The European Union

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  • Created on: 15-04-19 21:52

The European Union

The UK's relationship with the EU has been a complex and controversial one. Its membership of the EU has had an impact on all aspects of the UK's politics and public policy. It has undermined long-standing constitutional principles and divided parties and public opinions. 

For some, the freedom of movement and trade and the settled relationships that exist between member states is a price worth paying for the expensive bureaucracies of the EU's supranational institutions. 

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EU institutions

The EU and its institutions: development

The EU originated from the European Coal and Steel Community formed in 1952 between France, Germany and Italy. 

In the following decades, it steadily expanded its membership and responsibilities until the UK joined the European Economic Community in January 1973. 

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Functions of EU institutions

The European Commission 

The European Commission is the 'executive' of the EU, made up of 28 commissioners (one from each state) and a president (Jean-Claude Junker)

It proposes legislation and attempts to ensure that the provisions of various treaties are upheld. Commissioners are expected to adopt a supranational attitude. 

The Commission has the role of initiating legislation and making proposals to the Council and the European Parliament. 

It acts as the guardian of EU treaties and holds power to execute agreed policies. 

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Functions of EU institutions

The Council of Ministers 

The Council is made up of ministers of the 28 member states - the actual minister attendign meetings depends on the nature of the issue being discussed.

It is the main decision-making body of the EU. While a small number of key decisions are reached by unaninmous vote, most are taken on the basis of qualified majority voting. 

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Functions of EU institutions

The European Council 

  • The forum for the heads of state, foreign secretaries and commissioners to determine the direction of the EU.
  • It has no legislative power, but has a responsibility to define 'the general political directions and priorities' of the EU. 
  • The EU's strategic body, acting as the collective presidency of the EU. 
  • The Council of Ministers and the European Council are intergovernmental bodies. 
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Functions of EU institutions

The European Parliament 

  • Made up of 751 MEPs elected from member states every 5 years.
  • Primary roles are to scrutinise the EU budget and the European Commission itself. 
  • The European Parliament is the only EU institution that is democratically elected by citizens in each member state.
  • Seats are allocated to individual states in proportion to population.
  • The European Parliament approves the EU budget and confirms the Commission's appointment. 
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Functions of EU institutions

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) 

  • The ECJ administers and adjudicated on EU law. 
  • Made up of 28 judges is able to strike down domestic laws when they conflict with EU law. 
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Eu institutions: where does its power lie?

Under the Treaty of Rome (1957) most power within the EEC (European Economic Community) was vested in institutions such as the Commission and the Council of Ministers, rather than the European Parliament.

As the European Parliament remains the only directly elected EU institution, those on the left have argued that it possesses a better mandate to legislate than the Council of Ministers (whose members are normally elected politicians in their own countries but are not directyl elected to the Council of Ministers)

The transfer of legislative and policy-making areas from national bodues to EU institutions has resulted in a decline in expected levels of checks and balances and an erosion of authority. 

Turnout in the UK for the European Parliament Elections was just 36%.

In order to address the EU's 'democratic deficit':

  • The Lisbon Treaty extended the power of the European Parliament.
  • Decision making in the Council of Ministers was to become more open and public.
  • A new secession clause explains how states can leave the EU. 
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Does the EU suffer from a democratic deficit?


  • The power to make policy lies with unelected EU institutions such as the Council rather than the elected European Parliament. 
  • The only elected and accountable institution - the European Parliament - is weak and marginal.
  • Too little is known and understood about political activity at EU level or about the performance of elected representatives. 
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Does the EU suffer from a democratic deficit?


  • Both the Council of Ministers and the European Council are made up of officials who are accountable to their own electorate.
  • All key treaties are ratified by member states through representative assemblies or by referendum. 
  • The role and status of the European Parliament is steadily growing in significance. 
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Aims of the EU

Aims were to combat discrimination and to promote EU values of justice, peace and stability. 

The creation of a single European market (free movement of goods, services, people and capital) was the central aim of the European Union. 

