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Welcome to!
The Democratic Deficit)

Democratic deficit:

It is often said that the EU's decision-making system is too remote from ordinary people, who cannot understand its complexities and its difficult legal texts. The proposed new constitution of the Eu was to have addressed many of the issues raised under this heading.

Proposed changes under the new constitutional treaty – this was rejected by the voters of France and The Netherlands and is curently ‘in limbo’ awaiting a re-visit at some time in the future.

Successive revisions of the treaties that form the constitution of the European Union have increased the power of the directly-elected European Parliament in an attempt to reduce the perceived democratic deficit.

The proposed Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe, if it had been ratified, would have made the following changes in this regard:

  • It would have extended the power of codecision to virtually all policy areas. This means that Parliament would become an equal legislative partner with the Council for virtually all EU-level decision-making.

  • It would have required the Council to meet in public when legislating.

  • It would have ensured that national parliaments receive information about new EU legislative proposals in enough time to mandate ministers on how to vote in the Council.

  • It would also have given national parliaments a new power to send any proposal back to the Commission for reconsideration if they believe the proposal lies outside the EU's competence (i.e. if they believe it covers a policy area for which the treaties do not allow EU-level decision-making).

  • It would have created a new citizens' right of initiative, obliging the Commission to consider any proposal for legislation that has the support of 1 million EU citizens.

However, some commentators argued that the treaty did not go far enough in reducing the perceived democratic deficit. In particular, they pointed out that:

  • There would be no change to the principle that EU laws, and the terms of constitution itself, supersede national laws: "The Constitution and law adopted by the institutions of the Union in exercising competences conferred on it shall have primacy over the law of the Member States" (Article I-6). The constitution specifically spelled out that, for those areas of policy where member states share competence with the EU, national governments may act at national level only where they have not already acted through the EU. In other areas, member states confer sole competence on the EU, i.e. they agree to act only at European level (Article I-12). In any case, the question of whether EU laws can reasonably be described as "national governments acting at EU level", when the European Commission has the sole right to propose those laws, is controversial.

  • The appointed European Commission would remain the sole initiator of legislative proposals. Other bodies (Parliament, Council, citizens) can only require it to consider drafting a proposal.

  • Similarly, national parliaments would acquire the right to send a proposal back to the Commission for reconsideration, but there is no explicit requirement for the Commission to make any changes to its proposal as a result.

The principle of susidiarity


Subsidiarity is the principle which states that matters ought to be handled by the smallest (or, the lowest) competent authority


It is presently best known as a fundamental principle of European Union law. According to this principle, the EU may only act (i.e. make laws) where member states agree that action of individual countries is insufficient.


European Union law

Subsidiarity was established in EU law by the Treaty of Maastricht, signed on 7 February 1992 and entered into force on 1 November 1993. The present formulation is contained in Article 5 of the Treaty Establishing the European Community (consolidated version following the Treaty of Nice, which entered into force on 1 February 2003):


The Community shall act within the limits of the powers conferred upon it by this Treaty and of the objectives assigned to it therein.

In areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Community shall take action, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States and can therefore, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved by the Community.

Any action by the Community shall not go beyond what is necessary to achieve the objectives of this Treaty.

A more descriptive analysis of the principle can be found in Protocol 30 to the EC Treaty.


Article 9 of the proposed European constitution states


Under the principle of subsidiarity, in areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence the Union shall act only if and insofar as the objectives of the intended action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States, either at central level or at regional and local level, but can rather, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved at Union level.

Formally, the principle of subsidiarity applies to those areas where the Community does not have exclusive competence, the principle delineating those areas where the Community should and should not act. In practice, the concept is frequently used in a more informal manner in discussions as to which competences should be given to the Community, and which retained for the Member States alone.


The concept of subsidiarity therefore has both a legal and a political dimension. Consequently, there are varying views as to its legal and political consequences, and various criteria are put forward explaining the content of the principle. For example:


The action must be necessary because actions of individuals or member-state governments alone will not achieve the objectives of the action (the sufficiency criterion)

The action must bring added value over and above what could be achieved by individual or member-state government action alone (the benefit criterion).

Decisions should be taken as closely as possible to the citizen (the close to the citizen criterion)

The action should secure greater freedoms for the individual (the autonomy criterion).

