A Fashionista's Guide to Politics - By Tamara Cincik and Rafaella de Freitas
With the UK due to officially leave the EU on March 29th 2019, we now have less than 6 months to not only fully understand how the EU works, but what it does for those on the inside and what effects not being at the decision making tables at the European Parliament in Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg will mean for the UK. Did you even know that the EU meets in not one, not two but three cities across Western Europe, with meetings for the whole Parliament taking place in Brussels and Strasbourg and admin being done primarily in Luxembourg? Second only to India for the size of the electorate, the power and impact of the EU cannot be underestimated. Educational programmes such as Horizon 2020 and Erasmus and key to its value, with the former acting as the largest EU Research and Innovation (R&I) programme with over €80bn of funding over 7 years between 2014 – 2020. The sheer power of this as an economic driver for advances in science, medicine, tech and the creative industries cannot be underestimated, creating a genuine single market for knowledge, business opportunity as well as R & I.
28 countries across Europe, soon to be 27, with a shared agenda across finances, IP and sustainable initiatives, creates a powerful trading bloc which represents over 500m people.
Winston Churchill was one of the European leaders, who in a post WW2 landscape worked towards the creation of the EU. Keen to promote peace across a continent which had been ravaged by war and atrocities, the European project has brought together a diverse group of people to create a united, peaceful and prosperous Europe.
A peaceful Europe – the beginnings of cooperation
The European Union was set up with the aim of ending the frequent and bloody wars between neighbours, which culminated in WW2. In 1950, the European Coal and Steel Community began to unite European countries economically and politically, in order to secure lasting peace. The six founding countries were Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. In 1957, the Treaty of Rome creates the European Economic Community (EEC), or ‘Common Market’.
A period of economic growth
The 1960s was a good period for the economy,: “we never had it so good”. EU countries stopped charging custom duties for trade with each other. They also agreed joint control over food production, so that everybody had enough to eat - and soon there was even surplus agricultural produce.
A growing Community – the first enlargement
Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom joined the European Union on 1 January 1973, raising the number of Member States to nine. The short, yet brutal, Arab-Israeli war of October 1973 results in an energy crisis and economic problems in Europe. The last right-wing dictatorships in Europe come to an end with the overthrow of the Salazar regime in Portugal in 1974 and the death of General Franco of Spain in 1975. The EU regional policy started to transfer huge sums of money to create jobs and infrastructure in poorer areas. The European Parliament increases its influence in EU affairs and in 1979 all citizens could, for the first time, elect their members directly. The fight against pollution intensifies in the 1970s. The EU adopts laws to protect the environment, introducing the notion of ‘the polluter pays’ for the first time.
The changing face of Europe - the fall of the Berlin Wall
The Polish trade union, Solidarność, and its leader Lech Walesa, become household names across Europe and the world following the Gdansk shipyard strikes in the summer of 1980. In 1981, Greece becomes the 10th member of the EU, and Spain and Portugal follow five years later. In 1986 the Single European Act was signed, a treaty which provided the basis for a vast six-year programme aimed at sorting out the problems with the free flow of trade across EU borders, or the ‘Single Market’. There was major political upheaval when, on 9 November 1989, the Berlin Wall was pulled down and the border between East and West Germany was open for the first time in 28 years. This led to the reunification of Germany, when both East and West Germany are united in October 1990.
A Europe without frontiers
With the collapse of communism across central and eastern Europe, Europeans became closer neighbours. In 1993 the Single Market was completed with the 'four freedoms' of: movement of goods, services, people and money. Two key treaties dominated the EU story in the 1990’s: the ‘Maastricht’ Treaty on the European Union in 1993 and the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1999. Environmental issues became a key topic, as well as how Europeans could act together across security and defence. In 1995 the EU gained three more new members: Austria, Finland and Sweden. A small village in Luxembourg gives its name to the ‘Schengen’ agreements that gradually allowed people to travel without having their passports checked at the borders. Millions of young people study in other countries with EU support.
The euro is now the new currency for many Europeans. During the decade more and more countries adopt the euro. EU countries begin to work much more closely together to fight crime and terrorism in a post 911 world. The political divisions between east and west Europe are finally declared healed when no fewer than 10 new countries join the EU in 2004, followed by Bulgaria and Romania in 2007. A financial crisis hits the global economy in September 2008. The Treaty of Lisbon is ratified by all EU countries before entering into force in 2009. It provides the EU with modern institutions and more transparent working methods.
