Decisions made at European Union level affect our every-day lives. They influence Irish policies and laws in key areas like trade, agriculture, the environment, labour law, and equal opportunities.
This guide provides an overview of how the key European institutions work and how EU laws are made. It outlines some of the ways that individuals and groups can get involved in EU decision-making, and take action if they have problems obtaining their rights as EU citizens.
The European Union
The European Union (EU) is a unique political, social and economic partnership between 28 countries, including Ireland.
It has a population of more than 507 million people, and is among the largest economies in the world. Individual EU countries – known as Member States – agree to pool their interests and delegate some of their sovereignty to work together at European level in key areas.
The EU impacts on our daily lives through laws and policies which provide us with rights and protections when it comes to aspects of social, environmental and economic life in Ireland.
Here are some of the key ways that Ireland's membership of the EU affects us:
- European citizenship
All Irish citizens are automatically also EU citizens. For example, this entitles Irish people travelling internationally to be protected by the diplomatic and consular authorities of any other EU country. EU citizenship is additional to, and does not replace, national citizenship.
- Integrated social policies
EU rules have meant that Ireland has had to act to improve workers’ rights and ensure that men and women receive equal and fair treatment at work and cannot be obliged to work longer hours than laid down in EU legislation. Other social policy areas where EU laws affect us relate to education, training, youth culture, sports, public health and consumer protection and regional development.
- A single market for goods and services
The EU is an integrated trade bloc. This makes trading goods and services easier for Irish producers and exporters. It also means that Irish consumers have access to the goods and services produced in the other EU countries, without protection tariffs or import taxes. In other words, goods and services produced or provided in another Member State can be sold freely in Ireland provided they meet EU quality criteria.
- The free movement of people, goods, services and capital
Irish citizens can travel to any EU country and stay as long as they like without the need for visas. They can also live and work freely in any other EU country and, in most cases, their professional qualifications are recognised. Irish businesses can legally set up and operate anywhere within the EU.
- Common policies on justice and home affairs
These include a common EU warrant for the arrest of a criminal suspect who flees to another EU country. It also means that police and customs services cooperate in investigations into cross-border organised crime and cybercrime. There is also a common policy and laws on how to deal with illegal immigration into the EU.
- Measures to protect our environment
EU laws also cover areas like air quality, bathing water pollution (including the Blue Flag Beaches initiative which is a voluntary programme and not legally binding), waste management and disposal, energy emissions and the preservation of natural habitats. EU countries have ‘pooled’ certain national policies in international negotiations, such as continued efforts to reach global agreement on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There are also shared, integrated policies on agriculture and fisheries.
- Economic and monetary union
As part of its membership of the EU’s monetary union, Ireland shares its Euro currency with 18 other EU countries (some 335 million people).
The EU’s basic laws
All EU polices and laws are based on EU Treaties – a series of written agreements that set out the EU’s basic laws. All the Treaties have been negotiated between and agreed by all EU countries.
The Treaties can only be altered with the consent of all Member States. In Ireland, this means that any new EU Treaty which impacts on the Irish Constitution has to be agreed by the people in a national referendum.
The Lisbon Treaty (2007) is the most recent in a series of six treaties dating back to the founding Treaty of Rome of 1958 which established the European Economic Community, the forerunner of today’s EU.
All EU law is made to support the objectives set down in the EU Treaties. These include promoting a common market between EU countries, protecting workers’ rights, and safeguarding the environment and the security of EU citizens.
The EU’s main decision-making bodies
The EU functions through inter-connected institutions that set priorities and propose and approve the policies and laws that apply throughout the EU.
All EU Member States d elegate some of their sovereignty to these bodies.
This allows them to make democratic decisions at EU level on specific matters of common interest. The main institutions are:
- The European Council which brings together national leaders to set the EU’s broad priorities.
- The European Commission whose members are nominated by national governments, and approved by the European Parliament. It represents the interests of the EU as a whole, and seeks to ensure that the Treaties are respected by all the Member States.
- The European Parliament is the only directly-elected EU body. It represents the EU’s citizens. Its function it is to make laws and to hold the European Commission to account.
- The EU Council, also known as the Council of Ministers, which represents the governments of individual EU countries.
These four bodies are flanked by the EU’s legal and financial institutions and committees, all of which contribute to its laws and policy-making. Here is an outline of what they do and how they work together:
Setting the agenda – the European Council
The European Council is the name given to the regular meetings of EU countries’ heads of state or government. The role of the European Council is to set the EU’s priorities, general political direction, and policy agenda. It does this by adopting ‘conclusions’ during its meetings – sometimes called summits – which are held at least four times a year.
It also decides issues considered too sensitive to be resolved at a lower, Ministerial level.
For example, it is the European Council that has agreed EU policies dealing with the European economic and financial crisis in recent years and, in particular, the Greek financial crisis.
The European Council is not directly involved in making laws.
The EU's institutional triangle
When it comes to making and enforcing EU laws and policies, the Commission, Parliament and Council work closely together.
Collectively they are known as the EU’s ‘institutional triangle’ .
Preparing EU laws – the European Commission
The European Commission is the core institution that manages the EU’s day-to-day business.
Its job is to promote the general interests of the entire union strictly in accordance with the EU Treaties.
The Commission prepares and drafts proposals for practically all EU laws.
