What exactly is the UK-EU relationship?

What exactly is the UK-EU relationship?

Mikhail Iakovlev runs through the arms of the EU, and how they interact with the UK

With the proposed EU referendum now less than two years away, the debate over the possible advantages and disadvantages of “Brexit” is starting to heat up. But for most Britons, the precise nature of the UK’s relationship with EU institutions, and the effect of this relationship on everyday life, remain somewhat of a mystery – totally understandable, given the complexity of the EU bureaucracy.

In order to make an informed choice in the referendum it’s useful to be familiar with the structure of the UK-EU relationship. This relationship is best understood in terms of a power-sharing arrangement between the British government and EU institutions. It’s based on a series of treaties that delegate legislative (law-making) and judicial (legal) authority on certain issues, ranging from food standardisation to the regulation of the common market.

This seems straightforward enough but the way this system functions is actually pretty complicated.
Infographic credit: Wikimedia Commons

As can be seen from the diagram above, the British government delegates some of its legislative and judicial power to the EU. The three main institutions through which this power sharing happens are the European Council, the European Parliament, and the EU judiciary.

The UK and the European Council

The relationship between the UK and the European Council is based on an inter-governmental approach, best understood through an analogy with the UN Security Council. Every government has a single representative on the Council and no legislation can be passed without Westminster agreeing to it. This process is predominantly used for establishing new EU bodies, expanding the powers of the EU parliament, dealing with crises, and amending and drafting new EU treaties. The Council also holds the budgetary powers of the Union together with the European Parliament.

The UK and the European Parliament

The European Parliament shares with the Council the powers to adopt and amend legislation, as well as to decide on the EU budget. The way the parliament legislates is arguably more democratic, as laws are made by MEPs elected directly by EU citizens, under a system of proportional representation. But, it must be noted, the parliament does not possess legislative initiative, draft legislation being usually submitted by the Council or the European Commission, which is the EU equivalent of the cabinet.

Also, under the “ordinary legislative procedure”, the laws passed by the parliament must be agreed to by the European Council and vice-versa. In fact the parliament is only able to legislate by itself in the areas of: community affairs, taxation, environmental policy, and some other areas delegated directly to the parliament by EU treaties. In either case, Westminster must legislate to incorporate all relevant decisions made by the Euro-parliament into the British law.

The UK and the EU Judiciary

The role of the EU judiciary is perhaps the least understood part of Britain’s relationship with the EU.

First, it must be emphasised that the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is not part of the EU judiciary, but instead part of the European Human Rights Organisation, somewhat confusingly named the Council of Europe (as opposed to the EU’s European Council). With that out of the way, what is the EU judiciary and what does it do?

First, the EU judiciary is collectively known as the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), which consists of three separate courts: the Court of Justice, the General Court and the Civil Service Tribunal. According to the website of the European Commission, the court’s role is “Ensuring EU law is interpreted and applied the same in every EU country; ensuring countries and EU institutions abide by EU law.” As such it has authority to enforce the application of EU law as it interprets it in all member states, settle legal disputes between national governments and the EU bureaucracy and to hear cases brought forward against EU institutions by companies and individuals.

In relation to the UK this means that, in the areas under its jurisdiction, the CJEU takes precedence over the UK Supreme Court, and its decisions are binding on parliament and other institutions of the UK and devolved governments.

Therefore, in the Britain-EU relationship, every level of interaction is governed by bureaucracy and set systems. This is to be expected in such a complex and large organisation as the EU, but it does mean that any casual glance at its workings tends to get bogged down in complications. Hopefully, though, they’re a little bit more clear now.

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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