The European Union, however, has as part of its phraseology a call for "an ever-closer union." What restraints upon the progress of centralised decision making would be brought about by strict reference to the principle of subsidiarity have yet to be proven by major constitutional clashes.


Some further reading







An introduction to EU jargon


People within the EU institutions and in the media dealing with EU affairs often use 'euro jargon' words and expressions that they alone understand. Euro jargon can be very confusing to the general public. Hopefully, this guide will help you understand most of the terms used in EU discussions.


Absorption (absorptive) capacity:

This usually means the ability of a country or organization to receive aid and use it effectively. Developing countries often lack this capacity. For example, a country may receive enough money to enable all its children to attend primary school - but owing to a lack of teachers, lack of schools or a poor administrative system, it is impossible to spend this money in the short term. Work must first be done to train teachers, build schools and improve the efficiency of the system - thus raising the country's 'absorptive capacity'.


Acceding - country:

This is a candidate country that has met the Copenhagen criteria and has completed negotiations for joining the European Union.


Acquis communautaire:

This is a French term meaning, essentially, "the EU as it is" – in other words, the rights and obligations that EU countries share. The "acquis" includes all the EU's treaties and laws, declarations and resolutions, international agreements on EU affairs and the judgments given by the Court of Justice. It also includes action that EU governments take together in the area of "justice and home affairs" and on the Common Foreign and Security Policy. "Accepting the acquis" therefore means taking the EU as you find it. Candidate countries have to accept the "acquis" before they can join the EU, and make EU law part of their own national legislation.

For a fuller explanation, see "Community acquis" in the glossary.



This term literally means "things to be done". It normally refers to the list of items for discussion at a meeting, but politicians also use it as a jargon term meaning "things we want to achieve". For example, the EU’s "Social Agenda" sets out what the Union wants to achieve, over the next few years, in terms of employment and social policies. It forms part of the “Lisbon Strategy.



The EU aims to guarantee fair and free competition in the single market, and to ensure that companies compete rather than collude. So EU rules prohibit agreements that restrict competition (e.g. secret agreements between companies to charge artificially high prices) and abuses by firms who hold a dominant position on the market. Rules of this kind are known as “anti-trust” legislation. The Commission has considerable powers to prohibit anti-competitive activities, and to impose fines on firms found guilty of anti-competitive conduct.


Applicant country:

This means a country that has applied to join the European Union. Once its application has been officially accepted, it becomes a candidate country.

For further details see glossary.



This means measuring how well one country, business, industry, etc. is performing compared to other countries, businesses, industries, and so on. The 'benchmark' is the standard by which performance will be judged. Benchmarking is one of the techniques used in the 'Lisbon process'.


Best practice:

One way of improving policies in the EU is for governments to look at what is going on in other EU countries and to see what works best. They can then adopt this 'best practice', adapting it to their own national and local circumstances.

"Brussels has decided…":

The term “Brussels” is often used in the media to refer to the EU institutions, most of which are located in the city of Brussels. EU laws are proposed by the European Commission but it is the Council of the European Union (ministers from the national governments) and the European Parliament (elected by the European citizens) that debate, amend and ultimately decide whether to pass these proposed laws.


Budget deficit:

A technical term meaning the gap between a government's revenue and its expenditure


Candidate country:

This means a country that has applied to join the European Union and whose application has been officially accepted. At present there are four candidate countries: Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania and Turkey. Before a candidate country can join the EU it must meet the 'Copenhagen criteria'.


CAP reform:

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was first introduced in 1960, to ensure that Europe had secure food supplies at affordable prices. But it became a victim of its own success, generating unwanted surpluses of some products such as beef, barley, milk and wine. Also, the subsidies paid to European farmers were distorting world trade. So the European Commission began reviewing the CAP in 1999. The EU agreed further reforms in 2003, with the emphasis on high-quality farm produce and animal-friendly farming practices that respect the environment and preserve the countryside. The EU plans to cut back on direct subsidies to farmers, so as to redress the balance between EU agricultural markets and those of the developing world.


Civil dialogue:

This means consulting civil society (see below) when the European Commission is drawing up its policies and proposals for legislation. It is a broader concept than 'social dialogue'.