New EU laws, or revisions to existing ones, come about usually after requests from national governments, MEPs, or campaigns or lobbying by interest groups or other EU institutions.
As well as its role in proposing EU laws, the European Commission:
- Is responsible for ensuring that EU law is being applied in each EU country and that EU money is not being misapplied. It has the technical job of ensuring that EU legislation and policies are properly implemented in individual Member States.
- Is the guardian of the EU’s Treaties. It can take an EU country to the Court of Justice of the European Union and impose fines if it does not fulfil its legal obligations.
- Manages the EU’s resources including its annual Budget (which must be jointly decided upon by the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union).
- Represents the EU on the international stage, for example by managing international trade agreements and through the European External Action Service which manages general foreign relations, security and defence policies.
Commissioners and civil servants
The European Commission consists of 28 Commissioners, one nominated from each Member State.
Each Commissioner is responsible for specific policy areas.
Commissioners are all required to set aside their national interests and work collectively in the interests of Europe as a whole. They must be independent of any outside interests.
Commissioners work with departments, called Directorates-General (DGs), which are very much like national government departments or ministries. DG officials are the permanent civil service of the EU.
Each DG covers a particular policy area, such as agriculture, employment and social policy, transport, justice and energy. Civil servants in each DG prepare proposals, organise consultations, draft legislative proposals and monitor the implementation of legislation in the Member States.
Ireland’s current Commissioner is a former Irish government minister, Mr Phil Hogan. He is EU Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development.
More about the European Commission
The European Commission has offices, known as representations, in all EU Member States. Ireland’s European Commission Representation office is in Dublin.
It can give you more information on how the Commission works.
Europe's directly-elected Parliament
The European Parliament is the only institution directly-elected by citizens in the EU. Its members are elected every five years by more than 394 million voters from the 28 EU countries.The Parliament can approve, amend or reject nearly all EU legislation.
It makes the major law-making decisions jointly with the Ministerial Councils of the European Union. The Parliament has 751 members, called Members of the European Parliament (MEPs).
Ireland currently has 11 MEPs representing three large constituencies – Dublin; South; and Midlands-North-West. These include politicians from some of the main Irish political parties, as well as independents.
MEPS operate in a complex political environment.
Although MEPs are elected on a national basis, they do not sit in the European Parliament by nationality. They operate through seven EU-wide political groups or sit as independents.
The political groups are based on general political ideologies . These include socialists, Christian democrats, conservatives, liberals, greens, communists, and euro sceptics.
Those who do not belong to any of the seven groups take their seats in the parliament as ‘non-attached’ MEPs.
No single political group has ever held an outright majority in the European Parliament. This means that when it comes to voting on proposed laws or policies, MEPs’ work inevitably involves negotiations, compromise and coalition-building .
MEPs seek to reach agreement on proposed laws with colleagues in their own political group, as well as MEPs of different political orientations.
MEPs work mostly in committees
The bulk of MEPS’ work is done through a system of committees .
These are sub-groups of parliamentarians that deal with different issues that affect our daily lives, such as laws or policies on health, employment and gender equality, agriculture, foreign affairs, overseas aid, etc.
Each MEP is a member of at least two committees and one inter-parliamentary delegation, which handles relations with other non-EU parliaments.
The parliamentary committees come together to scrutinise and modify draft laws before they are debated and voted on in the full Parliament, known as the plenary.
There are 22 standing committees in total, but the European Parliament can also set up sub-committees and temporary committees to deal with specific issues.
Committee meetings are web-streamed live and are also recorded. They can be viewed online on the European Parliament’s web television site, EuroparlTV
As well as its role in EU law-making, the Parliament also:
- Decides the EU’s annual Budget. MEPs, collectively with the European Council (heads of State or government), decide on a seven year spending framework. They also jointly decide with the EU Council (Council of Ministers) each year how EU money is to be spent within that framework.
- Holds the European Commission to account. The Parliament supervises the work of the Commission, and has the power to dismiss the entire Commission, but not individual Commissioners. Commissioners attend all sessions of the full Parliament and must explain and justify their policies when requested by MEPs.
The Commission must also reply to written or oral questions put by MEPs. The Parliament can also receive petitions directly from EU citizens. (There is more detail on this aspect of the European Parliament’s work in the How it Works section of this guide.)
How the European Parliament is organised
The Parliament meets in plenary (full session) every month in Strasbourg (France). Each plenary session is four days long.
Two-day sessions are also held in Brussels six times a year. The parliamentary committees meet one or two weeks a month in Brussels.
During these sessions, the committees draw up, amend and adopt legislative proposals and ‘own-initiative’ reports.
Where necessary, they draw up reports to be presented to the plenary assembly of the Parliament.
During the remaining weeks, MEPS meet within their political groups, work in their national constituencies, or undertake visits to other Member States for duties arising from their work in the Parliament.
More about the European Parliament
The political groups of the European Parliament
Find out who is your MEP and their European political group.
The European Parliament Information Office in Ireland can be contacted for more information.
Council of Ministers
The Council of Ministers , often referred to just as the Council, is made up of national Ministers from all of the Member States ,such as Ministers for the Environment, Agriculture and Foreign Affairs.
(This should not be confused with the European Council which represents the heads of government of Member States, that is Prime Ministers or their equivalent.)
