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EU Glossary: European Union Decoded

Useful terms to understand and decode the European Commission and its actions


  • Action plans set out concrete steps and sequence of initiatives to be taken in order to implement legislative programs and achieve the strategic objective in question.
  • Comitology: The term ‘comitology’ refers to the set of procedures through which the European Commission exercises the implementing powers conferred on it by the EU legislator, with the assistance of committees of representatives from EU countries. Such comitology committees are chaired by a Commission official and give an opinion on implementing acts proposed by the Commission. Regulation (EU) No 182/2011 lays down the general principles concerning mechanisms for control by EU countries of the Commission's exercise of implementing powers. It put into practice Article 291 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) on implementing acts. Under the Regulation, the committees use two types of procedures: examination and advisory. The choice of procedure for a committee is made by the EU legislator, and depends on the nature of the implementing powers that are laid out in the basic regulation, directive or decision.
  • Community Method: As a general rule, EU decisions are taken by means of the 'Community' method involving the use of the ordinary legislative procedure, as defined in Article 294 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. The Community method is characterised by: the sole right of the European Commission to initiate legislation; the co-decision power between the Council and the European Parliament, and the use of qualified majority voting in Council.
  • Conferral: Under the principle of conferral, which is fundamental to EU law, laid down in Article 5 of the Treaty on European Union, the EU acts only within the limits of the competences that EU countries have conferred upon it in the Treaties. These competences are defined in Articles 2–6 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU. Competences not conferred on the EU by the Treaties thus remain with EU countries. While the principle of conferral governs the limits to EU competences, the use of those competences is governed by the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality.
  • Customs Union: The customs union (Articles 28-29 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European - TFEU) is an essential foundation of the EU and of its single 28-country market. For the single market to function properly, EU countries have agreed standardised rules that are applied in a uniform manner by all 28 EU customs administrations. There are no customs duties at the EU Customs Union's internal borders. All goods circulate freely within the customs union area, whether they are made in the EU or imported from outside. A new EU Customs Code which simplifies rules and procedures for customs and makes trading more efficient was adopted in 2013. Once it applies, in May 2016, it will greatly simplify and streamline EU customs procedures. Efforts are also under way to improve customs risk management and the security of the supply chain, as well as to develop procedures to improve the efficiency of customs in enforcing health, safety and environment rules.
  • Decisions come from the Council or the Commission and are legally binding on the recipient in its entirety (Art. 288 TFEU). They can be addressed to Member States, companies or individuals. The legislative procedure for adoption of a decision varies depending on its subject matter (Ordinary Legislative Procedure, Assent Procedure, Consultation Procedure). In some areas, such as competition policy, the Commission may itself issue decisions. On the basis of case law, decisions may have direct effect, that is to say they may be invoked by individual persons and corporate bodies before national courts.
  • Directives are legislative acts that set out a goal that all EU countries must achieve. However, it is up to the individual countries to devise their own laws on how to reach these goals. One example is the EU consumer rights directive, which aims at strengthening rights for consumers across the EU, for example by eliminating hidden charges and costs on the internet, extending the period under which consumers can withdraw from a sales contract.
  • Communication is a policy document with no mandatory authority. The Commission usually publishes a Communication to address the European Parliament and the Council when it wishes to set out its own thinking on a policy issue, it has no legal effect. It is usually followed by a strategy paper.
  • Consultation is conducted by the Commission with stakeholders and experts regarding upcoming legislative measures. Consultation is often accompanied by a Green Paper.
  • Framework Strategy sets the vision for the future and integrates a series of policy areas into one cohesive strategy.
  • Green paper is a report published by the Commission and is the basis for discussion of a particular policy area. Consultations following the green paper may lead to concrete proposals in a subsequent white paper.
  • Impact assessments are prepared to assess the need for EU action and the potential economic, social and environmental impacts of alternative policy options before the Commission proposes a new initiative. Impact assessments are prepared for the following  initiatives: legislative proposals, non-legislative initiatives (eg white papers, action plans, financial programmes, negotiating guidelines for international agreements) that define future policies, implementing and delegated acts. 
  • Informal trialogues: Informal trilogues enable EU-institutions to reach agreements on legislative proposals prior to the respective first reading within the ordinary legislative procedure. Representatives from the European Parliament, the European Commission and the Council negotiate behind closed doors in order to find a compromise, seeking to avoid second and third readings in Parliament. 
  • Juncker priorities are areas which have been identified as areas where the Commission can make a difference and are therefore the focus of its work.
  • Orientation debate is an initial discussion on a policy area conducted by the College of Commissioners.
  • Package is a series of legislative proposals made by the Commission regarding a specific objective.
  • Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO): The Lisbon Treaty introduced the possibility for certain EU countries to strengthen their cooperation in military matters by creating permanent structured cooperation (Articles 42(6) and 46 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU)). In order to do this, interested countries must fulfil two main conditions provided in Protocol No 10 annexed to the treaty:

