Strange Politics: How the European Union Works

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While we in the United States are already in the thick of our presidential election year, the European Union is about to be rocked by one of the biggest and most historic votes in its history thus far. Yesterday, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the United Kingdom will hold a referendum on June 23rd on whether to remain a member of the EU or to leave. While Cameron himself wants Great Britain to stay in the Union, he has faced mounting public pressure to call for a vote, especially in light of both the euro crisis and now the Syrian refugee crisis. Anti-EU politicians have gained in recent British elections, arguing that Europe has too much control over their country. However, pro-EU voices argue that a Britain outside the EU would be weaker on the world stage going it alone instead of being part of a strong group, and would suffer economically as it is cut off from the EU’s free trade market.

As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, the European Union is a very unusual political entity that has no real modern-day equivalent. Legally, it is an international organization whose members are sovereign nations that maintain their own militaries, embassies, seats at the United Nations, and Olympic teams. Nations voluntarily sign up for membership; even now, six countries are trying to join: Albania, Iceland, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Turkey. And unlike the United States, where we fought a civil war to make sure our states can’t leave our union, the EU explicitly allows its members to leave if they want to. If the British vote to leave the EU, they won’t be the first country to do so; Greenland left in 1985 after a similar vote.

However, in many ways the European Union functions like a national government, able to pass EU-wide laws that are legally enforceable in each member country and override any national laws that contradict them. All citizens of EU member countries are also citizens of the European Union. The EU has its own currency, the euro, though not all EU members use it (the British do not). Within the EU, people, goods and services are, in theory, able to travel across national borders without restrictions in the same way we Americans can travel across our state borders, and the Union is supposed to have a single, common customs and immigration policy. However, as we will soon see, the reality is a bit more complicated than that.

The European Union’s, um, “government”

Place du Luxembourg image by JLogan

The European Parliament building, the Espace Leopold, in Brussels, Belgium

The European Union evolved over time from a collection of economic pacts and international agreements, starting in the years after World War II and revised and amended many, many times since. It wasn’t even called “The European Union” until 1993; it had been referred to as the “European Communities” prior to that date. In 2004, there was a proposal to give the EU a formal constitution, but while 18 countries ratified the document, French and Dutch voters rejected it because they didn’t want to lose their independence to a “United States of Europe”. Thus, the plan was scrapped, but a few years later, Europe’s leaders agreed to the Treaty of Lisbon, which adopted many of the provisions of the rejected constitution while still theoretically preserving national sovereignty.

The Treaty of Lisbon basically took all of those decades of treaties and agreements and rewrote and consolidated them into something that could be published in a single book, comprised of two main treaties (the “Treaty on European Union” and “Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union”), a Charter of Fundamental Rights, and an extensive collection of extra protocols and declarations. These protocols and declarations primarily act as footnotes to the main treaties that grant individual members special exceptions to the EU rules to take into account unique and unusual situations specific to each member (like the Greek mountain reserved for the exclusive use of Greek Orthodox monks) and/or bribe them into agreeing to the treaty (like the clauses that let the UK and Denmark keep their own currencies instead of forcing them to use the euro).

The current text of the treaties sets up a federal system where the EU has exclusive power over certain types of issues and shares power with member nations’ governments in other areas, with the implication that anything not specifically listed is to be reserved for the national governments alone to handle. It also sets up a whole mess of political bodies to exercise the EU’s powers.

First, there’s the European Council, made up of the various national leaders of each member and meeting at least four times a year. It’s the European Council’s job to decide on what the EU’s policies should be. Often, it meets in a time of crisis to determine by consensus how they should respond to the crisis. It also picks a president, currently Donald Tusk, who acts as symbolic leader of the EU in international relations.

At the end of the day, though, policies and strategies are nothing unless you are able to enforce them. That’s where the European Commission comes in. The Commission’s 28 members are in charge of the EU’s administrative bureaucracy, putting policy into practice. The Commission has a president of its own, currently Jean-Claude Juncker, who functions in many ways like a prime minister, handling the powers of the executive branch of government.