The Council of Ministers can approve or amend EU legislative proposals from the European Commission, but must generally agree all legislation along with the European Parliament.
In a small number of cases it may do so alone, after consultation with the European Parliament.
In total, there are ten different configurations of the Council of Ministers, depending on the policy area under discussion.
These include Economic and Finance (ECOFIN), Agriculture and Fisheries, Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs, Trade, Environment and Justice and Home Affairs. An important amount of the work of the Council of Ministers is conducted by officials meeting in technical committees.
Role of permanent representations
Each Member State has a Permanent Representation (like an embassy) in Brussels.
These are headed by Permanent Representatives, who are like Member States’ ambassadors to the EU. If a Minister cannot attend a Council meeting, the Permanent Representative, or one of the Permanent Representation staff, may attend instead.
The Permanent Representatives sit on the Committee of Permanent Representatives (COREPER) which is responsible for the preparatory work for all Council meetings.
Other powers of the Council
As a key EU decision-making body, the powers of the Council go beyond making EU laws. It also:
- Decides the EU’s Budget. It shares authority over this with the European Parliament.
- Coordinates the broad economic policies of the Member States.
- Takes decisions for framing and implementing the EU’s common foreign and security policy.
- Adopts measures in the field of police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters.
Rotating presidency of the Council
The Presidency (Chair) of the European Council and the Council of Ministers is held for six months by each Member State on a rotating basis.
The main role of the Presidency is to organise the Council’s work, especially in relation to law-making and political decisions. Ireland last held the EU presidency in the first half of 2013. More about the Council of the European Union
Other key EU institutions
Other key institutions play specialised roles. They include:
- The Court of Justice of the European Union, which makes sure that EU law is interpreted uniformly across all the Member States. It consists of one judge from each Member State.
- The Court of Auditors, which audits the EU’s expenditure and accounts. As the watchdog for the EU’s budget, it checks that the money is being properly spent on the programmes intended, and in accordance with the law.
- The European Central Bank, which is responsible for the EU’s monetary policy.
- The European Investment Bank , the EU’s bank which provides funds for investment in programmes in different Member States.
- The European External Action Service, which manages diplomatic relations with countries outside the EU and guides the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
- The General Affairs Council, made up of Minsters for Foreign Affairs from all the Member States. It is a clearing house for decisions when the heads of State (European Council) are not meeting. It prepares and follows up on European Council meetings.
How the main EU bodies work together - graphic
This graphic shows how the main EU bodies work together to produce EU laws and agree the EU Budget. The following section, How it Works, explains this in more detail.
How the EU makes laws
We often hear about EU laws ‘coming from’ Brussels, the home of the EU’s main institutions.
In fact, all EU laws are negotiated and agreed by the governments and MEPs of individual EU countries.
These include Irish government ministers and officials, as well as the 11 Irish MEPs.
Irish interest groups including farmers, business organisations, trade unions and civil society organisations, also regularly contribute to EU laws through formal consultations and lobbying.
Just as with Irish law-making, the degree of influence of a particular group or sector depends on many factors, including the size and resources of organisations seeking legal change.
The complexity of finding a common position among the 28 EU countries, as well as the different languages and institutions involved in EU law-making, means that it can sometimes take many years for new or revised EU laws to be agreed and finally implemented.
How EU laws are agreed
Here is a step-by-step outline of how EU laws are made:
1. The European Commission makes a proposal
All EU laws start with a formal proposal from the European Commission. New EU laws, or revisions to existing ones, generally come about after requests from European Council (heads of State).
These can arise from issues raised by national governments, MEPs, interest groups or other EU institutions. There is continual pressure from many areas for the European Commission to take action and come up with a draft law.
When it prepares new legislation or revises existing legislation, the Commission consults widely. It often opens a public consultation, allowing interested parties and experts to give their views. This is the point when most influence can be exerted by commercial and civil society lobbyists in shaping a new law.
After the consultation period, the Commission may take on board the views of citizens and groups who took part in the consultation.
The Commission then submits its proposal for a new law to the relevant Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. These bodies must reach an agreement before a law can be adopted.
National parliaments consideration of Commission proposals
At the same time as the Commission sends a proposal for a new law to the Parliament and Council, it also sends it to national parliaments of all EU countries.
This is primarily to give Member States’ parliaments an opportunity to object if they believe the proposal would be better dealt with under national law.
They can make submissions on the Commission’s proposals to their own governments and directly to the Commission. They may also invite MEPs to a parliamentary committee hearing to discuss a proposal.
In Ireland, proposed EU laws are handled primarily by the relevant Joint Oireachtas Committee, as well as the Joint Oireachtas Committee on EU Affairs.
2. European Parliament and Council consider the draft law
After the Commission produces a draft law, it is considered by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers.
Exactly how this process plays out depends on the extent of agreement or disagreement between the Parliament and the Council on the Commission’s proposal. In each body, internal committees or working groups, scrutinise the proposed law.
European Parliament Committees
Proposals from the Commission are dealt with by the relevant European Parliament Committee. A lead Committee is responsible for producing a report on the Commission’s proposal .
The Committee appoints an MEP as a rapporteur who is responsible for drafting the Committee's report on the proposal, and managing the voting on amendments that members of the committee propose.