1. They must intensively develop defence capacities through the development of national contributions and their participation in multinational forces, in the main European equipment programmes and in the activities of the European Defence Agency in the field of defence capabilities development, research, acquisition and armaments;

2. They must have the capacity by 2010 to supply combat units and support logistics for the tasks referred to in Article 43 TEU within a period of 5 to 30 days and, depending on needs, for a period of 30 to 120 days.

The European Defence Agency regularly assesses the contributions of participating countries.

EU countries wishing to constitute permanent structured cooperation must notify their intention to the Council and to the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Following this notification, the Council must adopt a decision by qualified majority establishing permanent structured cooperation and the list of participating countries. The membership of new countries or the suspension of some of them is decided by the Council by a qualified majority of the members participating in the permanent structured cooperation. The decisions and recommendations taken within the framework of such permanent structured cooperation are adopted by unanimity of the participating Council members only.

  • Political Guidelines define the Commission’s priorities for the next 5 years. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker outlined them in his opening statement to the European Parliament.
  • Regulations are binding legislative acts. They must be applied in its entirety across the EU. For example, when the EU wants to make sure that there are common safeguards on goods imported from outside the EU, the Council adopts a regulation.
  • Strategy is a plan developed by the Commission to achieve a specific objective.
  • Strategy papers are published by the Commission to initiate a discussion, often before a green or white paper.
  • Subsidiarity: The principle of subsidiarity is defined in Article 5 of the Treaty on European Union. It aims to ensure that decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen and that constant checks are made to verify that action at EU level is justified in light of the possibilities available at national, regional or local level. Specifically, it is the principle whereby the EU does not take action (except in the areas that fall within its exclusive competence), unless it is more effective than action taken at national, regional or local level. It is closely bound up with the principle of proportionality, which requires that any action by the EU should not go beyond what is necessary to achieve the objectives of the Treaties. There are two Protocols annexed to the Treaty of Lisbon that are key: Protocol No 1 on the role of national Parliaments encourages national Parliaments' involvement in EU activities and requires EU documents and proposals to be forwarded promptly to them so they can examine them before the Council takes a decision. Protocol No 2 requires the Commission to take into account the regional and local dimension of all draft legislative acts and to make a detailed statement on how the principle of subsidiarity is respected. This Protocol allows national Parliaments to object to a proposal on the grounds that it breaches the principle, as a result of which the proposal must be reviewed and may be maintained, amended or withdrawn by the Commission, or blocked by the European Parliament or the Council. In the case of a breach of the principle of subsidiarity, the Committee of the Regions or EU countries may refer an adopted act directly to the Court of Justice of the EU.
  • Work programs are adopted by the Commission to set out concrete actions for the next twelve months. The Commission's Work Program gives practical effect to the political priorities.
  • White paper is a document containing proposals for action in a specific area. In some cases they follow a Green Paper published to launch a consultation process at the European level. When a White Paper is favourably received by the Council, it can lead to an action program for the Union in the area concerned.


Sources: EUR-Lex-Database, European Commission; European Parliament.

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