Guide to the European Union
How does the UK influence decisions within the EU?
The European Union had already been in existence for 15 years before Britain joined and so we had to fit in with its rules, although there have been significant changes over time in how these work. The EU required Britain to pool sovereignty with other countries in the areas that the EU deals with.
Britain is able to have influence in a number of ways:-
- The Prime Minister meets with the leaders of other countries to discuss major issues and agree the general direction of the EU including the broad content of any proposed treaties. There are only a few meetings a year so it will only deal with urgent issues such as the Euro crisis or the refugee problem.
- The UK Parliament agrees treaty changes, and legislation now requires a referendum on any important change in the way that the EU works.
- Most issues are dealt with by Cabinet Ministers in the Council of the EU. Although there can be a vote so that the UK is overruled by other countries, in practice, almost all decisions are taken as a result of negotiation and compromise between the countries. Britain’s Permanent Representative in Brussels, who is a civil servant, plays a key part in sorting out the details of these negotiations. Britain’s influence varies according to how important a policy is to the national interest. Some less significant issues can be bargained away in return for concessions to key British interests.
- Britain is able to nominate one of the Commissioners. Commissioners are meant to look at the overall EU interest but, as there is one for each country, they also tend to promote the national interest. The Commission President decides which area each Commissioner should be responsible for but Britain’s nominee in 2014 was given Financial Services, which is a key area for Britain, given the importance of the City of London. However, there are now also Vice-Presidents who coordinate the Commissioners so this may reduce their influence.
- Britain elects one of the largest groups of members of the European Parliament. They can vote against legislation in the main sessions and amend legislation in Committees of which they are members. Influence is through the centre right and centre left parliamentary groups that are much the largest in the Parliament. However, although the Labour MEPs belong to the centre left group, neither the Conservatives nor UKIP have joined the centre right group. The Parliament also provides a forum for MEPs to raise issues important to Britain and to their constituencies.
- Westminster is able to comment on draft EU legislation, although regulations automatically become UK law. Ministers do not normally agree directives in the Council of the EU until the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee has had an opportunity to comment on them. The Committee can refer a proposal for further discussion in the House of Commons. The main problem is that there are some 1000 EU documents a year to look at and so it is difficult to comment on them all in detail. The European Union Committee of the House of Lords will also pick a few proposals for detailed discussion. Ministers will make statements on EU meetings in the Commons and any MP can question them and also put down questions on EU issues. The UK Parliament can also join with other parliaments in blocking a law that gives the EU powers which should remain with national parliaments.
- British interest groups and the public can have some influence. The Commission and the European Parliament are open to lobbying from interest groups. As well as voting in European elections and contacting their MEP on issues there is a provision for public involvement via the Citizen’s Initiative. However, this requires one million signatures from at least seven countries and can only really be organised through social media.