A single proposal for a new law can attract thousands of amendments from MEPs. MEPs negotiate their positions on Commission proposals with colleagues in their own EU political groups, based on consultations with their own national political parties.
The Committee votes on the rapporteur’s report and any amendments to it tabled by MEPs. The Committee’s report is then brought for discussion and vote at a hearing of the full European Parliament (plenary).
Council Working Groups
Most of the detailed discussion on legislation by the Council of Ministers takes place in working groups of civil servants and/or diplomats from the 28 EU countries. The Parliament, Council and Commission also discuss proposals in three-way meetings, called ‘trilogues’.
How the Parliament and Council reach agreement on new laws
The process of a law being agreed by the European Parliament and the Council has three main stages.
Depending on the subject matter and the extent of agreement or disagreement between the Parliament and the Council, these three stages may or may not be used. The three formal stages are:
- First Reading
- Second Reading
First Reading: In summary, the first stage is for the Parliament to consider the proposal (First Reading) and either accept it or amend it. At this stage, the full Parliament can either accept the Commission’s proposal without any changes, or make amendments.
The Parliament then forwards its position to the Council for its First Reading. The Council can amend or adopt the Parliament's position. If the Council adopts the Parliament’s position it then becomes a law. If it amends it, it goes back to the Parliament for a Second Reading.
Second Reading: At the Second Reading stage, the Council and the Parliament try to resolve any differences. Second Reading is a faster process than first reading, as fixed time limits apply. If the Parliament and Council reach agreement at this stage, it is called a Second Reading Agreement .
Conciliation: If the European Parliament and the Council do not reach an agreement, then the Conciliation Process will be used to bring about a compromise. If the Parliament and Council cannot reach a compromise, the proposal is not adopted .
If a revised text can be agreed, both the Council and the Parliament can vote on the proposal again. Once a final text of a new law is agreed, and all translations have been done, the legislation will be published in the Official Journal of the European Union.
EU law making
Most European Commission proposals for new laws are agreed at First Reading stage.
This infographic produced by the European Parliament sets out in more detail on how the EU’s law-making process works
Formal EU advisory bodies
Individuals and organisations can make representations to officials and MEPs at each stage of the development of a law.
There are also additional institutional structures in place to allow Europe's interest groups, as well as representatives from its regions and cities, to have a formal say on draft EU legislation.
- The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) is a consultative body at European Union level that gives the Commission, the Council and the Parliament the points of view of civil society groups from all 28 EU countries. Members are nominated by their national governments and represent workers, employers and civil society interests including framers. There are nine Irish representatives on the EESC, which has more than 300 members in total.
- The Committee of the Regions (CoR) is another advisory committee, composed of representatives of regional and local government in individual EU countries, who are also nominated by their national governments. Its role is to put forward local and regional points of view on EU legislation. Ireland has six members on the CoR, all of them city or county councillors.
Organised civil society in Brussels
Many Irish NGOs are represented at Brussels level by umbrella groups. By connecting through these networks, Irish groups can supplement the work they do nationally and feed into the EU law-making processes. For example, the Irish branch of the European Anti-Poverty Network (which has more than 200 members) connects with 31 other national networks as part of the European Anti-Poverty Network .
- The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) is a cross-sectoral trade union organisation representing workers at EU level. Most Irish trade unions are affiliated to the ETUC, which is made up of 85 national trade union federations.
- There is one overarching NGO platform called the Civil Society Contact Group (CSCG). This alliance brings together more than 400 EU groups from eight main sectoral platforms to share information and monitor policies.
Collectively, the CSCG’s members represent hundreds of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and networks from sectors such as the environment, human rights and women’s rights. At national level, NGOs affiliate to the CSCG through one of its eight sectoral groups.
For example, Dóchas an umbrella body representing 59 overseas development non-governmental organisations in Ireland, is a member of a European umbrella group called CONCORD , which in turn is a member of the CSCG.
To be effective at this level, Irish organisations need to be both active in their EU umbrella groups , and also follow up their work themselves with Irish MEPs, officials and Ministers.
This sort of joined up action allows groups to campaign and lobbying simultaneously with officials and elected representatives at EU level, and at national level in 28 capitals.
How EU laws work in Ireland
As an EU member, Ireland has agreed to make decisions in common with all other Member states.
These decisions apply to all Member States and all citizens equally, because it is considered necessary and in the general interests of citizens.
Consequently, when a law is adopted at EU level (for example in pursuing cross border criminals, tackling environmental risks, or equality in the workplace etc), Irish laws must be amended to coincide with the new EU law.
This means in effect that nothing in our national Irish laws can override or take precedence over an EU law.
Exactly how EU legislation impacts upon domestic Irish law can vary. It depends on the exact legal form that the EU law takes, and sometimes also on how the Irish government chooses to implement it.
Three main types of EU laws
There are three main types of EU laws – Directives, Regulations and Decisions.
1. Directives are the best known form of EU legislation. They oblige EU Member States to introduce national laws to achieve a particular result.
Member States must comply with EU Directives – they usually have two years to ‘transpose’ or introduce them into national law. The practical details of this implementation are left for the Member States to decide.