A challenging decade
The global economic crisis strikes hard in Europe. The EU helps several countries to confront their difficulties and establishes the 'Banking Union' to ensure safer and more reliable banks. In 2012, the European Union is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Croatia becomes the 28th member of the EU in 2013. Climate change is still high on the agenda and leaders agree to reduce harmful emissions. European elections are held in 2014 and more Eurosceptics are elected into the European Parliament. A new security policy is established in the wake of the annexation of Crimea by Russia. Religious extremism increases in the Middle East and various countries and regions around the world, leading to unrest and wars which result in many people fleeing their homes and seeking refuge in Europe. The EU is not only faced with the dilemma of how to take care of them, but also finds itself the target of several terrorist attacks. In June 2016, the UK voted by a 4% majority in a referendum to leave the EU.
The EU System
The European Union is comprised of a number of institutions and bodies, occupied with maintaining the EU’s values and goals:
Promote peace, its values and the well-being of its citizens
Offer freedom, security and justice without internal borders
Sustainable development based on balanced economic growth and price stability, a highly competitive market economy with full employment and social progress, and environmental protection
Combat social exclusion and discrimination
Promote scientific and technological progress
Enhance economic, social and territorial cohesion and solidarity among EU countries
Respect its rich cultural and linguistic diversity
Establish an economic and monetary union whose currency is the euro.
The institutions are:
European Parliament European Council
Council of the European Union
Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU)
European Central Bank (ECB)
European Court of Auditors (ECA)
European External Action Service (EEAS)
European Economic and Social Committee (EESC)
European Committee of the Regions (CoR)
European Investment Bank (EIB)
European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS)
Free Movement within the EU
Free trade areas in Europe
Given the aims of the EU of economic union and free movement, the EU occupies itself with promoting easy trade between member countries, as well as other surrounding countries by generating free trade areas across Europe. A free trade area occurs when trading blocks have signed a free trade agreement (FTA) – agreeing to lower the boundaries for trade, such as tariffs and quotas. In Europe, there are currently four free trade areas.
The Schengen area: free movement
The Schengen Area refers to the signing of the Agreement for the gradual abolition of checks at common borders. The Schengen provisions abolish checks at the Union's internal borders, while tightening controls at the external borders, in accordance with a single set of rules. These rules cover several areas:
A common set of rules applying to people crossing the EU external borders, including the types of visa needed and how checks at external borders have to be carried out
Harmonisation of the conditions of entry and of the rules on visas for short stays (up to three months)
Enhanced police cooperation (including rights of cross-border surveillance and hot pursuit)
Stronger judicial cooperation through a faster extradition system and transfer of enforcement of criminal judgments
Establishment and development of the Schengen Information System (SIS)
Documents needed for travelling in Europe.
Members of the Schengen Area are: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland
The EU contains both the EU Single Market and the EU Customs Union. The Single Market seeks to achieve freedom of goods, services, capital and labour; it is composed of the members of the European Economic Area (all EU members plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway), and Switzerland. The EU Customs Unions consists of all members of the EU, (including four territories outside of the EU—Akrotiri and Dhekelia, Guernsey, the Isle of Man, and Jersey), Turkey, San Marino, Monaco and Andorra, which are outside of the EU. In addition to allowing free trade, the Customs Union imposes a common external tariff on all good entering the area.
European Single Market
The Single Market refers to the EU as one territory without any internal borders or other regulatory obstacles to the free movement of goods and services. A functioning Single Market stimulates competition and trade, improves efficiency, raises quality, and helps cut prices. There is currently a single market for goods and services, and the EU has made it a priority to consolidate the Digital Single Market.
The European Economic Agreement (1994)
The EEA gives Norway, Iceland and Lichenstein access to the Single Market without having to be EU members. In return, these countries implement laws concerning goods, services and capital, and allow the free movement of people. The EEA does not cover:
Common Agriculture and Fisheries Policies (although the Agreement contains provisions on various aspects of trade in agricultural and fish products);
Common Trade Policy;
Common Foreign and Security Policy;
Justice and Home Affairs (even though the EFTA countries are part of the Schengen area); or
Monetary Union (EMU).
The European Free Trade Association (EFTA)
EFTA members are Iceland, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and Norway. Its members participate in the European Single Market and are part of the Schengen Area. EFTA members are not, however, part of the EU Customs Union. EFTA has several free trade agreements with non-EU countries as well as declarations on cooperation and joint workgroups to improve trade. Currently, the EFTA States have established preferential trade relations with 24 states and territories.
Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA)
CEFTA is a free-trade agreement between non-EU countries; when a CEFTA member joins the EU, they are no longer part of the agreement. CEFTA members are Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia and Kosovo (as UNMIK).
Commonwealth of Independent States Free Trade Area (CISFTA)
CISFTA is a free trade area between Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Moldova, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. All members, except Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Moldova and Tajikistan are members of the Eurasian Economic Union, compromising a single economic market.
Decision making within the EU
The EU model of decision-making is of representative democracy: citizens are represented directly at Union level in the democratically elected European Parliament, and Member States represented in the European Council and the Council of the EU.
The European Parliament is the law-making body of the EU. It has legislative, supervisory and budgetary responsibilities.
