UK: Engaging With The European Union

Last Updated: 20 November 2012
Article by Jonathan Bracken

Engagement at the European Union level can often seem daunting. Understanding the roles of EU institutions and their relationships with the myriad of committees and advisory bodies at the EU level is no mean feat. However, it is fundamental to ensuring that your message is communicated to the right people, at the right time and in the most effective way.

Effective engagement always requires a nuanced understanding of political institutions and the people within them. Nowhere is this truer than in the EU, given the complex relationships between the institutions and the governments and legislatures of the Member States.

The Institutions

Policy-making and legislative power rests primarily with the 'institutional triangle' formed by the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union. These are the bodies that should feature on any lobbying 'hit-list'.

The European Commission

The Commission is the executive body of the EU headed by 27 Commissioners, one from each Member State. It proposes new EU legislation, which is then considered by the Parliament and the Council, and is responsible for the implementation and enforcement of EU law. It is organised into 33 Directorates- General staffed by the European Civil Service, mainly a combination of permanent officials ('fonctionnaires') and national experts drawn from the civil service of the Member States.

The Commission is normally the first port of call for those seeking to engage with the EU, as it is responsible for proposing new laws. Before doing so, the Commission will take soundings from stakeholders, the Member States, the Council and the Parliament as well as doing its own research for ideas. The ideal time to get in touch with the Commission is when it is at the early stages of developing a proposal. This can be done by monitoring and responding to relevant consultations, identifying and getting in touch with the relevant Commissioner and also by making contact with the European Commission representation in the Member States. Providing the Commission with well-articulated, specific and evidence-backed documents at this stage will maximise your chances of informing their thinking.

The Council of the European Union

The Council of the EU or the 'Council of Ministers' brings together government representatives of the Member States at ministerial level and shares legislative and budgetary powers with the European Parliament. It meets in different configurations which broadly reflect the EU's main areas of work. For example, the 'Economic and Financial Affairs Council' (ECOFIN) is a meeting of the Members States' Economic and Finance Ministers.

The Council has a President appointed for a term of two and half years as well as a rotating presidency where each Member State is responsible for setting the political agenda and advancing legislative procedures for a period of six months.

The work of the Council often involves the resolution of competing or conflicting national interests. Much of the preparatory work for Council meetings is undertaken by COREPER, the

Committee of Permanent Representatives of the Member States. COREPER are the national officials who are responsible for ensuring that their Member State's interests are represented and pursued as effectively as possible in Brussels. Consequently, in respect of Council business, both the Office of the UK Representative to the EU (UKRep) and the relevant UK Government Department can often be useful contact points.

The European Parliament

The European Parliament shares legislative powers with the Council. It is also responsible along with the Council for adopting the EU Budget. In considering legislative proposals, the Parliament will refer the matter to one (or more) of its committees, which in turn will appoint an individual MEP to be the rapporteur for that matter. The rapporteur will draft the committee's final report and will have considerable influence over the final wording of the proposal.

Often, there is more than one committee appointed to deal with the proposal, with one being the lead. It is important to identify these other committees, particularly if you find that the 'lead' committee or its rapporteur are not sympathetic to your representations.

Building relationships with MEPs is often a useful way of finding out what is going on and who might have a wider influence over an issue or policy that is of interest to you. In particular, those who are leaders or co-ordinators of political groups, experts in committees or those who have a special interest.

The EU Legislative Process

As the EU derives its power from the Treaties made among the Member States, there must always be a 'legal basis' under those Treaties for action taken at an EU level. That legal basis will also determine the legislative procedure to be followed.

Compared to law making at the Member State level, this process can often seem complex but it is necessary to have an understanding of the EU legislative process in order to be able to influence that process effectively. Most EU laws are now adopted jointly by the Parliament and the Council using the 'ordinary legislative procedure'.

Usually, it is the Commission which presents legislative proposals and these are sent to the Parliament and the Council. They are then made available to the legislatures of the Member States (which may provide a reasoned opinion on whether the proposal complies with the principle of subsidiarity). The Parliament and the Council will each consider the proposal on two separate occasions.

In the case of the Parliament, between 'readings' the matter will be referred to one or more committees and the rapporteur will prepare a draft report which is then discussed within the political groups and may be amended by the committees.

If the Parliament and the Council both accept the original proposal, it is adopted by the Council by qualified majority.


If the Parliament and the Council cannot agree, the proposal is referred to a Conciliation Committee. The Committee is made up of an equal number of representatives of the Council and Parliament and with representatives of the Commission present who cannot vote but may contribute to the discussions.

If the Conciliation Committee approves a joint text, it is presented to the Council and Parliament for approval. Final agreement of the two institutions is essential if the text is to be adopted and, even if a joint text is agreed by the Conciliation Committee, the Parliament can still reject the proposal by a simple majority.

Top Tips

  • Get in early. It is important to be a part of the process when proposals are being developed, not just when they are being debated. The last thing you want to be told is, 'you should have come to us earlier'.
  • Be transparent. Transparency is a big issue at the EU level and people are more likely to trust you and talk to you if they know exactly who you are and what you want.
  • Understand the process. Although it can be complex, understanding how the EU works will help you to deliver the right arguments to the right people at the right time.
  • Find common cause. Make contact with organisations with similar interests or concerns as you and you will be more likely to be heard. This is especially true if you can show that an issue does not just affect interests in one Member State.
  • Make use of the Permanent Representatives. UKRep and its counterparts are a useful route to the Council and MEPs, as they are responsible for developing negotiating positions and ensuring that their Member State's interests are represented.
  • Understand the role of trade bodies. In the EU institutions, trade bodies are respected and should be factored into any campaign.
  • Use the power of the Member States. Focus on the EU institutions but do not lose sight of the value of lobbying government at home and in other Member States.
  • Back up your arguments with evidence. You are more likely to win people over with solid evidence. Officials also value a high level of detail and understanding.
  • Be ready for the long haul. The EU policy-making process often takes time and this should be built into your programme.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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