In Ireland, Directives are transposed either by an Act of the Oireachtas or by Statutory Instrument, which is a type of secondary legislation. There are five main types of Statutory Instrument – orders, regulations, rules, bye-laws and schemes. (For more information on Acts of the Oireachtas and secondary legislation, see the Toolkit Guide to Law Making.)
For example, the EU’s 1993 Unfair Contract Terms Directive 93/13/EEC was transposed into Irish law in the European Communities (Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts) Regulations 1995.
Similarly, the EU’s 2006 Services Directive 2006/123/EC was transposed into Irish law in the European Union (Provisions of Services) Regulations 2010.
2. Regulations are laws that become part of national laws of Member States as soon as there are passed by the EU.
They do not need to be transposed into national laws before they take effect in individual EU countries. For example, Regulation No 261/2004 instantly established common EU rules for compensation and assistance to passengers who experience long flight delays or cancellations, or are denied boarding.
3. Decisions are legally binding EU law, but they are targeted at specific individuals or groups, such as a corporation or a particular Member States.
The EU also produces Recommendations and Opinions (called ‘soft law’).These are not legally binding on EU Member States. They can set out general principles, guidelines and policies.
How EU law is enforced in Ireland
EU law is enforced in Ireland chiefly through our national authorities and our national courts.
However, the European Commission also monitors how EU legislation is being applied in individual Member States, including Ireland.
If it believes a country is failing to implement EU laws, the Commission can take it to the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ).
The ECJ interprets EU law to make sure it is applied in the same way in all EU countries. It also settles legal disputes between EU governments and EU institutions.
Individuals, companies or organisations can also bring cases before the Court if they feel their rights have been infringed by an EU institution.
In 2013 the European Commission referred Ireland to the Court of Justice on the grounds that it had failed to comply with the EU’s Directive on working time limits (Directive 2003/88/EC), particularly in relation to junior doctors.
The ECJ can fine EU countries for failing to fulfil their obligations under EU law . Ireland has been heavily fined in recent years for its failure to meet rules on septic tanks under the EU Waste Framework Directive (Directive 2008/98/EC).
Irish courts themselves can refer, and sometimes must refer, cases to the ECJ, for advice and clarification on EU law. This advice is called a 'preliminary ruling'. The Court of Justice itself cannot decide the outcome of a particular case. The final decision on any dispute over EU law is always taken by the national courts. However, they must respect EU law as interpreted by the Court of Justice.
ECJ ruing on Irish airline compensation case taken by an Irish traveller
In 2013 the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled in a case concenring a complaint by an Irish traveller after the airline Ryanair refused to pay expenses she had claimed for food and lodging after her flight was cancelled due to an ash cloud crisis caused by the eruption of an Icelandic volcano in 2010.
The woman claimed that Ryanair was in breach of EU Regulation No 261/2004 because it had refused to compensate her. That regulation establishes common EU rules on compensation and assistance to passengers in the event of denied boarding, cancellation or long delay of flights.
The woman began her legal action in an Irish court, the Dublin Metropolitan District Court. That court sought the opinion of the Court of Justice of the European Union, which gives 'preliminary rulings' concerning the interpretation and application of EU law.
The ECJ ruled that EU law obliges airlines to provide compensation to passengers whose flights are cancelled due to extraordinary circumstances such as the closure of airspace following the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano. The Irish court was obliged to follow the ECJ's ruling.
ECJ not to be confused with ECHR
The ECJ is sometimes confused with the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights. This court rules on alleged violations of the European Convention on Human Rights by countries that have signed up to the international agreement.
How the EU is funded
The EU is funded from three main sources:
- A small percentage of the gross national income (usually around 0.7%) contributed by all Member States. In 2012 this accounted for 76% of EU income.
- A small percentage of each EU country’s VAT returns, usually around 0.3%.
- A large share of import duties on non-EU products imported into the EU (the Member State that collects the duty retains a small percentage).
The EU’s Budget from 2014 to 2020 is just under €960 billion. More than 90% of this will be spent in the Member States through grants, investments, funding of research and other financial supports.
Ireland and EU funding
Since joining the EU in 1973, Ireland has got more money out of the EU than it has put in. To date, the country has received more than €71 billion in EU funding. Initially, much of this money was spent on developing vital infrastructure such as roads and the motorway network, and supporting economic growth.
In more recent years, the EU has invested considerably in research and innovation, broadband, energy, public transport and urban development.
EU spending in Ireland comes from a variety of funds which are earmarked for different areas, such as agriculture, rural development, fisheries, the environment and measures to support workers and jobs. For example, the European Social Fund provides money to Ireland (and other EU countries) to help improve access to employment, education and training, including in disadvantaged areas.
In 2013 Ireland received some €1.9 billion from EU funds.
This was broken down into:
- 81.6 % on agriculture and rural development (this is substantially more than the EU average of 43 %)
- 10.3% on growth and jobs
- 5.2 % on regional policies
- 2.2 % on administration
- 0.7 % on citizenship, freedom, security and justice
EU spending in Ireland in 2013 - pie chart
How €1.9bn EU funding was spent in Ireland in 2013
(Source: European Commission)
Working for legal change at EU Level
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to influencing EU decision-making. The complexity of how the EU works means that there are many centres of influence and the various EU bodies have different powers.
The approach you take should depend on what you want to achieve and whether the EU has a role in your area.
As first step, you should find out what powers, if any, the EU has in relation to your concern or area of interest, your concern, or your complaint.
