One half of the European Union’s (more precisely, the European Commission’s) role is to create new laws and help Member States complete the internal market. The other involves carrying out different kinds of jobs and helps explain what the civil servants in the European Commission do.
It can be quite hard to define where the European Union begins and ends as it isn’t immediately visible to the average citizen in the same way that national and local entities are. Imagine that with a snap of the fingers that any of these three levels of government (local, national or European) were to disappear. National and local authorities provide services like health care and rubbish collection; their sudden disappearance would be felt near instantaneously. They contain services that define our societies and communities. By contrast, the disappearance of the EU would take slightly longer to effect the population, resulting in economic instability as prices adjust. The EU holds elements of our economy that are recoverable and more high minded ideas, such as being sustainable or promoting human rights.
A basic definition of what the EU does might come from its motives: to act when either a national response is inadequate (like climate change) or bigger is better (like a single trade policy).
In practice, the EU acts in almost every aspect of politics as Member States feel they have more to gain by working together than individually. However, it doesn’t act instead of Member States, but as an extension. A phrase at the start of the Lisbon Treaty (the central text used to govern the EU) is useful, though it has had quite a bit of negative publicity recently.
Resolved to continue the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe, in which decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity.
David Cameron has used this phrase recently as part of his promise to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU. Specifically, he’d like an opt-out for the UK from the ‘ever closer union’ part. Aside from the fact that this phrase holds no legal weight or requirement in itself, making his point invalid, he (quite conveniently) leaves out the qualifying clause (in bold).
In short, it says that governance and public services work best when closest to citizens. Work only takes place at the higher levels when necessary. To return to the example of rubbish collection, it’s easy to see how local, national and European levels of government influence what happens.
Obviously, rubbish collection is best left to the local authorities to handle, either collecting waste themselves or tendering the service out to the private sector. To organise this from a European, or even national level, would be absurd. However, we generate so much rubbish that some kind of national strategy is needed to handle it and work out how to deal with the waste. The European level only comes in when it can add value. In this case it’s a place where the Member States can share best practices and set goals for waste reduction to tackle climate change at the global level.
It’s when issues cross borders (e.g. pollution/ climate change) that the EU appropriately steps in. Competition law is another example of this. Every Member State has their own competition authority that is there to make sure that there is a fair market for goods, products and services; stopping monopolies or cartel activity, etc. There is also an authority at the EU level, which deals with cross border issues.
If a number of companies run a cartel to fix prices in one country, the national authority investigates. If the price fixing affects a number of countries then it’s the job of the European competition authority, as the authorities of the Member States have no jurisdiction in the other countries.
This model applies to other areas of regulation. For example, Uber has recently arrived in the EU. A few countries have not taken kindly to the app setting up in their cities and have moved to ban it. Uber has complained to the European Commission and although it is an issue in Member States, it is not an issue across Member States and the European Commission has declined to take action.
Only on one or two occasions have Member States decided to push a policy almost entirely to the EU level. One such example is in agriculture policy, specifically, agricultural subsidies.
There are strong views on these subsidies but they demonstrate how the internal market works. It was decided that farmers should receive support for their work as it is very important; this takes the form of subsidies. However, if the farmers’ subsidised (and therefore cheaper) produce can be sold in other countries then governments could increase subsidies to boost demand for their produce abroad and spur economic activity at home. Unless subsidies are co-ordinated or jointly set, it creates an uneven market place and leads to competition between Member States over ‘who loves their farmers more?’
Agricultural policy is officially called the ‘Common Agricultural Policy’ and is just about the only EU policy that is truly common; no Member State opts out, all taking money from a combined pot. In other areas, it’s a mix, with Member States and the EU cooperating as and when is appropriate, keeping things as close to the citizens as possible.