Power and Politics in the European Union
KeywordsMember State Security Policy European Council Policy Area European Economic Community
The European Coal and Steel Community (now the EU) has grown in size to 28 member states that have joined together, with some others on the waiting list, to build a common economy, government, and culture. The European Union is the most successful experiment in international cooperation, but also the most complex system where powers and responsibilities are shared horizontally among interdependent institutions (European Commission, European Council of Ministers, European Parliament, European Council, and European Court of Justice) at the EU level and vertically between the EU and the member states (Hay and Menon 2007). The power or policy authority in this complex system is divided into three different categories such as exclusive EU competence, shared competence between the states and the EU, and the responsibility of member states. As McCormick describes, “Competence is a term used to indicate responsibility or authority in an area of public policy. Article 2 of the Treaty of Lisbon points out that Exclusive EU Competence in a policy area means that only the EU can legislate or adopt legally binding acts related to that area, and that the member states can only do this themselves if specifically empowered by the EU or in the interests of implementing an act of the EU. The EU has Exclusive Competence in only five policy areas-competition, customs, fisheries conservation, trade and- within the euro zone – monetary policy. Levels of competence in all other policy areas (except those where the member states have clearly retained their authority) are debatable” (McCormick 2015).
In the wake of World War II, statesmen such as Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman of France and Paul Henri Spaak of Belgium believed that a united Europe was essential to preserving peace and security and preventing another war in Europe. In their opinion, controlling coal and steel (building blocks of industry and raw materials for weapons of war) would ultimately result in the reconciliation of Europe. France and Germany, the two main rivalries of Europe, would combine their coal and steel production. They all agreed on the creation of a new body within which responsibility for coal and steel production could be pooled. In 1951, France, West Germany, Italy, and the Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg) signed the Treaty of Paris that led to the creation of the Coal and Steel Community, a first step in the process of building the United States of Europe. The same six countries signed the Treaty of Rome in 1957, which established the European Economic Community. EEC’s main goal was to create a single market which is a multistate economic area (known as a common or internal market) in which there is a free movement of people, money, goods, and services called four freedoms. Since then, in many areas of political and economic life, power has been gradually transferred from the member states to the European Union and its various institutions. For example, the European Court of Justice (similar to the US Supreme Court), which is one of the main institutions of the European Union, has weakened the sovereignty of member states of the EU by declaring that the laws of the European Union are supreme in relation to the laws of individual states in certain areas of public policy (Payne 2011). Although today’s EU has its own military (Rapid Reaction Force), anthem (Beethoven’s Ode to Joy), flag, holiday (Europe Day on May 9), motto (Unity in Diversity), regulations, laws, and governing structures, the EU is not a single state yet, as is the United Kingdom and Germany. This status quo of the European Union creates a tension between intergovernmentalism (rights, interests, and powers of individual states) and supranationalism (rights, interests, and powers of the EU itself). While intergovernmentalism wants to retain the powers of the member states within the EU, supranationalism wants to take power away from individual states and invest the EU with greater authority (Kubicek 2012). The purpose of this article is to study and evaluate the politics and power distribution in the European Union.
Politics and Power Distribution in the European Union
The European Union itself has an exclusive competence when it comes to making policy in competition, customs, fisheries conservation, monetary policy in eurozone, and trade, but the member states still have a higher degree of control over education, elections, defense, tax policy, postal services, local transport, land use, healthcare, policing, citizenship, broadcasting, and criminal justice. In most areas of policy, there is a wide overlap of powers called shared competence between the EU and its member states such as agriculture, cohesion, consumer protection, transport, trans-European networks, space policy, social policy, single market, research and development, development cooperation, energy, immigration, humanitarian aid, environment, external relations, freedom, security, justice, economic policy, employment policy, civil protection, culture, public health, etc. Therefore, the power or policy authority in the European Union can be divided into three different categories such as exclusive EU competence, shared competence between the states and the EU, and responsibility of member states. The concept of competence is the key to understand the division of powers in the European Union. As McCormick describes, “competence is a term used to indicate responsibility or authority in an area of public policy. Article 2 of the Treaty of Lisbon points out that exclusive competence in a policy area means that only the EU can legislate or adopt legally binding acts related to that area and that the member states can only do this themselves if specifically empowered by the EU or in the interests of implementing an act of the EU.” As indicated above, the EU has exclusive competence in only five policy areas. Levels of shared competence in all other policy areas (except those where the member states have clearly retained their authority) are debatable. In policy areas where competence is shared, it is not always clear how far it is shared; in some areas the EU has authority only to support, coordinate, or supplement the work of the member states (McCormick 2015). Basically, outside the areas of exclusive EU competence, it is a matter of debate how much responsibility the EU has.