For example, when it comes to law-making, the EU is quite active on the issue of climate change.
However, in other policy areas it has less of a role. You can do your own research to find out whether an EU body has a role in relation to your issue. The websites of the EU institutions themselves contain a lot of information. There are also many EU media websites, as well as newsletters and policy briefings that you can sign up for.
You could also contact organisations working in your area of interest, who might be able to help.
The section of the guide outlines some of the key ways that you can work to achieve legal change at EU level, either through your MEPs or directly with the EU’s main institutions.
It also has some information and links to further resources about some ways for you to complain if you believe your EU rights are being infringed, or EU lawis not being properly implemented.
The information in this guide can help you to get started, but you may need more information.
The website NGO/EU Connect , run by the European Commission Representation office in Ireland, has more information and useful tips for Irish non-governmental organisations which want to contribute to EU decision-making.
If you want to contribute to EU law-making, it is important to get engaged early in the legislative process.
The three main law-making institutions – the European Commission, European Parliament, and Council of Ministers – can be influenced by lobbying from citizens and interest groups, including commercial and business groups or civil society organisations.
Lobbying means trying to influence decision-makers, including by meeting with them and sharing your views, evidence and research in relation to your issues.
There are also several formal channels for input into EU laws from citizens and groups.
European Commission consultations
Because it initiates all new EU laws, the European Commission is most active in the early stage of making or amending EU laws.
The Commission can set up expert groups to advise it on drafting proposals – these groups are open expert partners, including non-governmental organisations.
It also runs regular public consultations to ‘test’ proposed policies and laws and gather input from citizens and groups representing various interests in society.
For example, consumer groups and citizens are usually consulted about proposals which affect consumers, while environmental groups, industry bodies and farming organisations will be consulted about proposals in relation to climate change and carbon emissions.
Trade union and employer organisations are consulted on any proposals for workplace related and employment protection laws.
The Commission regularly posts calls for written submissions on its policy proposals on its website. Sometimes these submissions take the form of online questionnaires which you can fill in and send to them electronically.
You can search on the Commission’s website, Your Voice in Europe , for information on 'live' consultations in various policy areas, including consumer affairs, education, public health, transport and youth.
Meetings with Commission officials
European Commission officials will generally meet groups on a one-to-one basis. They are regularly in contact with interest groups including civil society organisations.
You can look up the European Commission’s directory to find the officials in charge of your issues, and contact them to get more information.
If you don’t have the resources to meet with officials in Brussels, you should try to meet instead with national government officials in Ireland. Civil servants in Irish government departments whose policy area is affected by new and emerging European Commission proposals will take a particular interest in developments in Brussels.
Citizens' proposals for new EU laws
Any EU citizen can seek the backing of other citizens to ask the European Commission to propose new laws.
You must collect, within a year, a minimum of 1 million signatures from EU citizens in at least seven EU Member States. For a Citizens' Initiative to succeed, a minimum number of signatories is required in each of the seven member states.
In Ireland that minimum is 8,250. You can only ask the European Commission to act in an area falling within its legal remit. A European Citizens' Initiative is technically possible in any field where the Commission has the power to propose legislation.
This would include, for example, environment, agriculture, transport, public health, social policy and workers’ rights.
When the Citizens’ Initiative was introduced in 2012 it was welcomed as a novel tool to help citizens directly shape policy in the EU.
However, there have been technical problems with how it works in practice, and criticism that it is not sufficiently transparent and citizen-friendly.
Since 2012, only three Citizens’ Initiatives managed to collect enough signatures to be considered by the European Commission. Even if an initiative has successfully passed all these hurdles, the European Commission is not obliged to act. So far, no citizen-initiated legislative proposal has made it into EU law.
Despite its flaws, the Citizens Initiative process itself can offer organisers a useful platform to generate public debate and awareness about their issue.
Examples of EU Citizens' Initiatives
A Stop Vivisection Initiative has received significant publicity for its proposal for EU legislation to phase out animal experiments.
Campaigners for a Right2Water Initiative (defending water as a human right) were invited to attend European Parliament hearings on the issue in 2015.
Working with MEPs to shape EU laws
Once the European Commission publishes a legislative proposal, it is passed to the Council and the European Parliament for their separate consideration.
MEPs – Members of the European Parliament – can influence a draft law as it goes through the parliament.
MEPS who are members of the parliamentary Committee responsible for scrutinising a legislative proposal from the Commission are particularly well placed to influence a draft law going through parliament.
MEPs who are appointed ‘Rapporteurs’ on the Committees hold even more sway as it is their job to steer laws through the parliament. Each political group on a Committee appoints a Shadow Rapporteur to work with the Rapporteur. Shadow Rapporteurs are also influential, as they negotiate the compromises that have to be made to find agreement on Commission proposals.
All MEPs, including every Irish MEP, sit on at least two parliamentary Committees.
You can urge an MEP to:
- vote a certain way on legislation – to amend, approve or reject it
- represent your opinion in committee discussions on draft laws
- table your amendments to European Commission draft legislation
- start the process whereby the Parliament asks the Commission to propose legislation. This is possible only in cases where Parliament thinks EU legislation is needed to help implement the Treaties.
