What is the EU in charge of?

One of the recurring battles in the EU membership debate is over how much law in the UK actually originates in Brussels rather than Westminster.  This is usually cited as a percentage – easy to understand but pretty meaningless since it’s the impact of those laws and on what – which really matters.

The EU’s laws may affect you and the things you care about a lot, or only marginally.

The only way to get an appreciation of the scope of EU law and the extent to which it takes precedence over – or how it interfaces with – UK law is to look at the ‘areas of competence’ that the EU treaties have bestowed on the EU.

What are competences?

Competences are powers.  Some powers rest with the EU and others with the UK (and other member states).  Some powers are exercised by both the EU and the UK, and are known as “shared” competences – where both may adopt legally binding acts in the area concerned. There are three types of competence:

  1. Exclusive EU competences – This is where the UK has no right to legislate on its own.
  2. Shared competences – There are essentially two types of shared competence.  The first is where the UK can legislate as long as the EU has not legislated; and if the EU does legislate then the EU’s laws take precedence.  The second is where the EU can legislate but doesn’t prevent the UK from legislating in the same area – or it legislates in order to provide laws where none currently exist.
  3. Supporting competences – This is where the EU provides legislation but which doesn’t seek to “harmonise” by enforcing a minimum set of standards, or eliminating major differences between EU and national law.

So what is the EU in charge of, and what is the UK still in charge of?

Here’s our handy (and shareable) infographic to help explain just that.

EU Competences

Can the EU expand its powers?

There are two ways that the EU can extend its powers and legislative influence over the UK.  Firstly it can introduce new legislation that sits within its existing competences.  The European Commission (the EU’s executive body that proposes new law) can propose new law within the current competences – except in a few areas such as common foreign and security policy (CFSP). This law can then be adopted with the approval of the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament – in most cases approval from both is necessary.

The second path to extending powers is via treaty change.  This can be via a new treaty or treaty amendment.  Treaty change allows the European Commission to propose laws in a new policy area and requires agreement from all member states. The last major treaty was The Lisbon Treaty in 2007 although it has undergone successive revisions.  In the case of the UK, there is additional national legislation that determines the basis on which further powers can be given to the EU – principally the European Union Act 2011 which sets out areas which require an act of parliament – but also some areas which would require a referendum , such as joining the euro, the removal of border controls under the Schengen Protocol, or participation in a European Public Prosecutor’s Office.1)European Union Act 2011: Decisions requiring approval by Act and by referendum[[contid]]

Treaty change is often cited as an obstacle to “improving the workings” of the EU, which has led the European Parliament to assess what reforms of the functioning of the EU are possible without treaty changes.2)European Parliament: Draft Report on improving the functioning of the European Union building on the potential of the Lisbon Treaty[[contid]]  Amongst other things, this suggests that national veto rights could be circumvented and qualified majority votes (QMV) counted instead, if the consensus and political will is there.3)Euractiv: Elmar Brok: ‘The idea that the EU will not advance any further is false’[[contid]]

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5 Comments on "What is the EU in charge of?"

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1 year 4 months ago

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4 years 10 months ago

You missed the real and operational EU army! 18 battalions, each 1500 strong with full armaments, they’ve even been training on Salisbury plain in the UK!

4 years 10 months ago

The EU is certainly active in military non-combat operations, but they are joint operations under the EU banner rather than a permanent stand-alone EU army. The joint-ops aren’t compulsory. Getting to a permanent EU army would be a big step and most believe its an area the UK would not participate in, and could in fact veto entirely. Political will doesn’t appear to be there at the moment, but no one can predict 5-10-15-20 years down the line.

S kelly
S kelly
4 years 10 months ago

What veto is that then Luke I think we have given up our right to a veto, if this is the case we have no say as we are a very small voice alongside 28 manic fools that can outvote us and do all the time , we have no say so best to leave, BREXIT and thrive.

4 years 10 months ago

Slowly, slowly, catcha monkey. The eu is a slippery slimy slope. Vote Leave.