The power distribution of the European Union is similar to the governmental power distribution of the US federal system. Just like in the European Union, the governmental power of the USA is also divided into three different categories such as national powers (enumerated powers), concurrent powers, and state powers (reserved powers). While the federal (national) government and state governments share some powers, such as the ability to tax, make and enforce laws, charter banks and corporations, borrow money, and spend money for general welfare, each government is supreme in some spheres (O’Connor et al. 2011). In addition to the power distribution, the EU has some other qualities that make some scholars believe that EU is a federal system such as having one flag, one anthem, two levels of law (European and national), a separate executive branch (the European Commission), a separate legislative branch (the European Parliament and European Council of Ministers), and a separate court (the European Court of Justice) that coexist and share powers with their national equivalents, one currency (Euro), that is used by 19 countries in the EU. Since the European Union has not completed its evolution yet, the similarities between the EU and federalism are not enough to define the European Union as a federal system. Since the EU also has some qualities of confederation, international organization, regional integration association, state, multilevel governance, quasi-federal polity, and cooperative federalism, nobody agrees on what exactly the European Union is. For instance, some scholars believe that the EU is a confederal system since it is a voluntary association and the member countries of the EU are free to leave the Union if they want; most citizens of the EU countries still have a higher sense of allegiance toward their national flags and national anthems; the EU institutions are weaker relative to national institutions than is the case in a conventional federal system; residents are citizens of the member states, not of the confederation; and they have a direct political relationship only with their state governments (McCormick 2015). Frederick Lister described the EU as a jumbo confederation whose members and governments continue to dominate the EU’s institutions (Lister 1996). Moravcsik argued that, despite its few federal qualities, the EU is essentially a confederation of member states (Moravcsik 2007). McKay believes that we can think of the European Union as a species of federal state with some clear federal qualities and a trend over time to greater federalism (McKay 2001). Burgess argues that federal ideas have seeped into all the central institutions of the European Union, and he describes federalism as a constant reminder of a conception of Europe going well beyond mere intergovernmental cooperation (Burgess 2000). Several scholars have suggested that the EU is a hybrid system, containing features of both federalism and confederalism. While the number of federations has grown, there have been few examples in history of confederations such as Switzerland, Germany, and the United States, and none of them have ever lasted (McCormick 2015). Therefore, it is believed that the EU will end up becoming a federal system when it completes its evolution, and Tony Blair’s following statements support this belief.
At one of the EU’s summit meetings, Reid T. R. went up to Britain’s prime minister and asked him whether these long, wordy sessions around the conference table were worthwhile. Based on Reid’s description, Blair sounded bored and weary first, but then he came to life when started talking about the prospects for the EU’s future. “You know, these summits makes sense if you try to have a sense of history. I mean, when the thing is getting tiresome, you have to remember what we are doing here. We are building a new world superpower. The European Union is about the projection of collective power, wealth, and influence. That collective strength makes individual nations more powerful-and it will make the EU as a whole a global power. Look, the United States is plainly the superpower of the world today, but the argument is that a single-power world is inherently unstable. I mean that’s the rationale for Europe to unite. When we work together, the European Union can stand on par as a superpower and a partner with the U.S. The world needs that right now” (Reid 2004).