- ask the European Commission a Parliamentary Question . This might highlight a problem that may eventually require new or revised legislation. At the very least, it can be a useful and fast way to get information about an issue that concerns you. More on European Parliament questions
- put you in touch with other groups working in your area, or help you find support among other MEPs who may be interested in your issues.
Tips for contacting your MEPs
Irish MEPs represent their constituencies and want to know what issues are important to Irish citizens. Groups and individuals can be their ‘eyes and ears’ on the ground, bringing reliable evidence on how EU issues affect individuals, communities and the environment.
- Before approaching MEPs, it is a good idea to find out what political group they are part of in Parliament, and what issues they are interested in. You can look at their election campaign pledges to see if any of these are related to your issue or indicate opposition to it.
- Find out if there are any Irish MEPs on the committee that handles your issues. See this listing of Irish MEPs and their committee membership.
- Try to muster support for your proposal or topic with all of the eleven Irish MEPs. Remember, Irish MEPs are lobbied frequently and there may be groups lobbying for a position which is opposed to yours.
- You should contact MEPs directly, in writing by letter or emailand with a follow-up phone call. Irish MEPs generally have an Irish constituency office and a Brussels office. If you contact their constituency office you may have a better chance of getting an early response.
- Keep your initial letter or email short and to the point – it is an opportunity to brief an MEP on your issues of concern and request a meeting. While Irish MEPs spend a lot of time in Europe, they and their staff also make time to meet with constituents.
- If your local TD is a member of the same political party as your local MEP you could ask your TD to contact them on your behalf.
- MEPs have limited finance available to host visits of groups of citizens to Brussels to discuss issues of interest and to see at first-hand how the European Parliament works.
Complaining about EU issues
Ireland's membership of the European Union provides a range of rights to Irish citizens and residents, as well as businesses and groups. However, if you encounter problems exercising these rights, it is not always clear where to turn for information or assistance. A variety of EU institutions can handle complaints and petitions from citizens and organisations. This section of the guide covers two of these, and supplies links to further information.
Petitioning MEPs to examine an issue or a complaint
EU citizens and residents can submit a written petition to the European Parliament’s Committee on Petitions. These must relate to matters falling with the EU's field of activity.
Petitions can take different forms, including asking the committee to look into an issue or problem of general concern, or an individual complaint.
For example, the Committee can examine a petition that:
- your EU rights are not being protected by the Irish government, or by a public body such as your local council
- EU money is not being appropriately spent
- an Environmental Impact Assessment has not been carried out or is inadequate, for say a new sewage plant which is being part-funded by Europe
The petition process is simple – it involves registering with the committee’s website and filling in an online form, or posting a written petition to the Parliament. The Committee cannot address any matter that is before a national or European court.
What kinds of petitions are accepted?
For a petition to be admissible, it must be to do with something that the EU has power over . Apart from this, petitions can cover a very broad range of issues, such as your rights as a European citizen, environmental concerns or consumer protection matter.
For example, if EU rules say the Irish authorities should consult citizens when planning a major development, and they fail to do so, then the committee might be able to help.
If your petition does not fall within the ‘area of activity of the European Union’ it will be declared inadmissible. Many petitions made to the Committee end up being declared admissible. This may be in part because many petitioners do not fully understand what exactly the Committee can and cannot do.
How the Committee deals with petitions
When the Committee on Petitions takes on a petition, it sometimes conducts public hearings. It may even make fact-finding visits to the country or region concerned, and produce a report with findings and recommendations.
Petitioners can ask to present their case in person before the Committee, particularly if it is a group complaint. The Committee on its own initiative can also sometimes request a petitioner to come in person. There are, of course, travel costs involved for petitions who choose to do this.
How the Committee can help
The Committee has no legal power to force an EU institution or a national government to do something. It can try to resolve the issue by:
- Asking the European Commission to take action – sometimes as a result of a Committee investigation, the Commission will put pressure on a national government to deal with the issue a petitioner has raised.
- Referring your petition to another European Parliament committee for information or further action.
- In some exceptional cases preparing and submitting a full report to Parliament to be voted upon.
The petition option is particularly useful if you feel that the European Commission has not taken the necessary actions to enforce EU law.
For example, as a result of a petition from a Danish citizen on behalf of an animal welfare group, the Committee in 2014 held hearings in relation to illegal but routine docking of the tails of farmed piglets. This practice contravenes and EU Directive 2008/120 EC which lays down minimum standards for the protection of farmed pigs.
However, the European Commission had not taken any action to force Member States, including Denmark, to observe the Directive.
At the Committee’s hearings, European Commission officials had to explain its position. The Committee also commissioned fresh expert analysis of the issue and the European Commission’s response to it.
While the Committee was not able to force the European Commission to take any action, the publicity surrounding the issue increased awareness of the problem of tail-docking within EU countries.
The Committee on Petitions can help you gain publicity for your cause
If your petition is considered by the Petitions’ Committee and even if it does not lead to the outcome you desire, it is a way of bringing an issue to the attention of policy-makers in Ireland and the EU.
This is because the petitions process takes place in public. Findings and recommendations by the Committee can put pressure on both the European Commission and national governments to act .
Petitions Committee's role in protecting scenic Polish valley
In 2006 the Petitions Committee received several petitions claiming that a major highway the Polish authorities were planning to build would endanger areas protected under EU law, including the EU Habitats Directive.
