Much of the disillusionment around the EU comes from people not knowing just what goes on there or how it works. After years of negative or misleading coverage from a largely Eurosceptic press (owned by a small group of rich individuals), who can wonder why we’re left confused and susceptible to myths about Europe?
We’ve put together some answers from the most frequently asked questions below. The EU is a huge project, so obviously there’s more to the finer details, and if you’d like more reading check out A Beginners Guide to Europe.
- How is the EU structured?
- What is Britain’s input to each part of that structure?
- How does Britain decide our involvement in each part of the structure?
- What decisions and/or powers does each part of the structure have?
- What decisions are Britain’s alone to make, independently of EU mechanisms?
Structure and UK involvement
The European Council (where David Cameron and the 27 other leaders of state sit), provides the political direction of the other EU institutions, and meets at least twice every 6 months.
The European Commission proposes laws based on the political direction, and is led by a President (currently Jean-Claude Junker) and 28 Commissioners (one from every Member State). The President and composition is voted on by the European Parliament, where Molly sits. The UK’s Commissioner is Jonathan Hill, who is Commissioner for Finance, and he was selected by David Cameron in 2014. The European Commission acts much like an EU civil service, and there are currently 1,126 British nationals working there.
The European Parliament is composed of 751 MEPs, of which 73 represent the UK. They are directly elected every 5 years, and vote on and change proposals from the Commission. Our Green MEP for the South West, Molly Scott Cato, sits in the Greens-EFA group of MEPs. Most MEPs are on social media but you can find out more about their work via the European Parliament website, and also write to your MEP directly. Find out about a day in the life of an MEP.
And finally there is also the Council of the European Union, which is made up of Ministers from elected national governments. The Council of the EU is the joint decision maker on passing legislation with the European Parliament. For example, for legislation on agriculture, the UK may send George Eustice, our Minister for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Now onto passing laws. This normally happens through what’s called the “Ordinary Legislative Procedure”:
- The Commission submits a proposal to the Parliament and the Council of the European Union.
- In plenary, the Parliament adopts its position in a vote, which usually includes amendments put forward by MEPs.
- If the Council approves the Parliament’s wording then the act is adopted. If not, it may adopt its own position and pass it back to Parliament with explanations.
- If the Parliament then rejects the Council’s text, the law fails. Or it may modify it and pass it back to the Council again, essentially repeating the process.
The vast majority of European laws are adopted jointly by the European Parliament and the Council in this way, including all laws on economic governance, immigration, energy, transport, environment, and consumer protection. You can find more information on this process here.
There are a small number of policy areas that are passed only by the Council in what’s called Special Legislative Procedures. It’s important to note that these still involve the European Parliament.
The EU shares powers with Member States when it comes to the internal market; social policy; economic, social and territorial cohesion; agriculture and fisheries; environment; consumer protection; transport; trans-European networks; energy; freedom, security and justice; and common safety concerns in public health matters.
In simple terms, in these areas where powers are shared, the Member States decide on policies for themselves unless they have decided to come up with common European policies. Then the common policies are developed at the EU level and Member States can’t make decisions at home that go against them.
However, the EU shares powers in parallel with the Member States when it comes to development cooperation and humanitarian aid; research; technological development; and space. In these areas common European policies can be developed, but Member States can still make whatever decisions they want alongside them.
The EU has exclusive powers when it comes to customs; the competition rules of the internal market; commercial policy; the monetary policy for the Member States whose currency is the euro; and the conservation of marine biological resources under the Common Fisheries Policy.
The EU has some powers to support healthcare; industry; culture; tourism; education, vocational training, youth and sport; civil protection; and administrative cooperation. But all decisions in these areas are made by the Member States.
The UK is therefore completely free to make decisions in those areas where it shares power with the EU (unless common European policies are being perused), all areas that it shares powers in parallel with the EU, and all areas where the EU just has the power to support.
The UK also has official ‘opt outs’ when it comes to the Schengen Area (in which border controls are removed between the participating countries), the euro, home affairs policies (freedom, security and justice), and aspects of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. The UK does opt in in some home affairs policies, such as the European Arrest Warrant.
In February, David Cameron also negotiated an ‘opt out’ from the goal which is set out in the EU’s treaties of creating an “ever closer union” of its members. Some EU Member States have opted out of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy, such as Denmark, but the UK does participate in this area. However, this is a rather undeveloped area of the EU, and one in which decision making is entirely intergovernmental i.e. just by the Member States and not by the European Commission or Parliament.