Chapter 1

How do national governments work?

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To create change we need to understand how to interact and influence institutions where power is held – and that understanding begins with learning how those institutions work. 

Democracy and legislation

All European Union member states are representative democracies. This means that a country’s citizens have the legal right to vote representatives into and out of government. The majority vote decides who is prime minister and creates the government. 

Democratic systems work differently in different countries. Some, like Cyprus, elect a President directly to run the country. Others vote for representatives from different political parties and the party with the most votes itself elects its leader. 

Whatever your government looks like, their primary responsibility is to apply the laws and enforce them. The Parliament instead can make and amend laws in your country, and hold the government accountable.

Centralised and decentralised power

Most European countries concentrate power in the central Government (unitary states). But Austria, Belgium and Germany are federations, divided into states which share power between them. And other countries devolve a fair bit of power to different regions – for example the 20 regions across Italy.

Your representatives 

Whatever system you have, your country will hold national elections every few years. 

Elections present a great opportunity to push your campaign forwards. 

The limits of the ballot and law

Many people think democracy starts and ends with voting. It doesn’t. Politicians need to be held to account outside electoral cycles and that requires action and vigilance from campaigners like you. 

Of course, convincing your government to change the law in favour of your campaign is a huge win. But getting the law changed is often only the first step. More action is needed to ensure law changes are enforced and to make sure politicians aren’t simply saying they want change, while failing to make change happen. 

Questions for further research & reflection
  • Does your country directly elect a president, or does the majority party elect its leader to run the country following an election?
  • Does your country concentrate power at the centre in a unitary state, or devolve power to different areas?
  • When are your next national elections? Who would you like to win?
  • Do you know the main political parties in your country? And at European level? Have you ever read an electoral programme of a party?
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