(Title Image: Guilhem Vellut via Flickr under Creative Commons Licence CC-BY-2.0)
EU politics is often impenetrable; attempting to coordinate and make policy with the agreement of 28 independent nations justifies it being so. This complexity also means gaps in knowledge leading to myth-making.
What is the European Union responsible for?
All EU members agree that some policy areas should be controlled by the EU, whether by itself or shared between the EU and the member states.
The areas controlled exclusively by the EU include:
- Rules governing the single market/free trade and customs union (including competition rules).
- Monetary policy for eurozone areas (so this doesn’t include the UK).
- Marine conservation under the Common Fisheries Policy.
- Some international agreements (namely trade agreements, where the EU negotiates and concludes on behalf of all members).
The areas where policy is shared between the EU and member states include:
- Energy and the environment.
- Trans-European transport networks.
- Some social and employment policies.
- Consumer protection, public health and product safety.
- Agriculture and fisheries.
- Research and development.
Under the Lisbon Treaty, the EU can’t exercise its powers in any areas of competence unless it’s strictly limited to what’s needed to achieve a specific policy aim (proportionality) and it’s agreed a policy will only be more effective if it’s carried out at an EU-wide level instead of by a local or national government (subsidiarity).
The EU has an annual budget of around €165billion (£143billion) funded by proportional membership payments from individual member states. The money is used to support key EU policies such as farming subsidies (Common Agricultural Policy), investment in infrastructure, regional development spending and research and development.
How is the EU governed?
There are four main parts to the EU’s governance arrangments:
European Council – This is an executive body made up of the elected heads of government of the 28 EU member states. The UK’s representative is the Prime Minister. Its role is to set the priorities and general direction of EU’s policies, but they play no role in drafting EU rules and regulations.
The European Commission – This effectively acts as the EU’s “Government”. Each member state appoints one member to the Commission and each Commissioner has responsibility for a particular area of policy (in the same way as a member of the UK or Welsh cabinet). The European Council nominates a President of the European Commission whose appointment is confirmed by a vote in the European Parliament. The Commission proposes legislation and runs EU departments.
The European Parliament – A directly-elected legislature made up of (as of 2019) 751 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). The number of MEPs elected in each member state is generally proportional to the population, though no member state elects more than 96 MEPs or fewer than 6 MEPs. Like any other parliament, the European Parliament debates, amends and votes on legislation proposed by the European Commission as well as treaties. It’s based in Strasbourg and Brussels.
The Presidency (Council of the European Union) – This body effectively acts as a second chamber to the European Parliament. The presidency is held by the government of an EU member state and rotates every 6 months. Each member state has a weighted vote based on population and for any legislation to pass it needs the support of the equivalent of 55% of member states and 65% of the EU’s population.
There are also several other important organs of the European Union, some relevant to the UK, others less so. These include the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and European Central Bank (ECB) as well as the Committee of the Regions (where the Senedd is represented).
What do MEPs actually do?
Like MPs and AMs, the main job of MEPs is to debate EU policy, laws and regulations within the EU’s areas of exclusive or shared competence (summarised earlier) – in addition to the EU’s budget. They also have seats on subject committees similar to ones at Westminster and the Senedd.
One of the big differences between the European Parliament and national parliaments is that it’s often very technical and very boring – and that’s saying something. Debates are usually over points of principle rather than the “them and us” style of discussion you get at Westminster or the Senedd. It also takes place in more than 20 different languages (though English is the de facto language), meaning the most effective MEPs not only have to be good debaters and well-versed in the topic of discussion but able to build consensus across borders and cultures.
What’s also different is MEPs are broadly equal – there’s no great distinction between a backbencher and a frontbencher as the “government” (European Commission) is a completely separate body. This has lead to a perception that most of the EU is made up of “unelected eurocrats” when only a small proportion are unelected and even then they’re still indirectly elected (by elected representatives).
MEPs are elected every five years and earn just over €105,000 (~£91,000) a year before expenses.
