The topics of occupational safety and health and product safety are now strongly influenced by European legislation. But what form exactly do the corresponding legislative procedures at EU level take, and how can interest groups contribute to them?
European legislation is created cooperatively by the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Member States, the last of these organized in the Council of the EU. To ensure that legislative work does not take place in an ivory tower, i.e. divorced from the realities of users, interest groups must have the opportunity to contribute their expertise from the field at an appropriate point in the process. These opportunities must be identified and exploited for each item of legislation. An EU legislative procedure usually takes the following form:
The proposal for legislation is drafted by the European Commission following extensive consultations with stakeholders and the public. These consultations therefore provide the first opportunities for influence to be exerted, even before the proposal is drafted. The text is then passed to the Council and the Parliament, which assume responsibility for the process. These two legislative bodies now usually work together closely as equals, and must therefore ultimately agree on a text. In the Council, the representatives of the Member States work out the nitty-gritty of the texts in working groups chaired by the rotating Council Presidency, and develop their position. At the same time, the relevant specialised committees in the European Parliament are tasked with preparing the parliament’s position. The political composition of the committees mirrors that of the plenary of MEPs, numbering 705 in total. Of the 20 standing specialised committees, two are of particular technical relevance to occupational safety and health and standardization: the Committee on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection, whose responsibilities include standardization, and the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs, which is responsible for safety and health at work.
The technical work is carried out in the committee
Each of the seven political groups appoints an MEP from within its ranks to lead work on the subject in the committee, one group assuming the lead in this process. The lead representative of the leading group, the “rapporteur”, first draws up a draft report amending the Commission’s proposals. The rapporteur must organize the majorities for the proposed changes in his or her own group, in the committee and finally at Plenary level. Where a position is effectively set in stone at national level by the government majority, the rapporteur must often bring considerable persuasion to bear at EU level. He or she is also valued as a contact by the stakeholders, who are all keen to discuss the potential impacts of the proposal on “their cause” and put forward their arguments. Whenever legislation has been tabled, the big challenge for each interest group is to be a valuable contact for the MEPs and to contribute relevant expertise at the right time.
The committee usually meets several times for discussion. The meetings are held in public. The Commission is available to answer questions, and comments on the debate between the MEPs. Hearings with experts can be also be organized. Once the draft report is available, the “shadow rapporteurs” from the six other political groups and all MEPs on the committee are at liberty to submit proposals for amendments. This is therefore another point at which it is worthwhile for interest groups to present their own positions. Finally, the rapporteur has the task of negotiating compromises and bringing about a majority in favour of the “report” in the committee. If the text is then adopted in the Plenary, Parliament has established its position.
Resolving social problems swiftly but thoroughly
This process (“reading”) is iterated once or several times, depending on the nature of the procedure and whether agreement has been reached with the Council. That, at least, is the theory. Since the 1990s, it has been permissible to complete the procedure at first reading: this enables responses to social problems to be found swiftly when the solution is to take the form of legislation. It is in fact now the standard procedure for the Parliament, the Council and the Commission to conduct their negotiations in an informal trilogue even before the first reading has been completed. Once the negotiators have agreed upon a text, the Council of the 27 Member States and the Plenary of the Parliament must still formally confirm it before the legislative text is published in the Official Journal of the EU in all official EU languages, and subsequently enters into force. In most cases, transitional periods lasting several years allow the Member States and, in particular, the affected parties to adjust to the new legal situation.
Head of KAN’s European
Representation in Brussels