level - and the European Economic and Social Committee composed of representatives of business, trade unions and other civil society organisations, appointed by national governments. It is also important to mention the European Court of Justice which decides on conflicts arising over the implementation of EU law.

Other EU Agencies:

The EU has a number of agencies assisting in the implementation of policies. Concerning the environmental agenda, the European Environmental Agency (based in Copenhagen) is an essential information source about the state of the EU’s environment, trends and impact of policies.

The European Chemicals Agency based in Helsinki is the implementing body of EU’s Chemicals Policy (REACH) and the European Food Safety Agency is based in Parma, Italy, which, for example, can advise on the acceptability of pesticides and GMOs.