The European Parliament’s Political Groups
There’s no “government and opposition” in the European Parliament as such, though a majority of MEPs are needed to secure nominations and confirmations of European Commission appointments, as well as the position of President of the European Parliament (an equivalent of the Speaker/Llywydd) – who counts as the 751st MEP.
Because countless parties are represented in the European Parliament, those with similar ideologies form groups to promote mutual interests. A minimum of 25 MEPs is required to form a political group. Forming a group comes with specific privileges such as additional finances to cover backroom costs as well as guaranteed seats on committees.
European People’s Party (EPP)
- Ideology: Centre-right, conservative
- EU Stance: Pro-EU, open to federalisation/closer working
- Number of MEPs: 217
- UK Affiliates (No. of MEPs): Change UK (2)
Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats (S&D)
- Ideology: Centre-left, social democracy
- EU Stance: Pro-EU
- Number of MEPs: 190
- UK Affiliates (No. of MEPs): Labour (20)
European Conservatives & Reformists (ECR)
- Ideology: Centre-right, conservative
- EU Stance: Eurosceptic, pro-reform
- Number of MEPs: 76
- UK Affiliates (No. of MEPs): Conservatives (18), Ulster Unionist Party (1)
Alliance of Liberals & Democrats for Europe (ALDE)
- Ideology: Centrist, liberal
- EU Stance: Pro-EU, pro-federal Europe
- Number of MEPs: 68
- UK Affiliates (No. of MEPs): Liberal Democrats (1)
Greens-European Free Alliance (G-EFA)
- Ideology: Environmentalism, civic nationalism, mainly centre to centre-left
- EU Stance: Broadly pro-EU, pro-independence for stateless nations
- Number of MEPs: 51
- UK Affiliates (No. of MEPs): Green Party* (3), Scottish National Party (2), Plaid Cymru (1)
European/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL)
- Ideology: Democratic Socialism, Communism
- EU Stance: Soft Euroscepticism
- Number of MEPs: 51
- UK Affiliates (No. of MEPs): Sinn Fein (1)
Europe of Freedom & Direct Democracy (EFDD)
- Ideology: Centre to far-right, nationalism, populism
- EU Stance: Anti-EU
- Number of MEPs: 41
- UK Affiliates (No. of MEPs): Brexit Party (14), Independents (3), Social Democratic Party (1)
Europe of Nations & Freedom (ENF)
- Ideology: Mainly far-right, populism, anti-immigration
- EU Stance: Anti-EU
- Number of MEPs: 36
- UK Affiliates (No. of MEPs): UKIP (2), Independents (1)
There are also 20 Non-Inscrits who aren’t members of any political group. UK Non-Inscrits include two Independents and the DUP (1 MEP). Their ideology is mixed and ranges from everything from far-left to far-right, though they’re broadly anti-EU.
What will happen after Brexit?
The UK will no longer play any part in the European Union’s institutions, will no longer elect MEPs and depending on what sort of agreement the UK reaches with the EU prior to Brexit (if there’s a deal at all) will have different relationships with the EU’s various bodies.
If there’s a softer version of Brexit – such as Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement – the UK may have to adopt some EU laws, regulations and standards in order to continue to have barrier-free access to the EU’s single market for trade and keep an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Without any MEPs or membership of the various EU bodies, it effectively means accepting rules without having any say in them. Many EU laws are already being copy-and-pasted into Welsh and UK law.
If there’s a harder version of Brexit – particularly if the UK leaves without a deal – then there would effectively be a clean slate; but it would mean trade barriers with the UK’s largest export market, border and customs checks and more difficulty in moving money, people and goods around – at least until a long-term free trade agreement is agreed and approved, which could take the best part of ten years.
In both cases the European Parliament would decrease in size and the EU’s budget would also become smaller, though it would also mean the UK loses access to EU agricultural subsidies, EU funding for things like universities and European structural funding (which was used in Wales and Cornwall).
Brexit supporters argue money the UK currently pays to the EU will instead be used to make up for any money lost from the EU – such as through the creation of a Shared Prosperity Fund – but no detailed plans have been provided yet.