The Committee’s investigation included a fact-finding visit to the affected area, the scenic Rospuda Valley in the north east of the country. On foot of its findings, the Committee called on the Polish authorities to change their plans for the Via Baltica Expressway.
The European Commission requested that the Court of Justice of the European Union halt the project while it considered its legality. While that court was considering the issue, the Polish courts found that the project violated national laws. In March 2009, the Polish government announced it would not build the motorway through the Rospuda Valley.
The Committee’s report played an important part in persuading the Polish authorities to change its plans. It added to already considerable domestic legal pressure and campaigning by environmental groups.
Making a complaint to the European Ombudsman
The EU has its own Ombudsman - an independent and impartial bodywhich handles complaints of ‘maladministration’ by EU institutions, bodies, offices and agencies.
Examples of ‘maladministration’ include unnecessary delays or unanswered correspondence, refusal of information, discrimination and abuse of power. You do not have to be individually affected by the maladministration to complain to the Ombudsman.
The European Code of Good Administrative Behaviour outlines what the Ombudsman expects from the EU institutions in their dealings with individuals. The Ombudsman does not deal with matters that are currently before a court or that have already been settled by a court.
You should submit your complaint:
- within two years of becoming aware of the facts on which your complaint is based
- after having first contacted the EU institution involved to try to resolve the matter, for example by letter.
You must make your complaint in writing to the Ombudsman. You can use an online complaint form available on the European Ombudsman’s website.
The form can be submitted electronically or printed out and sent by post. The Ombudsman is only one of several complaint-handling bodies that work at EU level to handle complaints from individuals, groups and businesses. For more information, see the guide, Problems with the EU? Who Can Help You?
The current EU Ombudsman is Ms Emily O’Reilly, who was formerly the Irish Ombudsman.
EU legislation is published in the Official Journal of the Community and the date that it comes into effect is stated in the Journal. The Official Journal is published every working day and consists of a number of sections including legislation, information and notices and public tenders. You can search for EU legal texts on the EUR-Lex website.
Who’s Who in the EU
Who’s Who is the official directory of the EU. It is an electronic directory of managers and services in the EU institutions, bodies and agencies. Find what you want in any of the EU's official languages.
European Commission Consultations
Your Voice in Europe is the European Commission’s portal for information on consultations, discussions and other tools which enable you to play an active role in the European policy-making process.
Citizens’ Enquiry Unit, European Parliament
The Citizens' Enquiries Unit provides information about the European Parliament, its activities, powers and organisation. It cannot provide legal advice or adopt political positions. To send an enquiry to the Unit, use this form .
Guides to Complaints Mechanisms in the EU
Problems with the EU? Who Can Help You?
Problems with the EU? Who can help your? is a brochure produced by the European Ombudsman which gives an overview of the different information, advice, and complaint-handling bodies that you might consider turning to if you encounter problems in exercising your rights as an EU citizen, resident, business or association. To help you better understand how each of the bodies listed can help you, it includes, within each section, examples of the type of help the body concerned can provide.
Citizens' Guide to European Complaint Mechanisms
The Citizens’ Guide to European Complaint Mechanisms aims to help individuals and NGOs to successfully use existing institutional mechanisms at the European and international level to protect the environment and ensure adequate/effective use of public funds. The guide aims to summarise citizens’ experiences so far with appealing to international institutions such as the EU Ombudsman and the Aarhus Convention committee. It is produced by Bankwatch Network an international non-governmental organisation with member organisations from countries across central and eastern Europe.
Guides to Lobbying in the EU
Making Your Voice Heard in the EU – A guide for NGOs
The training handbook Making your voice heard in the EU - A guide for NGOs is designed for those 'newcomer' NGOs and activists that are in the process of establishing a European strategy. It does provides tailored-made information on EU institutions, the way European NGOs work, as well as lobbying tips, illustrated by examples of EU level campaigns.
It also provides more specific links and contacts depending on your area of activity. The guide is produce dby the Civil Society Contact Group , a Brussels-based alliance that brings togethereight large rights and value based NGO sectors acting in the public interest.
Influencing the European Union
Influencing the European Union is a guide produced by the Bond network of UK based NGOs working in international development. This guide is primarily aimed at development professionals in the UK, but will also be a useful reference document for other parts of civil society in the UK and in other EU countries who aim to influence EU decision-making.
Website to help NGOS find their voice in Europe
The website NGO/EU Connect is run by European Commission in Ireland. It has lots of information and tips for Irish non-governmental organisations who want to contribute to forming legislation at a European level.
Training in EU issues
The European Movement for Ireland provides specialist training courses for Irish NGOs who wish to learn more about the European Union, in the area of policy development.
Newsletters & Fact Sheets
EU News You Can Use
The European Commission Representation in Ireland publishes a monthly newsletter EU News You Can Use. This contains updates on EU developments, particularly in relation to Ireland. Sign up for the newsletter.
Citizens Information Board EU Supplement
The Citizens Information Board publishes an EU Supplement quarterly. It accompanies its monthly journal, Relate, and provides an update on various EU legal and policy developments. Sign up for the EU Supplement.
Fact sheets on how the EU works
The European Parliament's Fact Sheets provide an overview of European integration and of the European Parliament’s contribution to that process.