One of the more interesting members of the European Commission is the… (deep breath)… High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Whew! That’s a mouthful. In any case, the High Representative (currently Federica Mogherini) is kind of like a Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense all rolled into one, responsible for all matters relating to the EU’s relationship with the outside world. She controls the European External Action Service, a diplomatic agency that represents the EU abroad, the European Defense Agency, an organization that tries to foster closer military cooperation between the EU’s members, and the EU Military Staff, an organization that commands and controls military operations undertaken by the EU.

Of course, her powers are undercut by the fact that each EU member has its own diplomatic service and its own military. In theory, EU members are supposed to always cooperate with each other in international affairs, but in practice the ongoing tensions between Russia and the west have exposed the fact that this isn’t always the case, with accusations in the news that Vladimir Putin is exploiting disunity within the EU to get a political advantage.

Still, the EU does actually have a military of its own, sort of – various members have volunteered units of their own armed forces into service for the Union, such as the ten-nation (appropriately named) Eurocorps. However, most EU members are also members of NATO, the United States-led international military alliance, and so most international military operations undertaken by the EU’s members are actually NATO missions, not EU missions.

What about those EU laws I was talking about earlier, though? Well, those laws are passed by the EU’s two legislative bodies: the Council and the European Parliament.

For starters, yes, there is a European Council and a Council of the European Union, and they are two completely different bodies. If that isn’t confusing enough, it turns out the Council isn’t even really one body, but 10 different ones with different configurations. Why? It’s because the Council is made up of government ministers from each member, with the specific ministers in attendance based on the matter being discussed. Are they talking about an environmental pollution bill? Then it’s the ministers responsible for environmental matters from each member that have gathered to discuss the bill.

Even the way the Council votes is confusing. You would think that if a simple majority of the ministers in attendance voted for that environmental pollution bill I was talking about, the bill would pass. Nope! The Council makes decisions based on “Qualified Majority Voting”, meaning that a bill has to be passed with the votes of 55% of the ministers whose national populations total at least 65% of the entire population of the EU. Not only that, but there are a handful of matters that require the Council’s unanimous consent, meaning in those cases any one country could block the whole thing if they want.

The European Parliament is far less confusing in how it functions, but it is also the body that most blurs the lines for whether the EU is an international organization or a federal government. The European Parliament is exactly what it sounds like, a parliament elected by the citizens of the EU to meet and pass laws. The Parliament has power over the EU’s budget and most laws have to be passed by both the Parliament and the Council to take effect. The Parliament has to approve the members of the European Commission for them to take office, and it technically has the power (though this has not yet been used) to kick out the Commission with a 2/3 majority vote.

In addition to the President of the European Council and President of the European Commission, there is a President of the European Parliament (currently Martic Schultz), who basically acts as chairperson of its meetings. Usually the European Parliament meets at the Espace Leopold in Brussels, Belgium (pictured above), since most of the other EU agencies and institutions meet in Brussels and it’s convenient to have everything in one place. However, the Parliament’s official headquarters, as outlined in the treaties, is Strasbourg, France, and it is legally bound to meet there for part of the year. This has created an expensive headache for its delegates, who have to pack up their offices and move twice a year, a situation that has been described as a “travelling circus”.

Lastly, the judicial branch. The Court of Justice of the European Union is responsible for making sure that EU law is applied uniformly throughout the Union. This gives the court immense power, as it effectively allows the court to overrule the decisions of national courts. In 1964, the court ruled that EU law trumped the national laws of its members, and since then this and later rulings have been interpreted to mean that EU law trumps ALL national laws, including the constitutions of EU members. As one can imagine, many EU members have not been so thrilled with this interpretation. This may be a part of why some British voters may be considering leaving the EU.

