To what extent EU lawmaking matters for citizens’ life: facts and figures

‘The European Union dictates most of the legislation of member states’, goes the popular argument that national governments and parties like to make against Bruxelles. But it's worth getting the facts straight.

Published On: June 12th, 2024

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By joining the European Union, each member state’s government voluntarily accepts and declares to comply with the so-called Acquis communautaire, the full body of EU laws and regulations, as well as subscribes to the European Charter of Fundamental Rights and other key EU protocols.

Given the detailed and nuanced functioning of the EU apparatus, and the attempt to include the interests of all stakeholders in each policy-making endeavor, the integration of EU laws and policies into the national legislations of EU member states is a complex and challenging process.

EU governments, bound by the Acquis communautaire, are obliged to respect the deadlines set by each legislative effort. On the one hand, EU directives must be incorporated into national legislation by member states within a specific deadline. Each directive sets out objectives that national laws must achieve, but member states have discretion on the methods of implementation. This process is overseen by the European Commission to ensure compliance and the proper application of EU laws.

On the other hand, EU-level regulations apply directly to all member states without the need for national transposition: once passed at European level, they have immediate legal force in all EU countries. Today, a large proportion of them have major effects on the daily lives of citizens, consumers, patients, minors, and many other aspects of our co-existence.

When it comes to the extent of the effect of European Union laws on national lawmaking both the EU directives and the regulations generate the need for legal changes in the respective country’s legal ecosystem.

Equal access, varying political influence

However, contrary to populist arguments, unlike totalitarian socialist regimes such as the USSR, which dictated to governments, EU governments have an institutionally guaranteed voice at the negotiating table, the European Council. Of course, a small country such as Malta cannot compete with Germany or France when it comes to political and economic influence. Still, the EU’s decision-making process is globally recognised as one of the most democratic, and allows member states to hold the EU accountable for its laws through strong judicial procedures.

Basically, all EU laws are passed as a result of the cooperation between the European Commission, the European Parliament and the government representatives of the member states in the Council of the European Union. The EC holds the right to propose an EU legislative initiative. The ordinary legislative procedure, which is currently used for the vast majority of EU legislation, then requires the law to go through the approval of both the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union, composed of member state ministers.

The EC proposals first go to the European Parliament’s respective committees, where MEPs analyze them and propose amendments to the original proposal. These then get (or don’t get) passed by the committee, then the final text is voted by the plenary session of the European Parliament. Meanwhile, in the Council, the representatives of governments discuss the proposal and negotiate with selected MEPs representing the EP’s position. When the EP and the Council positions finally agree, the negotiations are concluded by Council agreements, followed by final votes in the EP’s plenary session. However, key EU laws are passed at the regular meetings of Brussels’s 27 heads of state and governments.

No one dictates

Since the member states are voluntarily bound by the laws and legal system of the EU and their government has a say in the making of these laws, the many EU governments’ talks of “Brussels dictates” are a fundamentally false argument.

The ‘Brussels bureaucrats’ are elected representatives from their own countries. Similarly, most EU officials are recruited from among the citizens of all member states, and work in the institutions for the interest of everyone.

Besides its democratic foundations, the Brussels legislative machine is one of the most transparent rule-making and law-making factories in the world, where legislation and expert input mix to suit the needs of the broadest citizenry. All this happens even if these efforts regularly fail and the mistakes are exposed to the public by independent media, facing the judgement of a critical civil society.

Big, complex, and cumbersome – but still works and serves the needs of many

Studies indicate that a significant portion of national legislation in EU member states is driven by EU directives and regulations. For instance, it has been found that overall around 50-60% of national laws in some member states are influenced or mandated by European Union legislation.

When it comes to sector-specific influence, some fields are much more EU-law based. First of all, EU climate and environmental directives are extensively transposed into national laws. Countries like Germany and Denmark and France have developed detailed processes for integrating these directives, which cover issues from waste management to air quality standards and a wide range of topics.

Other fields where compliance with EU law is very high is consumer protection and market regulations, as a large proportion of these directives aim at harmonising standards across the internal market. These go from product safety regulations to consumer rights protection in online transactions, numerous aspects of return policies, warranties, and product quality assurance rights.

Criminal law and judicial cooperation

Although criminal law is traditionally a national competence, certain areas such as combating terrorism and human trafficking are regulated through EU directives, which member states must transpose into their national legal systems. This is an overwhelmingly EU-heavy regulatory area again, with a rate of over 80% EU-law influence.

Despite the complexity of the issue, let’s try to break down how much of the national law-making in EU member states is related to EU laws, with insights on the transposition process and sector-specific influences.

Key policy areas with significant EU influence:

  1. Environmental Policy: EU directives in environmental policy are extensive, covering areas such as waste management, air quality, and water protection. Approximately 80% of environmental legislation in EU member states originates from EU directives and regulations, according to the ECs 2019 implementation review.
  1. Consumer Protection: consumer protection laws are heavily influenced by EU legislation, particularly through directives on product safety, consumer rights in online transactions, and unfair commercial practices. Estimates suggest that around 60-70% of consumer protection laws in member states are derived from EU regulations – according to the EC Consumers Scoreboard.
  1. Internal Market: the internal market policies, including trade, competition, and the free movement of goods, services, capital, and labour, are predominantly governed by EU laws. This area sees one of the highest levels of EU influence, with around 70-80% of relevant national laws being based on EU directives and regulations. (EC Single Market Scoreboard)
  1. Agriculture and Fisheries: the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) are central EU policies, with around 70% of national regulations in these sectors derived from EU laws. (“The CAP at a glance” documents)
  1. Justice and Home Affairs: EU influence in justice and home affairs, including criminal law, asylum policy, and border control, is substantial. For instance, the European Arrest Warrant and other judicial cooperation mechanisms account for about 60% of national legislation in this area.
  1. Public Health: public health policies, including regulations on pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and cross-border health threats, see around 50-60% of national laws originating from EU legislation. (State of Health in the EU 2019)
  1. Transport: transport policies, including road, rail, and air transport regulations, are significantly influenced by EU directives and regulations. Approximately 60-70% of transport laws in member states are based on EU legislation. (Transport in the EU 2019 report)

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