The president of the European Parliament is Antonio Tajani, and it has 751 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), and is located in Strasbourg, Brussels for voting and Luxembourg for admin.
The number of MEPs for each country are roughly proportional to the country’s population, but no country can have fewer than 6 or more than 96 MEPs, and there must be a total of 750 MEPs. MEPs are organised by political affiliation rather than country, and elections occur every 5 years, the next one being in May 2019.
The Parliament works in two stages, in Committees to prepare legislation, and in Plenary Sessions to pass legislation:
There are 20 committees and two subcommittees, each in charge of a particular policy area, and examine proposed legislation. MEPs and political groups can put forward amendments or propose to reject the bill.
Plenary sessions occur when MEPs gather in the chamber to vote on the proposed legislation and amendments. This normally occurs in Strasbourg during dour days of the months, but there may also be additional sessions in Brussels. In the Parliament’s meeting in the 22nd to the 25th of October, they will be voting on the Alignment of reporting obligations in the field of environment policy. The full agenda can be accessed here.
The European Commission is the EU’s politically independent executive arm. It is the only entity within the EU responsible for drawing up proposals for the new European legislation, and it implements the decisions of the European Parliament and the Council of the EU.
The Commission proposes new laws, manages EU policies & allocates EU funding (exerting a supervisory role of spending, under the scrutiny of the Court of Auditors), enforces EU law and represents the EU internationally. The initiatives published by the Commission for 2018 can be found here, such as delivering the Circular Economy Plan, which includes: a strategy on plastics use, reuse and recycling, a proposal for a Regulation on minimum quality requirements for reused water, a REFIT revision of the Drinking Water Directive, an initiative to address legal, technical or practical bottlenecks at the interface of chemical, product and waste legislation and a monitoring framework for the circular economy.
The European Commission has a political leadership comprised of 28 Commissioners (one from each EU member country), all led by the Commission President, who decides which members are responsible for which policy areas.
The College of Commissioners includes the President of the Commission, his seven Vice-Presidents, including the First Vice-President, and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Policy and Security Policy and 20 Commissioners in charge of portfolios.
The current Commission’s term office runs until 31 October 2019. The Presidential candidate is suggested by the national leaders of the European Council, taking into account the results of the European Parliament Elections. To be elected, the candidate requires support of a majority of members of the European Parliament.
The Presidential candidate selects potential Vice-Presidents and Commissioners based on suggestions given by EU countries, and the list of nominees has to be approved by national leaders in the European Council. The election procedure requires each candidate to present their ideas and visions and answer questions before the European Parliament, which will then vote on accepting the nominees as a team. The final step is the nominee’s appointment by the European Council, achieved by a qualified majority.
The day-to-day running of the Commission is performed by the Directorates-General (DGs) – departments each responsible for a policy area. The operations of these departments are run by the EC’s staff, such as economists and lawyers.
The European Council defines the general political direction, and sets the priorities of the European Union. The European Council’s main role is to determine the EU’s general political direction and priorities, and although the Council does not set laws, it is in charge of complex and sensitive issues that cannot be resolved at lower levels of intergovernmental cooperation. EU’s policy is set by adopting conclusions during each European Council meeting – conclusions identify specific issues of concern and outline particular actions and goals to be taken and reached. For example, on the 29th of June, the Council concluded: “Tackling the migration problem at its core requires a partnership with Africa aiming at a substantial socio-economic transformation of the African continent building upon the principles and objectives as defined by the African countries in their Agenda 2063”, the full document can be accessed here.
In July 2014, the Council decided on five priority areas to guide the EU’s work over the next five years, up to 2019:
Jobs, growth and competitiveness
Empowering and protecting citizens
Energy and climate policies
Freedom, security and justice
The EU as a strong global actor
The European Council is also in charge of nominating candidates to high profile EU level roles, such as the ECB and the European Commission.
The President is Donald Tusk, and members of the European Council are the heads of state or government of EU countries, the European Commission President and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs & Security Policy. The president is elected by the European Council for a once-renewable two-and-a-half-year term. Voting is restricted to heads of state or heads of government, and decisions are generally made by consensus, or unanimity or qualified majority in some cases.
Council of the European Union
The Council of the European Union acts as the voice of the EU member governments. Together with the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union negotiates and adopts EU laws based on the proposals provided by the European Commission. Based on the European Council guidelines, it is also responsible for developing the EU’s foreign & security policy, as well as for concluding agreement between the EEU and other countries or international organisations, coordinating EU members countries’ policies and jointly with the European Parliament, it adopts the annual EU budget.