Civil society:

This is the collective name for all kinds of organizations and associations that are not part of government but that represent professions, interest groups or sections of society. It includes (for example) trade unions, employers' associations, environmental lobbies and groups representing women, farmers, people with disabilities and so on. Since these organizations have a lot of expertise in particular areas and are involved in implementing and monitoring European Union policies, the EU regularly consults civil society and wants it to become more involved in European policymaking.



This means (literally) 'sticking together'. The jargon term 'promoting social cohesion' means the EU tries to make sure that everyone has a place in society – for example by tackling poverty, unemployment and discrimination. The EU budget includes money known as the 'Cohesion Fund' which is used to finance projects that help the EU 'stick together'. For example, it finances new road and rail links that help disadvantaged regions take a full part in the EU economy.



This is more correctly known as "committee procedure". It describes a process in which the Commission, when implementing EU law, has to consult special advisory committees made up of experts from the EU countries.

For a fuller explanation, go to "glossary".


Common market:

When the EEC (see below) was founded in 1957, it was based on a 'common market'. In other words, people, goods and services should be able to move around freely between the member states as if they were all one country, with no checks carried out at the borders and no customs duties paid. However, this took a while to achieve: customs duties between the EEC countries were not completely abolished until 1 July 1968. Other barriers to trade also took a long while to remove, and it was not until the end of 1992 that the 'Single Market' (as it became known) was in place.



This technical term means transferring a matter from the second or third 'pillar' of the EU to the first 'pillar' so that it can be dealt with using the 'Community method '


Community Bridge:

This is a procedure for transferring certain matters from the third 'pillar' of the EU  to the first 'pillar' so that they can be dealt with using the Community method (see below). Any decision to use the bridge has to be taken by the Council, unanimously, and then ratified by each Member State. Community/communities: see 'European Communities'.


Community method:

This is the EU's usual method of decision-making, in which the Commission makes a proposal to the Council and Parliament who then debate it, propose amendments and eventually adopt it as EU law. In the process, they will often consult other bodies such as the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions.



This is euro jargon for 'powers and responsibilities'. It is often used in political discussions about what powers and responsibilities should be given to EU institutions and what should be left to national, regional and local authorities.


Competent authority:

This usually means the government department or other body responsible for dealing with a particular issue. It is 'competent' in the sense of having the legal power and responsibility.


Constitution of the EU:

At present, the EU is founded on four basic treaties that lay down the rules by which it has to operate. These treaties are big and complex, and EU leaders intend to replace them with a single, shorter, simpler document spelling out the EU's purposes and aims and stating clearly who does what. This new document (technically known as the 'constitutional Treaty') will be rather similar to the constitution of a country - even though the EU is not, and does not aim to be, a single country. The text of this new EU Constitution was agreed in June 2004 and signed by all the member state governments in October 2004. It is due to come into force in 2006, but first it must be ratified by all the national parliaments and, in some countries, be approved by referendum.



This term has various meanings, including (in the EU context) a group of people representing the EU institutions, the national governments and parliaments, who come together to draw up an important document. Conventions of this sort met to draw up the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the draft EU Constitution.


Convention on the future of Europe:

The European Convention (also known as the Convention on the future of Europe) was set up in December 2001. It had 105 members, representing the presidents or prime ministers of the EU member states and candidate countries, their national parliaments, the European Parliament and the European Commission. Its Chairman was former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. The Convention's job was to draw up a new Treaty that would set out clear rules for running the European Union after enlargement. It was, in effect, to be the Constitution of the EU (see above). The Convention completed its work on 10 July 2003.




Copenhagen criteria:

In June 1993, EU leaders meeting in Copenhagen set three criteria that any candidate country (see above) must meet before it can join the European Union. First, it must have stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for minorities. Second, it must have a functioning market economy. Third, it must take on board all the acquis (see above) and support the various aims of the European Union. In addition, it must have a public administration capable of applying and managing EU laws in practice. The EU reserves the right to decide when a candidate country has met these criteria and when the EU is ready to accept the new member. 



There are three different European bodies with the word 'council' in their names:

The European Council

This is the meeting of heads of State and government (i.e. presidents and/or prime ministers) of all the EU countries, plus the President of the European Commission. The European Council meets, in principle, four times a year to agree overall EU policy and to review progress. It is the highest-level policy-making body in the European Union, which is why its meetings are often called “summits”. 

