50 years ago today, the Treaty of Rome was signed. It brought into being the European Economic Community, including France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. The idea of European integration had existed since before the Second World War, but it took that devastating war – and the external threat of the Soviet Union – to convince the states of Western Europe that they should unite to survive. 50 years later, the EEC is the EU – the most powerful international organization, and one of the largest political entities, on the planet, with 27 member states, 493 million people, and a $15 trillion economy.
So what exactly is the European Union? Allow me to quote myself:
The European Union is one of the largest and most complex organizations to ever exist. It is multi-faceted, partially intergovernmental, partially supranational. As Christiansen wrote, â€œthe EU is increasingly seen as a system of multilevel governance, involving a plurality of actors on different territorial levels: supranational, national and subnationalâ€. According to Everts and Keohane, â€œFor most Europeans… the EU remains a baffling and distant organisation. Even Brussels insiders find it hard to explain how the EU works and who is responsible for whatâ€.
Sounds confusing? There’s a reason for that. I’ll try to explain clearly… (the next two parts are from a case study I wrote for one of my 300-level papers last year)
The European Union was established by a series of treaties, negotiated by the governments of member states. The treaties provide for several supranational institutions, some with legislative power. The structure of the European Union is very complex, with several types of institution having different and overlapping powers, and different ways of making decisions. Some decisions are made by Qualified Majority Voting, and more important decisions are made by the unanimous consent of member states.
The three most important institutions are the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. The European Commission is analogous to the executive arm of a national government â€“ it proposes and implements legislation, supported by thousands of civil servants in several Directorates-General. The European Parliament and the Council of Ministers form the legislative arm. The Council of Ministers represents national governments of member states, passing EU law and co-ordinating policy. Some decisions are made unanimously, others by Qualified Majority Voting, with voting powers weighted by population (but biased toward smaller states). The European Parliament is intended to oversee and monitor the activities of the other institutions, and can amend or veto some EU legislation, and, by adopting a motion of censure with a two-thirds majority, force the resignation of the entire Commission.
These institutions are appointed in different ways. The Commission consists of 25 commissioners, each chosen by a member state but not instructed by their government – they should represent the interests of the EU as a whole. The 25 members of the Council of Ministers are ministers in each national government. The European Parliament is the most democratic, including 732 members (MEPs) directly elected by EU citzens, with between 5 and 99 seats reserved for each country in the EU. In the last election more than 155 million voters out of 350 million took part â€“ one of the largest elections ever.
There are three main legislative procedures â€“ codecision, assent and consultation. Most EU laws fall under codecision, where Parliament and the Council of Ministers must agree to an identical text of the law. Assent requires a majority of Parliament, but Parliament cannot amend the law. For areas considered the most important, including the Common Agricultural Policy, Parliament can be consulted, but has no real power. The details of these procedures, worked out over several treaties, are complex, even labyrinthine.
In addition to the three main insitutions, the European Council or EU summit consists of the heads of state or government for each member state. While it does not have legal powers, it sets the direction of the EU and is a forum for intergovernmental negotiations.
The other two main institutions are the European Court of Justice, which hears disputes over EU law between member states and EU institutions, and the Court of Auditors, which audits the EU budget. Financial bodies include the European Central Bank and the European Investment Bank. Advisory committees include Committee of the Regions, Economic and Social Committee, Political and Security Committee. Also, the Ombudsman investigates complaints against any EU institution.
Agencies are secondary bodies set up for specific purposes, including agencies for transnational and economic issues such as the environment, external borders, drugs, diseases, and police cooperation.
The European Union is one of the largest and most complex organizations to ever exist. It is multi-faceted, partially intergovernmental, partially supranational. As Christiansen wrote, â€œthe EU is increasingly seen as a system of multilevel governance, involving a plurality of actors on different territorial levels: supranational, national and subnationalâ€. According to Everts and Keohane, â€œFor most European… the EU remains a baffling and distant organisation. Even Brussels insiders find it hard to explain how the EU works and who is responsible for whatâ€.
The first iteration of the European Union was the European Coal and Steel Community, which coordinated coal and steel production in the initial six member states. Early European federalists thought that economic integration would be a politically acceptable first step that would result in later political integration â€“ an idea similar to the later theory of functionalism. Economic integration has been the most successful aspect of the EU, but the EU also controls agricultural , fisheries and environmental policy, and regulates or influences several other areas. The EU is also attempting to develop a Common Foreign and Security Policy.
Economic integration has included development of a customs union, guarantees of internal freedom of movement for EU citizens and capital, anti-monopoly laws, removal of trade barriers, harmonisation of regulations, indirect taxation with the goal of creating a single market. Notably, most of the EU member states have adopted a common currency, the Euro, giving up control of monetary policy to the EU.
The Common Agricultural Policy is a politically significant part of the EU due to the political influence of the farming lobby in some member states. The CAP subsidies form the largest part of the EU budget. It is essentially a protectionist plan aimed at shielding European farmers from global competition, for the reasons of preserving emergency food supplies and sustaining a traditional way of life for rural people.
Foreign policy cooperation has been included in EU law since the 1985 Single European Act. Progress on defense and security policy has been slow, but an independent military unit, the European Rapid Reaction Force, was formed in 1999. While NATO continues to be responsible for Europe’s defense, the EU has recently taken over some peacekeeping missions, particularly in Macedonia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The EU faces an uncertain future, with the threat of Russian energy diplomacy, Islamic terrorism, Middle East instability and illegal immigration. Then there’s the hassle about Turkey’s potential accession, with problems relating to Cyprus, Armenian genocide-denial laws and so on (read: European worries about Islam). And they have ridiculously complex and laughably inefficient procedures, can’t decide whether to have 27 completely different states decide everything by consensus or by majority vote, and of course they have trouble putting together the most basic, coherent foreign policy. Not to mention the death of the proposed EU constitution, and growing Euro-skepticism among libertarian, nationalist, xenophobic and economic-protectionist European voters.
But let’s not dwell too much on the negative. Is the EU, overall, a force for good in the world? Sure. Apart from the outrageous farm subsidies, that is. You can blame Brussels for increased regulation in Western Europe, but the EU has offered a framework for the peaceful breakup of countries in Western Europe, and most of all it has offered incentives – and set strict standards – for the opening of economies and the improvement of governance in Eastern Europe. I hope the process continues in the former Yugoslavia, too. And the accession of Turkey might just be the best possible outcome for relations between Europe and the Muslim world.
You can generalize from the success of the EU to the success of transnational organizations generally. As I’ve written before, integration and fragmentation (“fragmegration” according to Rosenau) are two of the most important trends in the world today. But increasingly, in my opinion, fragmentation is more important than integration. Integration seems to happen out of necessity, as in the birth of the EU 50 years ago, and in many of the more mundane parts of the EU and UN which affect our daily lives. But at the moment, and especially looking at the EU, it seems that there is ever more dividing than uniting us. The EU has had its day, in my opinion. It might get bigger, but it will not become more united.