The Council of the European Unions is composed of government ministers from each member government, dependent on what policy area is being discussed. It is composed of ten configurations (General Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Economic and Financial Affairs, Agriculture and Fisheries, Justice and Home Affairs, Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs, Competitiveness, Transport, Telecommunication and Energy, Environment and Education, Youth, Culture and Sport) and each can adopt an act that falls under the remit of another configurations. There is no hierarchy, expect for the coordination role of the General Affairs Council, which also is responsible for institutional, administrative and horizontal matters. The Foreign Affairs Council also has a special remit.
Decision-making is by qualified majority voting for 80% of the legislation passed, but can also be taken by simple majority of unanimous vote, depending on the matter being discussed. The Council meets in Brussels, and each EU country holds the presidency on a 6-month rotating basis.
The Council meets in a public session when it discusses or votes on a proposal for a legislative act. In these cases, the meeting agenda includes a 'legislative deliberation' part. The first deliberation on important non-legislative proposals is also public. The results of debates are the Council’s conclusions.
An example of a conclusion of the Council of the European Union is on the Sustainable Garments Value Chain (May 2017). The full document can be accessed here, and conclusions included “the Council calls upon the Commission to promote consumer information tools and CSR/RBC including through due diligence carried out by companies in their supply chains”, and “Development cooperation can be an effective tool to improve the sustainability of garment value chains. Sustainable garment value chains should be pursued by supporting efforts of governments, civil society organisations (CSOs), global and local businesses, including micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs), social partners in producing countries, international organisations, also through bilateral and regional programmes and projects”.
In addition, the Council regularly holds public debates on important issues affecting the interests of the EU and its citizens. The debate on the General Affairs Council's 18 month programme, as well as the priorities of the other Council configurations, and the debate on the Commission's five year programme, are public.
The EU is relies on the rule of law – every action taken by the EU is founded on treaties that have been voluntarily approved and democratically chosen by all the EU member countries.
An EU Treaty is a binding agreement between all member countries, which sets out objectives, rules for EU institutions and how decisions are made. Treaties are also concerned with the relationship between the EU and its member countries. Please click here for the main treaties in the EU.
Treaties are achieved by several kinds of legal acts, with differing scopes: some are binding, some are not, and some can apply either to all or selected EU Member Countries
A regulation is a binding legislative act and must be applied in its entirety across the EU. An example is the regulation on common safeguards on goods imported from outside the EU, which can be accessed here.
A decision is directly applicable and binding only on those to whom it is addresses. With the escalating threat of terrorism, the EU made a decision on the participation of the European Union in various organisation for cooperation to prevent and counter terrorism, which can be found here.
In regard to regulations and decisions – national authorities must ensure that they are correctly applied; as they become automatically binding throughout the EU on the date they enter into force.
A directive is a legislative act that sets out a goal that all EU countries must achieve. With that, individual countries have freedom on deciding what the best policies and actions are in order to achieve the goal. National authorities are responsible for making sure that these are correctly applied. Each directive contains a deadline by which EU countries must incorporate its provisions into their national legislation and inform the Commission to that effect.
A recommendation is not binding, and there are no legal consequences for a country that does not follow recommendations. It allows EU institutions to express their interests and suggest courses of action without imposing legal obligations. In May 2018, Brussels issues three recommendations for the United Kingdom, after considering the most urgent issues in the current state of affairs:
Ensure that the nominal growth rate of net primary government expenditure does not exceed 1.6 % in 2019-2020, corresponding to an annual structural adjustment of 0.6 % of GDP.
Boost housing supply, particularly in areas of highest demand, including through additional reforms to the planning system.
Address skills and progression needs by setting outcome targets for the quality and the effectiveness of apprenticeships and by investing more in upskilling those already in the labour force.
A list of country-specific recommendations can be found here.
An opinion is an instrument that allows the EU institutions to make a statement in a non-binding manner. Opinions are normally issued in while laws are being made, so that committees can react to such laws from their specific regional, economic or social perspectives. The European Agency for Fundamental Rights was asked to issue an opinion on the proposed revision of the Eurodac Regulation to expand the scope so it can also be used to control irregular immigration and movement within the EU: facial images and personal data would also be stored instead of just fingerprints and basic data such as gender and Member State; personal data would also be kept for longer (five years) and the age for capturing data from children would be lowered from 14 to 6. The FRA’s opinion can be found here.
Application of EU law
The Commission is responsible for certifying that all EU countries are implementing EU law correctly, and in this role it is referred to as ‘guardian of the treaties’. The Commission will assist members by providing online information, implementation plans, guidance documents and by organising expert-group meetings.
In the case that a EU member fails to correctly implement EU laws, the Commission may launch a formal infringement procedure against the country in question and if the issue is still not resolved, the Commission may eventually refer the case to the European Court of Justice.
EU citizens, residents and businesses are protected by a number of rights under the Union law. If you feel like these rights have not been protected, and national bodies or authorities have failed to address the matter, you are able to officially submit a complaint to the Commission here.