What is the EU and how does it work?

There’s currently a big debate in the UK in the run up to a referendum on EU membership on Thursday 23rd June 2016.

It’s clear from the debate so far that there is a fair amount of confusion about what the EU actually is, and how EU democracy works. I’ve been working on EU environmental policy for over 15 years, so I’ve got a fair bit of experience in how it works.

The EU is unique in the world, as it is both a free trade area but also a region with many common environmental and social standards. In order to do this the EU must agree laws and policies.

EU laws are agreed by a democratic process:

  • For most laws the European Commission proposes the law (usually after a request from governments), then the elected European Parliament and elected national governments discuss and agreeing the final shape of the law.
  • Secondary legislation – such as a ban on a specific pesticide – is usually done through a different procedure, where national governments have much more power than the European parliament.

Within the EU there is also the Eurozone, sharing a common currency. The Eurozone also has some specific governance structures, and the European Parliament has limited powers over it (which I think is probably a problem). The UK isn’t in the Eurozone.

It’s worth noting that elected national governments are the most powerful players at EU level. Each of these governments should be accountable to their populations, and to national parliaments.

In many areas only a ‘qualified majority‘ of national governments need to support a measure for it to happen. Unanimity is required for treaty changes, trade deals, enlargement allowing new countries into the EU etc. For example, all EU countries would have to support the accession of Turkey into the EU, or the signing of a trade deal like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

Almost all enforcement of EU legislation occurs within the Member States., though a small number of regulations are enforced at EU level, notably competition law.

To learn more:

See the more detailed pages on this blog – What is the EU?How does the EU work? and How are laws created and enforced?

 

I started a web site on hormone disrupting chemicals 20 years ago….

In July 1995 – 20 years ago – I started a web site on hormone disrupting chemicals.

I’ve got a full backup of the site as it was on 5th September 1995 – here’s a pdf of the front page.

A later version of the web site is still up – the Introduction to Hormone Disrupting Chemicals site, which hasn’t had any significant updates since 1999, though I did manage to update some links in 2009. Continue reading

Vote in the EU elections – and ask your friends & family to do the same

Don’t believe what you read in the newspapers or see on TV – the elections for the European Parliament really are important.

They aren’t just an opportunity to vote against the governing parties in your country – or to vote against European Union (EU) policies on austerity – or even against the EU itself. Continue reading

Window dressing vs reduced business risks and impacts – which to choose?

Companies have impacts – on people, on the environment – some positive, some negative. Sometimes the negative impacts become very obvious and very negative – for example when a textile factory in Bangladesh collapses. Sometimes the impacts are less visible, displacement of people from their land, discharge of toxic chemicals, or exploitation of fossil fuels.

There are many way of addressing these impacts, including direct legislation, standards & labelling. One approach that sounds promising at first sight – but is yet to really deliver – is company reporting: Continue reading

We need to change – but to what? and how fast?

“cognitive dissonance: the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioural decisions and attitude change.”

We are living in a time of cognitive dissonance – on the one hand, many people (particularly in business) now realise that the economy can’t go on the way it is – with increasing climate changing emissions, pressure on resources and biodiversity – while at the same time taking the view that it’s not politically practical to do anything about it. Continue reading

A more democratic EU? Stop government secrecy!

In UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s EU speech this week he talked of the need to increase the EU’s “democratic accountability”.

One little known fact is that the most secretive and undemocratic piece of the EU is actually ‘Council’, EU Governments (Member States) – including the UK – getting together to decide their view on EU laws.

Council is one of the two decision making bodies of the EU, see this page for a quick explanation, the other being the European Parliament – the European Commission only proposes legislation.

For example, look at this document on the Council’s web site, where the main content of the document is:

“DELETED FROM THIS POINT UNTIL THE END OF PAGE 5 “

And this is not some obscure piece of legislation. This is the negotiations on a new law that would force European mining companies to disclose what they are paying governments around the world, part of a global campaign on transparency – see the “Publish What You Pay” campaign site for more details.

There are thousands of censored documents on the Council web site, many saying useful things like “one Member State said” “Several Member States said”. Governments around Europe are hiding what they are doing at EU level.

So, the electorate is not permitted to see what governments are up to. Sometimes complete documents – or rumours – leak out, but it is a closed, secretive process. These leaks probably also go more often to industry interests than to civil society ones.

Contrast this with the elected EU parliament, where you can see who tables which amendments, and where votes are open & often available in full (‘roll call votes’). This detailed information enables people like VoteWatch and environmental groups to monitor exactly what each MEP is up to. VoteWatch also tries to analyse government voting patterns, but its only data is the formal votes that happen at the end of a process, not the real debate on what governments will or won’t accept.

So is David Cameron’s ‘reform’ plan going to include openness for council?

Will the UK take a unilateral decision to open up all of its negotiation documents?

Let’s wait and see…

Europe must transform itself into a resource efficient economy – and 2013 is the year to work out how

On Friday I attended the second meeting of the high level “European Resource Efficiency Platform” (EREP). I’m Friends of the Earth Europe’s ‘Sherpa‘ in this process, assisting Friends of the Earth Europe’s Director, Magda Stoczkiewicz, who is currently on maternity leave.

EREP was set up by the European Commission in summer 2012, and is made up of a diverse range of organisations organisations including the German and Danish Environment Ministers, Siemens, Unilever, the European Trades Unions Congress and UNEP.

The meeting on Friday agreed a “Manifesto for a Resource Efficient Europe“, which concludes that Europe must transform itself into a “resource-efficient and ultimately regenerative circular economy”. The manifesto also emphasises the importance of setting targets to reduce Europe’s resource use.

In my view the manifesto is an important start, and now we need to see real, specific, policy proposals emerging in 2013. The platform has already identified a good set of priorities, for these policy proposals, and it’s due to come out with specific proposals in a report in June 2013.

Targets are particularly important in my view, as there is massive evidence that targets are an effective way of creating change. In addition, there are a lot of easy wins around, notably in waste policy where there are also very substantial gains to be made by stopping burying and burning of any waste that could be recycled or composted.

We’re going to have a busy first half of 2013 trying to agree some substantive and effective policy proposals….

For more information on Friends of the Earth Europe’s work on Resource Efficiency, see:

http://www.foeeurope.org/resources