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:
- Twitter is a very effective way of keeping up to date with EU news, once you find the right people. Quite a few MEPs tweet (UK MEP twitter list here), as do Commissioners, most NGOs and journalists. You could start by following me – @mwarhurst.
- European Commission has an introduction to the EU on their web site.
- Free EU policy news sources: Euractiv & Politico.eu
- Wikipedia has good articles on the European institutions, for example a comprehensive set of articles about MEPs & the Parliament:
- Talk to people involved in EU policymaking. Most people in the ‘Brussels bubble’ are very keen to explain what is going on and help you engage.