Several blind men approached an elephant and each touched the animal in an effort to discover what the beast looked like. Each blind man, however, touched a different part of the large animal, and each concluded that the elephant had the appearance of the part he had touched. Hence, the blind man who felt the animal’s trunk concluded that an animal must be tall and slender, while the fellow who touched the beast’s ear concluded that an elephant must be oblong and flat. Others of course reached different conclusions. The total result was that no man arrived at a very accurate description of the elephant. Yet each man had gained enough evidence from his own experience to disbelieve his fellows and to maintain a lively debate about the nature of the beast. (Puchala 1972)
With this universally known story, Donald Puchala is pointing out that nobody agrees on whether the European Union is a type of country or if it is a large and powerful international organization (EU Learning).
The European Union consists of five main institutions that were given power by twenty-eight member states in the European Union: the European Commission, European Council of Ministers, European Council, European Parliament, and European Court of Justice. On the one hand, the 28 member states of the EU are sovereign actors in the international system, with territory, sovereignty, independence, and legitimacy. On the other hand, the member states have pooled or transferred their authority to the extent that it is no longer accurate or practical to think of them as independent political actors (McCormick 2015).
Starting with the Treaty of Paris that created the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, the powers of the institutions of the European Union were expanded gradually. Although the European Union does not have a written constitution, it has several main treaties that empowered the Institutions of the European Union gradually. The following treaties of the EU specify the powers of the institutions and obligations of the member states: Treaty of Paris 1951, Treaty of Rome 1957, Treaty of Single European Act 1986, Treaty of Maastricht 1992, Treaty of Amsterdam 1997, Treaty of Nice 2001, and Treaty of Lisbon 2007. Before giving examples on how exactly these treaties empowered the EU and its institutions, it is crucial to understand the main structure and powers of the EU institutions.
The Institutions of the European Union
Initiation: It is the only institution tabling laws for adoption by the European Parliament and European Council of Ministers.
Implementation: Together with the European Court of Justice, it ensures the correct application and implementation of EU legislation in all the EU member states (Bomberg et al. 2008).
Developing and managing EU budget: It draws up annual budgets for approval by the European Parliament and European Council of Ministers, sets EU’s spending priorities, and supervises how the money is spent (European Union a 2015).
Managing the EU’s external relations: Vets applications for full or associate membership from aspirant states and oversees the negotiation process with applicants, represents the EU in international trade negotiations, and coordinates the European Union’s Official Development Assistance and Humanitarian Aid (McCormick 2008).
European Council of Ministers: It consists of the presidency, councils, Committee of Permanent Representatives (COREPER), working parties and committees, and the general secretariat. The European Council of Ministers is the quasi-legislative arm of the European Union, and it shares power with the European Parliament for discussing and passing EU laws. It also shares powers with the European Parliament for approving and adopting the EU budget. Since the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992 obliged the presidency of the Council of Ministers to consult with the EP on the development of the Common Foreign and Security Policy, with the consent of the European Parliament, it also concludes international agreements on behalf of the EU. Each country of the European Union holds the presidency on a 6-month rotating basis, and the 28 members (government ministers from each EU country) under the councils constantly change depending on the policy area to be discussed (European Union b 2015)
European Council: It consists of 28 heads of governments of the EU member states. It is chaired by a president who is appointed by the members of the European Council for two and a half years, renewable once. The European Council meets at least four times a year and provides strategic policy direction for the EU. The European Council can be considered as a steering committee or a board of directors of the EU. It mainly discusses the broad issues and goals of the EU and leaves it to four other institutions of the European Union to work out the details. It has power to make nominations to several senior positions such as the president of the European Commission, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and president of the European Central Bank. Till the Treaty of Lisbon, both the European Council of Ministers and the European Council had a presidency on a 6-month rotating basis, but the European Council is now headed by its own president (McCormick 2008).
