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Guide to the European Union

How has EU membership changed how the British government works?

There has been a range of ways in which British Institutions and Interest Groups have been affected:-

The British Government’s way of working had to change in relation to areas of policy dealt with by the EU. In Britain we have traditionally had a strong Executive backed by a majority in Parliament and, although it might consult with interested groups, has been able to carry out the policies that it wanted to.  In the EU, because sovereignty is shared with other countries, Ministers and Civil Servants have had to negotiate and compromise and do deals to get things done.  The European Secretariat of the Cabinet Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have the role within central government of coordinating the interests of the different Whitehall departments in relation to EU proposals and the British Permanent Representative has a section in Brussels that does the main negotiating there and reports weekly to the Prime Minister.

Increased workload for the PM

The EU has increased the workload of Prime Ministers and Ministers who have to spend time negotiating in Brussels and has also tended to move power away from the Cabinet. Ministers began to spend more time in the European Councils, with their fellow agriculture or transport or energy ministers from other countries, than in the British Cabinet.  At Council meetings deals often have to be struck there, with Cabinets or Cabinet Committees only agreeing the opening negotiating position, and so Ministers developed some autonomy from the Whitehall system.  Pro-European Ministers might be happy to negotiate further integration while Eurosceptic ministers would push a British deregulatory line. Although Prime Ministers have mostly liked to get involved in foreign policy and attend international summits, the EU has provided a new set of these, especially since power moved away from the Commission to European summits between leaders, to determine the direction of policy.  This has taken up more of Prime Ministers’ time and made them seem more Presidential.

Parliament has always been in a powerful position legally in Britain as it is accepted that the British courts cannot overrule an Act of Parliament.  Other countries have a written Constitution and a Constitutional Court which can nullify legislation which is in conflict with the Constitution. On the other hand, in practice, a Government with a majority in the House of Commons has been able to get whatever it wants approved by Parliament. EU membership has reduced the legal power of the British Parliament, at least in areas such as competition and employment policy, environmental protection and food safety which are decided in the EU.  EU membership has reduced the legal power of the British Parliament. EU regulations become part of British law without Parliamentary approval.  There is more freedom to decide how EU directives will be carried out but most are implemented by secondary legislation issued by the Government.  Parliament has become more ready to examine what the Government does in all areas and the Prime Minister and Ministers have to justify to Parliament the outcome of their negotiations with other countries in the Council of Ministers. A group of Eurosceptic Conservative MPs constantly question the way in which the EU affects Britain. Both the House of Commons and the House of Lords have Committees which look at the Government’s European policy and look at draft EU legislation.

The Conservative and Labour Parties were divided on whether Britain should join the EU in 1972 and Europe has been a problem for both of them, with Labour divided on support for the EU in the 1970s and early 1980s and the Conservatives since the 1990s.  Partly because of this they have never wanted to make Europe an issue in their general election campaigns. The Liberal Democrats have generally been the most pro-European party and UKIP emerged after 2010 as an anti-European party with considerable support. With UKIP eating into the Conservative vote and an increase in the number of Eurosceptic Conservative MPs, David Cameron committed to holding, by 2017, a referendum on whether Britain should stay within the EU and this will lead to a major political debate over the next two years. Since 1979, Britain has held elections for members of the European Parliament and these MEPs have become part of the British political system, taking up issues that are decided within the EU and lobbying in Brussels for funding for their constituencies. European elections have been more a verdict on the performance of the British Government than about European issues, though UKIP have been able to mobilise anti-European feeling to elect UKIP MEPs.

Interest Groups

Interest Groups are able to influence decisions within the EU by lobbying the British Government so that it takes their interests into account in decisions made by the European Council and also by directly lobbying the Commission and the European Parliament.  The Commission has always been keen to get the views of interest groups, as it has no democratic legitimacy, but also because it develops proposals at an early stage and so it wants to know how national governments and MEPs are likely to react it terms of the concerns of their voters. MEPS are also open to contact with interest groups as their election has not involved gaining popular support in the way that national parties have.  Both the Commission and the Parliament can use interest group support against the European Council when there is a disagreement. Most lobbying has been done by economic interests because regulations related to the Single Market were very important to them but as European policy has expanded so have the range of groups involved and  new conflicts occur, for example animal rights and religious groups combining to oppose genetic research by the pharmaceutical industry. Economic interests particularly will join European wide groups so as to have more influence, for example, the European Trade Union Confederation and the Committee of Professional Agricultural Organisations which represents farmers.

Local Authorities

Local authorities have become increasingly affected by EU regulations such as those covering public service contracts or the need for environmental impact statements for larger planning applications.  The European Regional Development Fund and the European Social Fund have been a major source of income for local authority projects.  Special streams of funding have been available for areas such as the coalfield communities and localities losing defence industries. The larger local authorities keep an office in Brussels and they have participated in European networks such as the MILAN network, for local authorities with a car industry, to provide a stronger voice.

Scottish & Welsh Governments

The creation of Scottish and Welsh Governments led to a new set of contacts with Brussels. For the SNP, one part of the argument for independence was that Scotland could take its place within the EU like other small countries who are members.  Labour was also keen after 1997 to promote a Scottish and Welsh role in Europe.  The relevant UK minister can decide whether ministers from the devolved governments can attend the European Council and, if they do, they must follow the UK line, although they will be involved in deciding that line, and Scottish ministers have attended the EU negotiations on fisheries policy.  Both countries maintain an office in Europe, attached to the UK Permanent Representative’s office, which monitors legislation and lobbies the EU bodies.  

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