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MEMO/02/102

Brussels, 22 May 2002

Explanatory note on the "Community method"

I. What is the Community Method (can we name it differently) ?

The Community method is a decision-making procedure that allows for a transparent, effective and democratic functioning of the European Union. It is based on the interplay between three autonomous institutions : the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the Council of Ministers (also called the 'institutional triangle').

The key features of the Community method are :

  • The European Commission has the monopoly to introduce legislative initiatives. It does so in the general European interest ;

  • The Council of Ministers, representing Member States, decides by qualified majority in most cases ;

  • The European Parliament, directly elected by European citizens, co-legislates, or is at least consulted ;

  • The Council of Ministers can only amend Commission proposals by unanimity ;

  • Member States implement EU policy in principle ;

  • EU institutions can play a role in implementation, in particular where a harmonised approach is needed. The Commission receives delegated powers from the Council of Ministers for implementation, often assisted by committees of national civil servants;

  • The EU Institutions, Member States and interested parties can take a case to the European Court of Justice. The European Commission plays a key role in taking Member States to the Court for implementation failures ('guardian of the Treaty').

A key above feature is the exclusive capacity of the Commission to introduce legislative initiatives. The Commission has a multinational and independent administration, and decides by political consensus. This is the best guarantee to express the general European interest and not national or partisan interests. In turn, this is crucial for creating trust between the Member States.

The Community Method currently applies to issues related to the 'first pillar' (largely economic, social and environmental matters, including international affairs such as trade). It does not apply to the Common Foreign and Security Policy and to Justice and Home Affairs, which were introduced as separate 'pillars' in the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. There, the right of initiative is mostly shared by all Member States and the European Commission, and unanimity mostly applies as a decision rule.

II. What is the added value compared to intergovernmental method ?

The Community method allows Member States to share sovereignty in a democratic way and to work in the general interest of the European Union. Compared to the way in which a 'classical' international organisation works, the method offers the following advantages :

  • Actions by decision-makers are more strongly guided by clear legal rules (rule of law) ;

  • Decision-making is transparent and includes a public debate in the European Parliament.

  • It offers the possibility of a single representation of 15 countries to the outside world, allowing for rapid and effective action.

  • The institutional interplay allows for a search for the general European interest, including protection of minority interests (e.g. smaller Member States). It offers better chances to have a debate on policy ideas next to a debate on national interests.

  • Its transparency and legal procedures guarantee accountability.

  • The key role of the Commission, balancing the interests of different policy sectors, ensures better policy coherence.

  • It produces decisions that guarantee legal certainty for economic operators and citizens, given the role of the Commission as the guardian of the Treaty and the role of the Court of Justice.

    What would happen without the Community method is that :

  • The right of initiative from various sides would choke the decision-making system, in particular in an enlarged Union, as can already be seen in some sectors now.

  • Sharing the right of initiative would allow a limited number of Member States to dominate the decision-making process.

  • National executives would be able to exert public powers through intergovernmental ways, less embedded in the rule of law. This would diminish the democratic quality of the EU.

  • The 'checks-and-balances' aspect of the current interplay between the three institutions, which is a characteristic of our democracies, would diminish.

  • Judicial control on the use of public powers would be less stringent, as is already the case in the current Common Foreign and Security Policy and aspects of Justice and Home Affairs.

  • Trust between the Member States would diminish over time, given the absence of a relatively neutral broker in the system.

III. How has the Community method been renewed over time ?

The Community method is not static. It has been adjusted and renewed over time with, inter alia :

  • The extension of the role of the European Parliament in the legislative and budgetary process, although it is still largely excluded from important powers of the EU.

  • The extension of qualified majority voting. Nevertheless, more than fifty legal bases in the current Treaty still foresee unanimity.

History shows the importance of qualified majority voting. The Single Market programme was only realised after the Single European Act of 1987 changed the decision rule from unanimity to qualified majority for many issues. The EU environment policy got a boost from the Maastricht Treaty, which introduced qualified majority voting for many environmental issues.

Unanimity often leads to policy failure. It applies, for instance, to fiscal matters related to the functioning of the single market. This entails blockages in the Council and, subsequently, a proliferation of co-operation between Member States outside of the EU framework. This can complicate doing business in the internal market.

One important institutional change over time has been the role of the European Council. The increased involvement of the European Council in deciding on specific matters has damaged the quality of the interplay between the institutional triangle. The European Council should reinforce the authority of the Council of Ministers and not erode it ; it should define broad policy orientations but leave actual decisions to the institutional triangle.


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