The Council of the European Union

Formerly known as the Council of Ministers, this institution consists of government ministers from all the EU countries. The Council meets regularly to take detailed decisions and to pass European laws.

The Council of Europe

This is not an EU institution. It is an intergovernmental organization based in Strasbourg and it aims (amongst other things) to protect human rights, to promote Europe's cultural diversity and to combat social problems such as xenophobia and intolerance. The Council of Europe was set up in 1949 and one of its early achievements was to draw up the European Convention on Human Rights. To enable citizens to exercise their rights under that Convention it set up the European Court of Human Rights.


Cultural capitals:

Every year a different European city is designated as the “European capital of culture”. The aim is to publicise and celebrate the cultural achievements and charms of this city and so make European citizens more aware of the rich heritage they share. Cork (in Ireland) has been chosen as European capital of culture for 2005. Further information is available at The Greek town of Patras has been designated for 2006.


Democratic deficit:

It is often said that the EU's decision-making system is too remote from ordinary people, who cannot understand its complexities and its difficult legal texts. The EU is trying to overcome this “democratic deficit” through simpler legislation and better public information, and by giving civil society (see above) a greater say in European policymaking. Citizens are already represented in EU decision-making via the European Parliament.




The staff of the main EU institutions (Commission, Council and Parliament) are organized into a number of distinct departments, known as “Directorates-General” (DGs), each of which is responsible for specific tasks or policy areas The administrative head of a DG is known as the 'Director-General' (a term sometimes also abbreviated to 'DG').



This abbreviation refers either to the 'European Community' or to the 'European Commission'.

The European Community

Is the present name for what was originally called the 'European Economic Community' (EEC):

The European Commission

Is the politically independent institution that represents and upholds the interests of the European Union as a whole It proposes legislation, policies and programmes of action and it is responsible for implementing the decisions of Parliament and the Council.



This abbreviation refers to the European Economic Area – which consists of the European Union and all the EFTA countries (see below) except Switzerland. The EEA Agreement, which entered into force on 1 January 1994, enables Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway to enjoy the benefits of the EU's single market without the full privileges and responsibilities of EU membership.



This is the abbreviation for the European Economic Community – one of three European Communities (see below) set up in 1957 to bring about economic integration in Europe. There were originally six member countries: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. In 1993, when the Treaty of Maastricht came into force, the EEC was re-named the European Community (EC) and it forms the basis of today's European Union.



This is the abbreviation for the European Free Trade Association – an organization founded in 1960 to promote free trade in goods amongst its member states. There were originally seven EFTA countries: Austria, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom (UK). Finland joined in 1961, Iceland in 1970, and Liechtenstein in 1991. In 1973, Denmark and the UK left EFTA and joined the EEC. They were followed by Portugal in 1986 and by Austria, Finland and Sweden in 1995. Today the EFTA members are Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland.


Enhanced co-operation:

This is an arrangement whereby a group of EU countries (there must be at least eight of them) can work together in a particular field even if the other EU countries are unable or unwilling to join in at this stage. The outsiders must, however, be free to join in later if they wish.




In the 1950s, the EU began with just six member states. It now has 25. Growth in EU membership is known as 'enlargement', and it has happened several times:

1950Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands

1973           Denmark, Ireland, United Kingdom

1981           Greece

1986           Portugal, Spain

1995           Austria, Finland, Sweden

2004           Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.



This is not really euro jargon. Named after the great Renaissance scholar, it is an EU-supported education programme that began in 1987. By 2007, two million students will have studied in another country thanks to Erasmus. From 2004, a new programme, Erasmus Mundus, is spending more than €40 million annually on promoting Masters courses offered by a consortium of at least three universities in at least three different European countries. Scholarships to take these courses are available to students from any country.


Euro barometer:

This is a Commission service, set up in 1973, which measures and analyses trends in public opinion in all the member states and in the candidate countries. Knowing what the general public thinks is important in helping the European Commission draft its legislative proposals, take decisions and evaluate its work. Eurobarometer uses both opinion polls and focus groups. Its surveys lead to the publication of around 100 reports every year.



The term “Eurocrats” (a pun on the word “bureaucrats”) refers to the many thousands of EU citizens who work for the European institutions (Parliament, the Council, the Commission, etc.).