European Parliament: It has the following five components: The president, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), the rapporteurs, the secretariat, and parliamentary committees. It is the legislative arm of the EU and shares powers with the European Council of Ministers. The European Parliament started life as a toothless, consultative body in a union with only six countries such as France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Today’s European Parliament is directly elected by the citizens of the 28 EU member states and has a good deal of power (Noury and Roland 2002) There are 751 member in the European Parliament, and MEPs are distributed among the members states roughly in proportion to population of the EU countries, with Germany having 96 and Malta having six. Just like the European Council of Ministers, the European Parliament also has powers over legislation and the budget. It also has powers over other EU institutions such as having right to confirm or reject the European Council’s nominees for president of the European Commission and High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, approve the appointments to the College of Commissioners, and force the resignation of the College of Commissioners through a motion of censure.
European Court of Justice: The European Court of Justice is the judicial authority of the EU and consists of five components: The president, judges, advocates-general, General Court, and the EU Civil Service Tribunal. The court has 28 judges appointed for renewable 6-year terms of office. The president of the court is elected from among its judges for renewable 3-year terms. The court’s main responsibility is to make sure that the treaties are correctly interpreted and national and European laws meet the terms and the spirit of the treaties, and the EU law is equally, fairly, and consistently applied throughout the member states. The court does this by ruling on the constitutionality of EU law, making judgments in disputes involving member states, corporations, individuals and EU institutions and giving opinions to national courts of the member states in cases where there are questions about the meaning of EU law or doubts on the interpretations of the treaties. EU law takes precedence over the national laws where the two come into conflict, but only in areas of EU Competence (McCormick 2008).
Each main Treaty of the EU has made an impact on increasing the powers of the EU and its institutions:
For instance, in its early years, the European Parliament was mainly limited to the consultation procedure, and it was the European Council of Ministers that had the final say over the adoption of EU laws, but the Treaty of Single European Act in 1986 changed the balance of power by introducing a new cooperation procedure that gave the EP a second reading for laws in environment, single market, regional policy, and European Social Fund. The Treaty of Maastricht (Treaty on European Union) in 1992 gave more power to the EP by extending cooperation to cover more policy areas and introducing a new co-decision procedure that allowed for a third reading. The Treaty of Lisbon in 2007 renamed the co-decision procedure as ordinary legislative procedure, and this is the most common legislative procedure now used in the European Parliament. Ordinary legislative procedure gives the European Parliament and European Council of Ministers equal powers over proposals for almost all EU legislation. The Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997 also expanded the powers of the European Parliament, and EP was given the power of approval over the appointments to the College of Commissioners.
The Single European Act has given legal status to the meetings of the European Council, created a new Court of First Instance (General Court) to help the European Court of Justice with the growing legal caseload, and given more responsibility to the community over environmental policy, research and development, and regional policy. The Treaty of Maastricht has given new rights to the citizens of the EU member states and created an ambiguous citizenship allowing EU citizens to live wherever they want in the EU and to stand and vote in local and European elections. The Treaty of Amsterdam has created a new office of high representative of Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), extended the EU policy responsibilities to health and consumer protection, and incorporated the Schengen Agreement into the EU treaties. The Treaty of Lisbon has allowed the members of European Council to appoint their own president, created a new office of High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security under the European Commission, created a new formula for qualified majority voting in the European Council of Ministers, and formally recognized the freedom of a member state to leave the European Union. The Treaty of Nice has given each member state just one commissioner and left today’s College of Commissioners with 28 members (McCormick 2011).
Although the current EU institutions are weaker relative to the national institutions than is the case in a conventional federal system such as the USA, the EU and its institutions are definitely becoming more powerful, and each new EU treaty is taking the EU a step closer to becoming a federal system and the United States of Europe. Although the EU has become more and more supranational over time, it is still far from the point where one could talk about the irrelevance of 28 member nation states in the European Union today (Kubicek 2012). The tension between intergovernmentalism and supranationalism will continue to make an impact on the politics and power division in the European Union which is a complex system where powers and responsibilities are shared horizontally among interdependent institutions (European Commission, European Council of Ministers, European Parliament, European Council, and European Court of Justice) at the EU level and vertically between the EU and the member states (Hay and Menon 2007).
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