Tag Archives: UK

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?


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:


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…

Land – so important, yet so ignored….

People have been talking about resource use for years – we use too much, we don’t distribute it equitably, things are getting more expensive, running out, etc etc etc.

The thing that puzzles me is that these conversations tend to be about materials – in general, or specific materials (oil, metals, rare earths etc) – and most of the time a key natural resource is ignored – land.

It’s blindingly obvious that land is a limited resource – as Mark Twain said “Buy Land, they’re not making it anymore”. Across the world the pressure on land is increasing – from increasing demand for food (particularly meat & dairy), from the increasing use of biofuel and biomass as an energy source, and from growing urbanisation.

Land is obviously crucial to biodiversity – but it is also intimately  linked to people’s rights, history and incomes. The growing demand for land – combined with financial speculation – is creating a massive increase in land disputes, as companies and governments try to gain control of land.

This is leading to deaths and imprisonments of local people, for instance 17 people were killed in June 2012 during a police-led eviction of peasant farmers in Paraguay. This was followed by the arrest of a local person who was working with Friends of the Earth, though he was later released following international pressure  (see Friends of the Earth International news story)

And yet, land just doesn’t seem to be front of mind when many people talk about resource use. For example, the UK Environment Ministry DEFRA has just launched a consultation on “Guidance for Business on Key Environmental Performance Indicators“. As you might expect, this includes measuring climate emissions, waste, material use, even water – but what about land?

Well, land use change gets a mention in the section on biodiversity, but not beyond this, in spite of the fact that scale of land use is so important as companies make decisions on bio-based materials and feedstocks – or even what to food to serve. Yet measuring impacts on biodiversity is much more difficult than measuring scale of land use.

There is a straightforward way to measure and manage the amount of land required by a company, an economy, or to produce an individual product – it’s called Land Footprint. This is a really straightforward measurement of  the real area of land required, in hectares. It doesn’t tell you everything, but it does work very well as a top-level metric, which facilitates further analysis (e.g. looking at where the land is, why we are using that land etc). If you want to know the land footprint of EU countries, see our report on “Europe’s land import dependency”.

For more about land footprint, see this talk I gave to a conference organised by the European Commission on soil sealing in May 2012.

We’ll be asking DEFRA – and indeed the European Commission – to make sure that future policies on environmental reporting & resource use do include land. We’d welcome the same message coming from other people and organisations too!!


Even now, UK schools don’t tell pupils about the EU?

Dave Keating, an American journalist living in London but working in Brussels has a long post on his ‘Gulf Stream Blues’ blog about the sorry state of reporting – and understanding of – EU issues in the UK.

Commenting on the extensive UK coverage of the BNP MEPs taking their seats:

It was yet another illustration of how much the British media don’t understand how the EU works. Faced with the challenge of having to explain the complexities in the formation of a new parliament, they preferred to go with the easy “British fascist takes a seat” story.

And then on the coverage of the ‘will Blair be president of the EU’ story:

Their inclination for the easy story was again born out later in the week when Gordon Brown is nominating Tony Blair to be the first “president of Europe” (should such a position be created by the passing of the Lisbon Treaty) further demonstrated the astonishing ignorance of the British on all things European. Last night on Question Time, an audience member asked the guests whether Tony Blair would make a good European president. The panel, composed of senior politicians and journalists, proceeded to descend into a string of bizarre statements that betrayed the fact that they actually didn’t know what the new president position is. For that matter, they didn’t seem to know much of anything about the EU at all

Unfortunately this is all too true – as someone who works on both UK and EU level, it is shocking how little people in the UK know about the EU. This is even true of people at quite senior levels in UK politics-related jobs, who will say things like ‘but the parliament doesn’t actually have any power, does it?”… which was true 15 years ago, but isn’t now.

He believes (and I agree) that a key problem is how people learn about the EU. The media is a common source of information across Europe:

The British media do a notoriously horrible job reporting on Europe. The EU is hardly ever mentioned in British news outlets, and when it is, the reports on it are rife with inaccuracy.

Then there is the question of education, where he uses some anecdotal information to suggest that education about the EU in UK schools is (still) virtually non-existent, in contrast to schools on the continent:

So I asked a friend of mine who teaches in a secondary school here if EU civics is now being taught in school. I was shocked by his response. “Nope, nothing,” he answered matter-of-factly. “Not even in a civics class? Or a government course?” I asked. “I’ve definitely never heard of it being taught,” he answered.

This situation seems rather incredible to me. ..It’s a huge disservice to the students who will have to live in a framework where those laws made at the federal level will have a huge impact on their lives, and they will have no idea how they’re made.

I think there is also another important factor – the EU institutions, particularly the parliament, are evolving quite rapidly, so even if you were taught at school about the EU (or the ‘Common Market’), it is likely that what you where told is now out of date.

For the Parliament’s role, the key change in the last 15 years has been the creation and then extension of the ‘Codecision Procedure‘, which allows the Parliament to co-legislate with EU Governments – i.e. the two sides must reach a compromise to finish a law. I have a brief description of this process on the ‘How are EU laws created‘ page.