This is an unofficial nickname for what is officially called “the euro area” - also often referred to as “the euro zone”. This area consists of the EU member states that have adopted the euro as their currency. So far the countries involved are Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal and Spain.



This is not really eurojargon. It is the Latin name for Europe, and it is also the name of the European Union's official website. This contains a wealth of useful information about the EU, regularly updated, and it is available in all the official languages of the EU.


European Communities:

In the 1950s, six European countries decided to pool their economic resources and set up a system of joint decision-making on economic issues. To do so, they formed three organizations:

The European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC),

The European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom)

The European Economic Community (EEC)


These three communities – collectively known as the 'European communities' – formed the basis of what is today the European Union. The EEC soon became by far the most important of the three and was eventually renamed simply 'the European Community' (EC).

EC decisions are taken using the 'Community method' (see above), which involves the EU institutions. This covers everything the EU does except for those things that are decided purely by agreement between governments.


European integration:

This means building unity between European countries and peoples. Within the European Union it means that countries pool their resources and take many decisions jointly. This joint decision-making takes place through interaction between the EU institutions (the Parliament, the Council, the Commission, etc.).

European Year of…:

Every year or two, the EU or the Council of Europe may draw public attention to a particular European issue by organising a series of special events in connection with it.


Europe Day, 9th May:

It was on 9 May 1950 that Robert Schumann (then French Foreign Minister) made his famous speech proposing European integration (see above) as the way to secure peace and build prosperity in post-war Europe. His proposals laid the foundations for what is now the European Union, so 9 May is celebrated annually as the EU's birthday.

Euro sceptic:

This term is often used to mean a person who is opposed to European integration or who is 'sceptical' of the EU and its aims.



Broadly speaking, this means any system of government where several states form a unity and yet remain independent in their internal affairs. People who are in favour of this system are often called “federalists”.

A number of countries around the world – e.g. Australia, Canada, Germany, Switzerland and the United States – have federal models of government, in which some matters (such as foreign policy) are decided at the federal level while others are decided by the individual states. However, the model differs from one country to another.

The European Union is not based on any of these models: it is not a federation but a unique form of union in which the member states remain independent and sovereign nations while pooling their sovereignty in many areas of common interest. This gives them a collective strength and influence on the world stage than none of them could have on their own.

Part of the debate about the future of Europe is the question of whether the EU should or should not become more 'federal'.


Financial perspective:

The word 'perspective' here really means 'plan'. The EU has to plan its work well in advance and ensure that it has enough money to pay for what it wants to do. So its main institutions (Parliament, the Council and the Commission) have to agree in advance on the priorities for the next few years and come up with a spending plan which is called a 'financial perspective'. This financial perspective states the maximum amount the EU can spend, and what it can spend it on.

In a world of rising costs, the purpose of the financial perspective is to keep EU expenditure under control.


Fortress Europe:

This expression is often used to mean an attitude that wants to defend Europe from outside influences, especially cultural influences. The term 'Fortress Europe' often appears in discussions about asylum and immigration regulations.


Founding fathers:

In the years following the Second World War, people like Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman dreamed of uniting the peoples of Europe in lasting peace and friendship. Over the following fifty years, as the EU was built, their dream became reality. That is why they are called the “founding fathers” of the European Union.

Four freedoms:

One of the great achievements of the EU has been to create a frontier-free area within which (I) people, (2) goods, (3) services and (4) money can all move around freely. This four-fold freedom of movement is sometimes called “the four freedoms”.


Free trade area:

This means a group of countries that have removed barriers to trade between them – barriers such as import tariffs and quotas. Several free trade areas have been established around the world: Mercosur in South America, NAFTA in North America and EFTA in Europe, for example. The European Union is also a free trade area, but it is much more than that because it is built on a process of economic and political integration, with joint decision-taking in many policy areas.



This may mean bringing national laws into line with one another, very often in order to remove national barriers that obstruct the free movement of workers, goods, services and capital. In other words, harmonisation means making sure that, on any particular issue for which the EU has responsibility, the rules laid down by the different EU countries impose similar obligations on citizens of all those countries and that they impose certain minimum obligations in each country.

Harmonisation can also mean co-ordinating national technical rules so that products and services can be traded freely throughout the EU. Contrary to popular myth, this does not mean pointlessly standardising everything from the curvature of cucumbers to the colour of carrots. Often it simply means that EU countries recognise one another's safety rules.





