Chapter 1

Some notes on the European Political System

4.5 min read

When watching the news or reading a newspaper it is not uncommon to hear sentences like “Brussels has done this and that” or “The European Union has imposed this on us.” 

It’s almost presented to us as if “Brussels” and the “European Union” are far away obscure entities who hold all the power. 

This is simply not the case. The actions and decisions taken by the European Union involve member states, MEPs, civil society, parties and, of course, voters like you. 

Let’s unpack the European Union and see who holds the power.

There are two main things that are to be understood about the European Union:

  1. It is a system based on consensus.
  2. It has limited competences.

What does it mean that the EU is a system based on consensus? 

Think about the country where you live. 

When there is a decision to be taken, the responsible people cast a vote, and the position which is supported by the majority of votes wins. 

This is a system based on “majoritarian vote.”

The European Union has, beside majority voting, something that is known as a  “unanimity” and “qualified” majority. 

Unanimity means that a decision cannot be taken unless all the people involved are in favour. A qualified majority means that a position wins and can be taken only when that majority represents 55% of Member States and 65% of the European population. 

To pass a law, the EU needs…

  • A majority of votes at the European Parliament: A majority is represented by at least 353 votes. Political groups therefore need to agree on a common position, even if they come from different positions and different understandings of the problems, to pass a law.
  • Unanimity or Qualified Majority at the Council of the EU: Either every minister of all Member States has to agree to pass a law, or 55% of Council members (including minimum 15 of them) representing at least 65% of the European population needs to agree. 

What’s more, if four Council members representing 35% of the European population vote against a measure, it cannot be adopted. 

This means that representatives of different governments, different political families, need to agree on a common position.

As a result, if a measure does not have broad support across the political spectrum, or if a few states are strongly against it, a measure cannot be adopted. 

The European Union is a political system where consensus is key. If Member States do not play along, the European Union cannot act as fast or as strongly as it wishes.

The competences of the European Union

  • Exclusive competence: This means Member States cannot legislate on their own, but only within the European framework. This includes legislating on the customs union, competition rules, common commercial policy, international agreements, fisheries, and monetary policy, among other things.
  • Shared competence: This is when Member States can legislate on an issue, but only if the EU has not already done so. This can include issues such as cohesion policy, environment, transport, agriculture, internal market, humanitarian aid, certain aspects of social and health policies.
  • Supporting competences: This is when the European institutions can support member states at the EU level – on: culture, youth, education, industry, tourism, civil protection, administrative cooperation.

It is very easy to blame the EU if things do not work fine. But in reality, the EU can only do what its Member States allow it to do. Never forget that when watching a TV show or reading a newspaper.

Discover more

Here are some useful links