The EU’s fuzzy (and not-so-fuzzy) borders

What a border crossing within the EU normally looks like

What a border crossing within the EU normally looks like

Earlier, I mentioned that within the EU there are no border controls, permitting free movement between EU members. That was a half-lie. Technically, the open-border-zone is something a bit different: the Schengen Area. Named for the tiny town where the agreement to open all borders was made, the Schengen Area includes most, but not all, EU members. New members that had joined the EU just recently usually take a few years to apply the agreement to their own borders, as the agreement not only deals with removing barriers between its members but also building up stronger border controls with non-members, participating in police programs that help monitor and catch criminals that try to flee justice from country to country, and protecting their citizens’ private data.

Two EU members – Ireland and (surprise, surprise) the United Kingdom – have an agreement with the EU that lets them stay out of the Schengen Area and continue controlling their borders the old-fashioned way. Meanwhile, seven non-EU members – Iceland, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Norway, San Marino, Switzerland, and the Vatican – have the exact reverse. They have agreed to participate in the Schengen Area even though they aren’t part of the European Union at all.

This points to the other oddity when it comes to European Union membership. Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway have all agreed to participate in the “European Economic Area”, a free trade zone with the EU that has the odd side-effect that most (but not all) EU law applies in the three EEA countries even though they had no say in passing those laws.

Yet another oddity comes from the leftover remnants of the days when European powers tried to conquer and colonize as much of the world as they could. While most former colonies have long since won their independence, a few island territories in places like the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, and the Pacific have chosen to retain their political ties to the mother country. This creates complications when that mother country joins the EU.

France, Spain, and Portugal each maintain far-off territories that are legally part of those countries, in the same way Hawaii is part of the United States. This means these “Outermost Regions” are part of the European Union, and for the most art EU law applies to them as it would on the mainland, but there are sometimes special exceptions allowed to take into account their remoteness from Europe. Perhaps the most famous Outermost Region is French Guiana, on the South American mainland between Brazil and Suriname, which is French soil in spite of its location. It is here that the European Space Agency has built its main launch facility.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and France each maintain a handful of colonies that are not legally part of the mother country. These “Overseas Countries and Territories” are, thus, NOT a part of the EU, though they do have a special relationship with it, such as being able to ask for money from the EU to finance their governments.

So, a bit more complicated than it looked on the surface, but at least the picture of the EU’s borders are a bit more clear. The Schengen countries, both EU and non-EU, share a common external border while opening up the borders between each other. The EU’s laws decide immigration and customs policy for its members. Yet the Syrian refugee crisis has shown this to not be nearly so simple, after all.

In the wake of the crisis and the recent Paris terrorist attacks, many countries have started reinstating border controls, building fences and checkpoints to stop people from entering without a passport and a good reason. The Schengen agreement allows countries to do this in emergencies, though critics of these policies argue that these border checks are destroying the very spirit of the EU.

Indeed, the whole “common immigration policy” has fallen apart in the wake of the crisis. Austria unilaterally capped the number of asylum seekers they would accept, in direct violation of EU law. Meanwhile, economically-strapped Greece has been blamed by EU leaders for not keeping its borders with the outside world more tightly controlled, and has been given a three-month deadline to step up border enforcement. In the face of the crisis, it’s become clear that each country is trying to handle the problem in its own way instead of establishing a common, coordinated plan as the treaties intended. Whether Europe’s leaders will be able to pull together and deal with the problems together is yet to be seen.

The past few years have been very hard on the European Union. Between the euro crisis, the Syrian refugee crisis, and the rise of anti-EU political parties, it seems the organization’s future is uncertain. Yet, perhaps the funny not-quite-government with bizarre institutions that have confusing names might be able to make it through. Perhaps. Politics is strange, indeed.

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One Response to Strange Politics: How the European Union Works

  1. Pingback: Behind the Headline: The UK votes to leave the EU | Cat Flag

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