The UK in the EU

As the debate on the UK’s membership of the EU intensifies, more and more people are stepping forward and making the case in favour of EU membership. See what they say

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A new direction for the European Union?

Britain and EU migrants

Is Europe a Superstate?

Many people in Britain fear that Europe is becoming a superstate, a burueacratic, centralised, top heavy “Government of the United States of Europe” which threatens the ability of national governments and parliaments to decide on their own affairs. They point to the rhetoric of some leading Europeans who use words like “Federation”and “Union”.

In fact there is little agreement on what these words might mean in practice. This is recognised by most European leaders, who have always made it clear in private that they have no intention of handing over the running of their countries to "Brussels". Recently even the rhetoric has changed, now that it is clear that a substantial body of opinion in the large majority of member states has turned against excessive centralisation. In a letter to Tony Blair in June 1998 the leaders of France and Germany made their position crystal clear; they said, "The objective of European policy has never been and cannot be to build a central European state, ie. a centrally organised Europe. All our efforts must be directed instead at creating a strong European Union capable of taking action, while preserving the diversity of political, cultural and regional traditions." Since then the tide of opinion in the majority of Member States has been running still more strongly against centralisation.

“Brussels” and the member states

A previous paper produced by the Senior Experts Group describes the relationship between the EU institutions and demonstrated that it is the Ministers in the Council and not the Commission who control the European Union.

The actions of individual member governments in the European Union are of course controlled by their national parliaments, who can and do call them to account if they think that the national interest is being represented ineffectively in Brussels. The European Parliament is an additional instrument of democratic control, which despite many imperfections can exercise an important role, as it did in the spring of 1999 when it criticised the performance of the European Commission and secured its resignation. This was similarly the case in 2004 when Commission President-designate José Manuel Barroso altered his proposed team of Commissioners following Parliament concerns over individual nominees, namely the Italian Rocco Buttiglione. The Parliament has the power to veto the inauguration of the entire Commission, and its threat to do so on this occasion forced the President-designate’s hand.

Subsidiarity

The determination only to give those powers to Brussels which the member states judge necessary to achieve their specific purposes has grown during recent years. They have coined the jargon word “subsidiarity” to express their determination that common action will be undertaken only if its object cannot be better or more simply achieved by the member states themselves. Common action is clearly necessary, for example, to achieve and to sustain the single market for goods and services within the European Union which has been a major national objective of the previous British government and the present one. But “subsidiarity” is now taken very seriously by both the member governments and by the Commission. No new legislation now passes in Brussels unless it can pass this essential test. Evidence of this can be found in the outcome of the Lisbon Summit where we saw a softer model of integration driven by benchmarking and peer pressure rather than the use of legislation.

Conclusion

The EU is a complicated and innovative organisation, a mixture of the supranational and the intergovernmental, doing important and valuable work on behalf of its members in a huge variety of fields. It has now expanded to include ten new members from among the new democracies of Eastern Europe, with a further eight nations currently designated as current or future candidates for membership. These countries, too, have proud and independent political and social traditions of their own. They are aware that member governments pursue their own national interests and intend to do the same. Far from there being a need to prevent the EU becoming a superstate, the challenge for the next decades will be to ensure that the Union remains an efficient instrument of its members’ interests, despite the inevitable complications which enlargement will bring.

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