When thinking about the European Union, we can get the impression that policymaking is complicated, distant, and not relevant to citizens in the EU member states. Think about forest policy. Isn’t it true that forest-related policy decisions are made in our own parliaments guided by our elected politicians only? Well, not really. The decision process is more complicated than that.
Around 80% of the decisions relevant to the environment are now taken at the EU level. Despite all member states having strong forest legislation in place, many topics like nature and biodiversity protection, or climate change are policy areas where the European Union takes collective action.
However, decision-making at the European level differs substantially from that at the national level. National policy advisers, their ministers, and European Parliamentarians collaborate with the European Commission to agree on shared policy aims and decide on new forest-related policies and regulations.
Misunderstandings often arise when the media claim that the European Parliament has agreed to a forest-related decision. When such headlines appear in national newspapers, people tend to think that a definitive decision on, say, forest legislation, has been taken. But this is not the case in the EU context. When headlines say that the European Parliament has agreed to a forest-related decision, this usually means the Parliament has made up its mind about a proposal made by the European Commission.
Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s look at how forest-related EU decision-making works. It is important to remember that this differs in three ways from the decision-making we know from the domestic level:
1. The Right of Initiative
Only the European Commission can prepare and propose new legislation at the EU level. Other institutions (e.g. the European Parliament) can only respond to this as the Commission holds the “right of initiative”. In other words, it is the Commission that proposes legislative texts affecting also forests (e.g., the proposal for Nature Restoration law) or publishes policy strategies (e.g., the EU Forest Strategy). But since forests are not mentioned directly in the Treaties of the European Union, the Commission can act only in related areas where it is competent to do so. Such areas of competence include agricultural and trade policies, and environmental and climate change policies. This explains why the Commission never proposes a forest law in itself, but rather nature protection or restoration legislation that is related to forests. The implementation of these laws is, of course, heavily dependent on member states.
So, who prepares these strategies and laws? The European Commission is made up of about 30 General Directorates (DG), which are analogous to national ministries. These directorates oversee different policy areas, e.g., agricultural and rural development (DG AGRI), climate action (DG Clima), or environmental affairs (DG ENV). They are preceded by a commissioner, which acts like a minister at the domestic level. The European Commission currently has 27 commissioners – one from each country – and the entire organization is led by the Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen. Staff members of these different General Directorates prepare European strategies and legislation that relate to forests. Depending on the main topic, different DGs take the lead. During the preparation phase, they consult with stakeholders, representatives from member states, scientists, and the European public.
2. The Two Co-Legislators
The European Commission has two co-legislators: the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union.
Members of the European Parliament are elected directly in each of the 27 member states. Parliament’s authority has grown over time and now it co-legislates legal proposals affecting forests in most cases. This means Parliament proposes alterations to legal texts, jointly prepares resolutions and takes opinions on the implementation of the European Commission’s forest and biodiversity strategies.
The Council of the European Union, (usually known as ‘the Council’ or ‘Council of Ministers’) compares to national governments. While governments in member states are mostly coalition governments that hold most electoral votes and are formed by leading political parties, the various Council members are not elected. Instead, they come from the 27 member states and are ministers in charge of agriculture and rural development, environment, climate action etc, depending on the policy area being discussed. These ministers convene to take decisions, which have been prepared by national advisors gathered in Council working groups and another body made up of each member country’s permanent representative (similar to an ambassador). Every 6 months the presidency of the Council is passed to another country (this is currently Sweden, from July 2023 it will be Spain). This means that Sweden speaks on behalf of the other member states, presides over its meetings, and negotiates legal proposals with the European Commission and the European Parliament.
3. The European Council
The European Council provides political direction and guidelines to the European Union itself. It is comparable to meetings of the entire government in one country to decide on its strategic directions. In the EU context however, the European Council includes the 27 heads of state and the presidents of the Commission and the Council. While they have no direct role in the legislative process, it is composed of the highest political representatives from the Union and the member states, who formulate council conclusions upon which the Commission bases its work on and then proposes policies.
The European Council supplies political direction to the Union (including on environmental and forest policy) while not taking part in the negotiation of forest-related legislation.
The European Commission tables a legislative proposal, which is negotiated with and then adopted by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. Negotiation can sometimes happen behind closed doors in a “trialogue”, where the most contentious points of disagreement are aired.
Sometimes more legislative acts need to be agreed upon for the implementation phase of legislation (e.g., financial decisions). All this happens in the “comitology”, when the Commission consults with different committees to prepare additional implementing legislation which then must be adopted by the Parliament and the Council.
To conclude, forest policy-making in the European Union is a complex process. As we’ve seen, the process is driven by different EU institutions and representatives from member states. It does of course not stop there as decisions then have to be implemented and translated to the member states, but this is probably best to discuss in another blog!
Feature image: weyo/ AdobeStock