The 'four freedoms' to establish this involve: 

  • The free movement of goods - meaning that member states cannot impose duties or taxes on goods from another EU state. 
  • The free movement of services - enabling professionals, businesses and self-employed people to offer their services across the EU.
  • The free movement of people - allowing any national of an EU member state to seek employment in another EU state without discrimination on the grounds of their nationality. 
  • The free movement of capital - restrictions on capital movements between EU member states have been removed. 
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Achievement of its aims

The single European market has created more than 2.5 million jobs across the EU and helped to increase GDP (gross domestic profit) by 15%.

Critics in the UK note that EU regulations are costly for small enterprises, and financial services. 

EU policy has been seen to impose costs on successful businesses in order to distribute wealth to less competitive businesses in poorer regions 

The free movement of people - a core principle of the EU - has proved to be far more burdensome for some EU countried than others. Eastward migration has meant that destabilising demographic and skills gaps have occured in states such as Poland, Latvia and Lithuania. 

In contrast, by 2015 3.2 million EU citizens were living in the UK, representing over 5% of the population, while 1.2 million UK citizens lived in the rest of the EU.  

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Achievement of its aims

The abolition of national currencies in many EU countries was hailed as the greatest single achievement of the process of integration and stability. 

By 2016, 19 of the EU's 28 states had joined the European Monetary Union (EMU).

While EMU has brought a number of benefits - especially and end to exhange rate uncertainty - the drawback of a loss of national control of currency has been seen as the cause of debt crises and has required bailouts in several member states by the European Central Bank (ECB). 

In the area of rights, EU citizenship has given members a range of economic and social rights. EU citizens have rights to vote in European Parliament elections and local elections, to move to another member state in order to work and reside and the right to permanent residence in another EU country if they have lived there legally for 5 years. 

In addition, EU law has extended workers rights by limiting working hours, improving health and safety and prohibiting discrimination in the workplace. 

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Achievement of its aims

The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights was a legally binding element of the Lisbon Treaty. 

The charter served to entrench rights enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. 

These cover: 

  • The right to life
  • Liberty
  • Equality
  • Workers' rights
  • Citizens' rights (free movement) 

For many people, the EU's aims of combating discrimination abd promoting social equality has been its biggest achievements. 

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Has the EU eroded UK sovereignty?

What is sovereignty? 

National sovereignty refers to the idea that final, supreme decision-making authority is located within the nation state, with the national government determining law for its own territory.

Supporter's of the UK's membership of the EU maintain that the harsh reality of globalisation and the dominance of multinational companies and international agencies mean that the UK's ability to be'sovereign' is severely restricted. 

The supportive arguments of EU membership stress that on joining the EU, the UK shared its sovereignty with other EU states in order to increase its influence and capacity to act. 

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Has the EU eroded UK sovereignty?

Has EU membership eroded UK sovereignty? 

Under the European Communities Act 1972, EU law has primacy in cases where national and EU law conflict. 

The 1990 Factortame case demonstrated this when the UK Merchant Shipping Act 1988, which had restricted non-British citizens from registering boats as British in order to qualify for the UK's quote under the Common Fisheries Policy, was disapplied on account of its conflict with EU law. 

The fundamental constitutional principle upon which the UK is based - parliamentary sovereignty - was undermined. 

However, Parliament always retained ultimate legislative authority as it could repeal the European Communities Act, for which the 2016 referendum result provided the basis.

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Has the EU eroded UK sovereignty?

Was Parliament sovereign anyway? 

It is important to note that European membership is just one of many factors in the erosion of parliamentary sovereignty that has occured in recent years. 

The steady accumulation of power in the hands of the executive has often rendered Parliament ineffective, especially in times of weak opposition and healthy government majorities.

The use of referendums, the delegation of responsibility for complex legislation to non-parliamentary bodies, the rise of unaccountable and unelected quangos and the devolution of power to the regions makes the debate that the EU has eroded parliamentary sovereignty look inaccurate

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Has the EU eroded UK sovereignty?

Will Brexit restore national sovereignty? 

Following its exit from the EU, the Uk will no longer have another authority - at least in th form of the EU - able to strike down national laws where conflicts arise. 

In addition, key areas of policy - agriculture, health and safety, environmental protection - will return to the jurisdiction of the UK Parliament. 

Exam Tip 

  • Be clear about the areas of policy competence that will be returned to the UK on its exit from the EU. 
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