An approximation to the EU as we know it today

What the EU is in little over a thousand words.

EU law flags

Leaving aside the history and development of the EU – as plenty has been written to last you for a lifetime of heavy reading – I will just make a few points on what I think it was (and is) all about.

The idea of the United States of Europe as a political union was the ultimate goal of the masterminds (or founding fathers) of the EU but the population, and their leaders, were not ready in the 50’s – and still aren’t, assuming they will ever be – to embrace the idea of a whole continent grouped under a single political union with no real internal borders – in many aspects – even if the language barriers were to remain; to be a properly-functioning part of the whole but still retain their identity. They all fought so hard – for centuries – to be different, they would not give that up so easily. Hence, the masterminds – let’s call them so for now – started with the economic/trading aspect…. but with the view to expand the degree of integration in time…. as it has happened to date. The EU – which started as EEC[1], then EC and now EU – became a trading bloc towards the international community and an area where borders were set to disappear, in many aspects (e.g. free movement of goods, persons, capital and services), between MS.

EU Law Timeline
EU Timeline

The EU system draws elements from both main types of legal systems but all in all is closer to civil law than to common law. This is key for legal professionals and UK law students: you need to approach EU law with an open mind because not much of what you know applies in this field.

From the beginning and for a long time we had Treaties that were agreed by all Member States (MS) and amended but could not be denounced – leave without effect – by any MS[2]. Yes, once you became part of the exclusive EU club you had to play by the rules and if you did not like them there was nothing you could do about it. There was no way out…. although, in all honestly, no one tried to leave. That changed not long ago…. in 2009 when the Lisbon Treaty entered into force and yet no MS has left (although that could change soon as the UK prepares to test the waters in that area). In general, it all went more or less fine until 2004. The internal market took form, peoples’ standard of living rose across the EU, goods  – and to a certain degree services – moved freely giving people access to cheaper and quality food/goods and diminishing prices owing to constant supply, people could move around with ease buy and bring back home things from another MS, etc…. that’s only to mention a few things that changed that you and I could actually see happening. Many other were less visible but equally or more important e.g. you could go live in another MS, working conditions improved – more in some MS than in other, companies could establish or open branches in other MS with no much problem and improve performance, the environment became important enough to take care of, medicines became cheaper and accessible in all MS, etc.

But the 2004 EU enlargement, in my view, precipitated the current status quo of distrust and disbelief in the EU as a whole. Overnight the EU went from 15 to 25 MS and this became a source of problems, in particular, with movement of persons which in UK terms translated into immigration, employment and social welfare issues. The potential positive impact on national economies as regards tourism, access to qualified and multilingual labour and expanded internal market for services and goods was greatly overlooked by the society (but not by the industry!). Subsequent enlargements have just exacerbated the negative feelings originated in 2004. Most of the 13 MS which joined the EU since 2004, with the exception of Cyprus, Czech Republic and Malta,  were not and still are not at the level of the poorest MS pre-2004 (i.e. Portugal, Greece) in terms of individual income per capita[3]. This in a way explains why their citizens emigrate and tend to settle in MS were their lives can improve faster – most of them do that by working even harder than nationals and not taking advantage of the system (contrary to how they are usually portrayed).

At MS’ level the solidarity clause mentioned in the Treaties is today a source of discomfort even though it’s never referred to openly. According to it all MS must contribute within their means to the improvement of the standard of living in the whole EU territory. This is done by national contributions to the EU budget which in turn is allocated to different policies and projects (e.g. improvements in roads and infrastructure across the EU many times display the EU flag in the project sign. If you haven’t seen that yet pay attention, you will be surprised to see that many projects near you receive EU funds). Now we can begin to understand euroesceptics as for instance the UK, Germany and other big economies have to chip in more than the poor MS to achieve that aim. But, do you remember the state the UK was in when it joined the EU? the rest of the EU chipped in to help …. it’s only fair you do the same for other, right? well, this is subject to debate.

Today the EU club is not as selective as it once was – see the list of potential new MS – and the members are not as compliant as they once were, some are starting to abuse the rules e.g. Greece and others e.g. UK are trying to play a poker game to see if they can win – should the right card be played at the right time. The foundations of the system are starting to crumble and it will take a lot of effort to steer back the boat and set it on its proper course (assuming someone knows which is the final destination!). There is no point in denying it, many things are not going right in the EU nowadays but…… let’s look back to see what has been achieved in this amazing long journey, to admire what only 6 MS set to create and that today still is to be recognised as an example of overcoming adversity whilst building a better place to live in and a legacy for future generations.

[1] European Economic Community (EEC), then renamed to European Community (EC) and finally known as European Union (EU).

[2] A Treaty cannot be disapplied by any MS as it is presumed that once a MS signs it the MS is bound by it to the future. This is important as notions as UK parliamentary supremacy clash with the foundations of the EU. To make it simple according to UK law Parliament is supreme and no Parliament can bound future Parliaments. Hence, an Act passed by Parliament A could be revoked by Parliament B. As the EU Treaties need,  in some cases such as the UK, internalization the UK Act incorporating the Treaty into UK law could be revoked in the future according to that principle. Now, this does not apply to the EU system. Once the government of a MS signs and ratifies a Treaty it is understood that the “MS” is bound by it to the future and changes in government or parliament do not affect the validity or applicability of the Treaty in that MS.

[3] See Eurostat information with data from 1 December 2014. See also GDP of the candidate countries (100 = EU 28 average). Portugal and Greece are still, in 2015, the poorest EU 15 MS.

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