This literally means 'between governments'. In the EU, some matters – such as security and defence issues – are decided purely by intergovernmental agreement (i.e. agreement between the governments of the EU countries), and not by the 'Community method' (see above). These intergovernmental decisions are taken by ministers meeting in the Council of the European Union, or at the highest level by the prime ministers and/or presidents of the EU countries, meeting as the European Council.

Intergovernmental Conference (IGC):

This means a conference at which the EU member states' governments come together to amend the European Union treaties. The IGC held in 2003 led to the signing, in 2004, of the EU Constitution.


Lisbon strategy:

To compete with other major world players, the EU needs a modern efficient economy. Meeting in Lisbon in March 2000, the EU's political leaders set it a new goal: to become, within a decade, "the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world, capable of sustainable growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion.”

The EU's leaders also agreed on a detailed strategy for achieving this goal. The 'Lisbon strategy' covers such matters as research, education, training, Internet access and on-line business. It also covers reform of Europe's social protection systems, which must be made sustainable so that their benefits can be enjoyed by future generations. Every spring the European Council meets to review progress in implementing the Lisbon strategy.


Maastricht criteria:

These are five criteria that determine whether an EU country is ready to adopt the euro. They relate to:


Price stability:

The inflation rate should be no more than 1.5 percentage points above the rate for the three EU countries with the lowest inflation over the previous year;

Budget deficit:

This must generally be below 3% of gross domestic product (GDP);


The national debt should not exceed 60% of GDP, but a country with a higher level of debt can still adopt the euro provided its debt level are falling steadily;

Interest rates:

The long-term rate should be no more than two percentage points above the rate in the three EU countries with the lowest inflation over the previous year;

Exchange rate stability:

The national currency's exchange rate should have stayed within certain pre-set margins of fluctuation for two years.

These criteria were laid down in the Treaty of Maastricht – hence their name.



Put simply, mainstreaming an issue means making sure it is fully taken into account in all EU polices. For example, every European Union policy decision must now take account of its environmental implications. In other words, environmental considerations have been 'mainstreamed'.


Member state:

The countries that belong to an international organisation are its 'member states'. The term is also often used to mean the governments of those countries.

From 1 May 2004, the member states of the European Union are Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom. For the years when they joined the EU, see 'enlargement' (above).

Official languages:

From 1 May 2004 there are 20 official languages in the European Union: Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish, and Swedish.

EU legislation is published in all the official languages, and you may use any of these languages to correspond with the EU institutions. In addition, of course, there are many other languages spoken in Europe, and this diversity of national and regional languages is something Europeans cherish. It is part of their rich cultural heritage. The European Commission runs programmes to promote language learning and linguistic diversity.


Open method of coordination:

In many policy areas (for example education and training, pensions and health care, immigration and asylum), EU governments set their own national policies rather than having an EU-wide policy laid down in law. However, it makes sense for governments to share information, adopt best practice (see above) and bring their national policies into line. This way of learning from one another is called the 'open method of coordination'.

Pillars of the EU:

The European Union takes decisions in three separate 'domains' (policy areas), also known as the three 'pillars' of the EU.

The first pillar is the 'Community domain', covering most of the common policies, where decisions are taken by the 'Community method' – involving the Commission, Parliament and the Council.

The second pillar is the common foreign and security policy, where decisions are taken by the Council alone.

The third pillar is 'police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters', where – once again – the Council takes the decisions.


Within the first pillar, the Council normally takes decisions by 'qualified majority' vote. In the other pillars, the Council decision has to be unanimous: it can therefore be blocked by the veto of any one country.

If the Council so decides, it can use the 'Community bridge' to transfer certain matters from the third to the first pillar.





Qualified majority voting:

On most issues, the Council of the European Union takes its decisions by voting. Each country can cast a certain number of votes, roughly in proportion to the size of its population. The number of votes per country is as follows: France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom 29

Poland and Spain 27

Netherlands 13

Belgium, Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary and Portugal 12

Austria and Sweden 10

Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Lithuania and Slovakia 7

Cyprus, Estonia, Latvia, Luxembourg and Slovenia 4

Malta 3

For a proposal to be adopted by the Council there must be a 'qualified majority' in favour. This means at least 232 votes out of the total of 321. A majority of the countries (in some cases a two-thirds majority) must also be in favour. In addition, any country can ask the Council to check that the countries in favour account for at least 62% of the total EU population.


