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The puzzle of the shrinking legislative output of the EU

As a first post to this blog, I would like to start with a puzzle I recently encountered while researching some data on the Council for the Jahrbuch der Europäischen Integration (Yearbook of European Integration). Part of the general data we regularly collect for the Council is the number of legislative acts it has passed each year, both on its own and together with the European Parliament, which is thankfully easily available from Eur-lex. The puzzle is the following: After years of gradually rising legislative output even as the EU was expanded to 28 member states and as it was paralyzed during its constitutional crisis, the number of adopted legislative acts has sharply fallen in the last two years:

Legislative output of the Council, 2005-2012

The most astonishing observation for me is the sharp fall in regulations, down to just 18 directives adopted by the Council, with all but one of them agreed together with the European Parliament. Contrast that with 2009, where the EU organs agreed to 153 directives and 341 regulations, and you have a fall in legislative output of over 60 per cent. In just three years:

Table 1: Legislative output by the Council in 2005-2012




























Source: Own compilation based on data from Eur-Lex.

One further aspect makes this finding particularly puzzling: The sharp fall in legislative output coincides with the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, which was aimed at strengthening the ability to act of the EU. Major institutional reforms in this regard were the increased application of the ordinary legislative procedure including qualified majority voting. This takes the veto option away from individual member states, so that they have to at least assemble blocking minorities if they want to complete halt the adoption of a legislative act. Yet, in practice the number of acts adopted has obviously decreased.

I can think of three possible interpretations for this data. The first one is that at least in parts, the Lisbon Reforms did indeed backfire, as more dossiers have to be decided via ordinary legislative procedure with full participation of the European Parliament. Albeit strengthening democratic legitimacy, this brings in another powerful actor into the negotiations possible making back-door deals harder. But although there were some highly publicised blockades by the Parliament, MEPs do not reguarly fully block proposals.

The second possible explanation might be that the Commission followed the aim of President Barroso for less, but ‘smarter regulation‘. This would mean that it is not the decision-making in the Council and the Parliament that is hampered, but that the shrinkage is a side-effect of cutting down in European bureaucracy. For this, I will need to check whether in fact the number of Commission proposals has also significantly decreased in the same time frame.

Thirdly, the shrinkage does not only coincide with the entry into force of the Lisbon Reforms, but also the start of the debt crisis hitting the EU with the first discussion on Greek default starting in February 2010. Thus, in the last three and a half years most of the EU’s political attention has been focused on trying to get to grips with the debt crisis. Most of the instruments used by the EU/Euro Area such as the European Semester, the rescue packages, the European Stability Mechanism or the Fiscal Treaty are however, either only of a coordinating nature or decided outside of the legal framework of the EU. They are therefore not counted among the legislative acts. Most importantly, almost all of the European Councils were focused on the debt crisis, leaving little room for the highest political level to deal with daily EU issues.

Overall, the data points to a staggering realisation: While the EU machinery kept on working during enlargement and the constitutional crisis of the 2000s, it seems to be severely dampened in the last three years. For the first time, we can now say that the EU is indeed producing much less regulation than it used to before. What do you think?


Update: In a previous version of this post, I unfortunately mixed up the translations of directives and regulations. Thanks to Ronny Patz from Polscieu for noticing, and please excuse this obvious error.

4 Responses to The puzzle of the shrinking legislative output of the EU

  1. avatar Ronny Patz says:

    Hi Nicolai,

    I’m trying find out how you construct your statistics from Eur-Lex. Counting the number of votes on Regulations in Council in 2012 linked to the adoption of the respective legislative texts on Votewatch (, it looks like there have been more than 18.

  2. avatar Nicolai von Ondarza says:

    Hi Ronny,
    first thank you for pointing me to one obvious error – I prepared the data in German, and mixed up the translation of regulation/directives. I am sorry for this more than obvious error. Goes to show that public blogging can get you fast feedback!
    On the data itself – I take the data directly from the Eur-Lex statistics page, i.e. That being said, I have also noticed inconsistences between data provided by the Commission, Eur-lex, vote watch and the Yearbook on EU activities. I have decided to use the Eur-lex data, as it only counts adopted legislation (vote watch for instance also includes votes on Council positions or first and second reading etc.) and is based on the legislation coming into effect via the Official Journal.

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  4. avatar Matze says:

    Just read this piece now. Indeed puzzling. And one further comment: I find the expression “debt crisis” highly unfortunate. This sounds like high public debt has triggered the financial and economic crisis. This is definitely not the case. It’s a financial or economic crisis that led to some governments getting into troubles and having a hard time on the bond market. (You also don’t call it an “people are not working” crisis, although many people do not work at the moment (because they can’t), right?)

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