Rendez-vous clause:

Sometimes, when EU leaders are discussing an important legal document, they cannot reach agreement on a particular issue. So they may decide to come back to this subject at a later date. Their decision is made official by putting it in writing and including it as a clause in the legal text they are discussing. This type of clause is sometimes known as a “rendezvous clause”.


Schengen land (= the Schengen area, the Schengen countries):

In 1985, five EU countries (France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) agreed to abolish all checks on people travelling between them. This created a territory without internal borders which became known as the Schengen area. (Schengen is the town in Luxembourg where the agreement was signed).

The Schengen countries introduced a common visa policy for the whole area and agreed to establish effective controls at its external borders. Checks at the internal borders may be carried out for a limited period if public order or national security makes this necessary.

Little by little, the Schengen area has been extended to include every EU country plus Iceland and Norway, and the agreement has become an integral part of the EU treaties. However, Ireland and the United Kingdom do not take part in the arrangements relating to border controls and visas. More on this subject.

You do not need a visa for travelling within the Schengen area if you are a citizen of one of the Schengen countries. If you have a visa for entering any Schengen country it automatically allows you to travel freely throughout the Schengen area, except Ireland and the United Kingdom.


Social dialogue:

This means discussion, negotiation and joint action between the European social partners and discussions between these social partners and the EU institutions.



Social partners:

This is jargon for the two sides of industry – i.e. employers and workers. At EU level they are represented by three main organisations:

The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), representing workers;

The Union of Industries of the European Community (UNICE), representing private sector employers; 

The European Centre for Public Enterprise (CEEP), representing public sector employers.


The European Commission consults them when drawing up proposals for social and employment legislation.

For further details see glossary.



Any person or organisation with an interest in or affected by EU legislation and policymaking is a 'stakeholder' in that process. The European Commission makes a point of consulting as wide a range of stakeholders as possible before proposing new legislation or new policy initiatives.



Strasbourg is a French city located close to the border with Germany. The plenary sessions of the European Parliament are held here for one week every month. It is also home to the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe – which are not EU institutions. The term “Strasbourg” is sometimes used in the media to mean one or other of these bodies.



The “subsidiarity principle” means that EU decisions must be taken as closely as possible to the citizen. In other words, the Union does not take action (except on matters for which it alone is responsible) unless EU action is more effective than action taken at national, regional or local level.



Meetings of the European Council are sometimes referred to as European (or EU) 'summit' meetings, because they bring together the EU's heads of state or government. Some countries are represented by their Prime Minister, others by their President, some by both. It depends on their Constitution.



This literally means 'at a level above national governments' – as distinct from 'intergovernmental' which means 'between governments' Many EU decisions are taken at 'supranational' level in the sense that they involve the EU institutions, to which EU countries have delegated some decision-making powers. Do not confuse this term with 'transnational'


Third country:

This phrase simply means a non-EU country. The meaning is clearest when we are speaking about relations between two EU member states (or between the EU institutions and a member state) and another country - literally a third country - that is outside the European Union.






This word is often used to describe cooperation between businesses or organisations based in more than one EU country. Part of the EU's purpose is to encourage this cross-border or 'transnational' cooperation.



The term 'transparency' is often used to mean openness in the way the EU institutions work. The EU institutions are committed to greater openness. They are taking steps to improve public access to information, and they are working to produce clearer and more readable documents. This includes better drafting of laws and, ultimately, a single, simplified EU Treaty.


Two-speed Europe:

This refers to the theoretical possibility that, in future, a particular “core” group of EU Member States may decide to move faster than others along the road of European integration. It is already possible for a group of EU countries to work together more closely than others under an arrangement known as “enhanced co-operation”



When taking decisions on some issues, the Council of the European Union has to be in unanimous agreement – i.e. all countries have to agree. Any disagreement, even by one single country, will block the decision. This would make progress very difficult in a Union of 25 countries, so the unanimity rule now applies only in particularly sensitive areas such as asylum, taxation and the common foreign and security policy. In most fields, decisions are now taken by qualified majority voting.