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The EU — What Is It?

How will the EU shape Europe’s future — and influence global politics?

September 15, 2003

How will the EU shape Europe's future — and influence global politics?

Neither a state, nor an international organization, the EU is a hybrid form of cooperation involving supranational pooling of sovereignty. Its member states continue to be very important, even central, to the operation of the group.

Despite an ambitious broadening of its activities to fields such as environmental policy and education, development aid, police work — and even military security — the impact of the EU is still first and foremost economic.

Though a fiscal “shrimp,” with a modest budget of about $100 billion (1.2% of EU GDP), its legislature cranks out costly unfunded mandates, which must be financed by the member states.

The EU legal corpus consists of over 1,700 directives now in force and many regulations, decisions and recommendations. The law in force — the so-called acquis communautaire — presently covers more than 80,000 pages of text.

The EU is a key source of product standards, the co-author of a complex regulatory environment and a major player in anti-trust and competition policy. These achievements in its own continental economic space support the EU's prowess as a global economic presence. It's single currency — the Euro — makes the EU a potent force in international finance as well.

The EU as a political entity is an applied philosophy of action that grew in response to the failure of Europe's state system, aiming at “an ever closer union of European peoples.” It is a multi-level system of governance without, strictly speaking, having a government.

Informally, it is a network built up over three generations linking the civil service of member states directly (via working groups and committees) — and indirectly (via previously adopted EU norms).

For almost everything the EU does, “Brussels” depends on the agencies of national governments to implement its will. As national institutions change in part to adapt to their new EU context, national administrations have become Europeanized in attitude.

“Brussels” has long since become a resource to be used — and a hurdle to be overcome. It is a dynamically evolving feature of Europe's transnational, if not quite post-national, operating environment.

Were it not for the fact that the EU system is built on the legacy of states of ancient lineage, it might be thought to resemble the confederal form tried out in the United States under the Articles of Confederation.

How so? Well, the persistent national states constrain the autonomy of the EU's three main institutions.

The Commission is primarily a collegial executive body that initiates Union legislation and policy, polices the system for compliance to EU norms — and represents the group externally.

It has a potentially powerful president and a “Eurocracy” of about 20,000 to support it, roughly only half of whom are A-level policy-makers. The other half are translators and interpreters.

Considering that the present population of the EU is about 376 million, and that these 10,000 are split up into more than two dozen departments, this body is comparatively quite small by U.S. standards.

The Commissioners and the "Eurocrats" are specifically disallowed from taking any instructions whatsoever from any national government.

The Council of Ministers represents national administrations and adopts legislation in a procedure which employs a system of qualified majority voting.

Since the advent of direct election by the citizens of EU Member States in 1979, the European Parliament has become a potent force in EU decision-making in many matters.

Though legislation does not originate in the European Parliament, it may offer amendments to Commission proposals.

Paralleling the U.S. federal system, in which federal law is the supreme law of the land, EU law trumps national law — and is directly binding for the citizens and government agencies of its Member States.

A EU constitutional jurisprudence has established itself. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) opinions are accorded a weight similar to dispensations of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The point of departure for EU's distinct international personality is the domestic class conflicts and economic nationalism of the 1930s that led to war and devastation.

Europe's understanding of its drive to unity is based on a social contract. That contract involves the central role of the state as a redistributive and regulatory mechanism that is designed to buy social peace. It has an ethos of inclusion of social groups in policy-making processes.

This orientation is projected outward: The process of conciliation is among nations the goal as well as the means to other ends. Managed conciliation, in an orchestrated approach, is favored over an unregulated clash of interests.

Historically, the project of European integration depended on two related diplomatic revolutions:
First, there is America's commitment to Europe. Launched with the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan, it encouraged the Europeans to take the first major steps to disarm economically — as well as mentally — in relation to each other.

Second, there is France's embrace of Germany. Signaled by the Schuman Declaration of May 9, 1950, it resulted in the supranational European Coal and Steel Community.

France wanted to establish that organization in order to address the security problem posed by Germany — and to begin restoring France and Europe to prominence in the world. Germany was motivated above all by the desire to rejoin the community of nations.

These two related diplomatic revolutions created the structural features that have defined Europe ever since.

Modest redistributive means were foreseen in the European Social Fund, forerunner of today's structural and cohesion funds. These efforts gave rise to an EU budget financed by customs receipts, a portion of the harmonized Value-Added Tax (VAT), and national subscriptions based on economic strength and size.

In this way, Germany became the net payer of the project. To forestall ever higher charges, Germany insisted that some aid take the form of loans.

Out of this came the inclusion of the European Investment Bank, an off-budget entity that now lends approximately $30 billion per year, more than all the multilateral development banks (including the World Bank) combined.

And yet, what is going on these days in Brussels that would be very familiar to lawmakers in Washington? Nowadays, a plethora of groups in Brussels seek to affect the outcome of legislation that concerns their industry, cause — or interest.

Responding to the interplay of the Brussels institutions, the national administrations and European publics, EU policy-making developed a distinctive style: Inclusive, incremental and programmatic.

It is also inward looking, since the EU agenda has encompassed so many major challenges. Since 1989, the collapse of the Soviet Union, turmoil in the Balkans and the Middle East, and economic globalization have combined to present Europe with unprecedented challenges.

It has responded, by and large, through the EU with monetary union and the launch of the euro, intensified cooperation in criminal justice and immigration, as well as tighter coordination of foreign policy, security and defense issues.

It has also responded by making a place for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe stranded by the Cold War on the wrong side of the iron curtain.

This momentous step also raises important questions: Where does Europe end? Is Turkey part of Europe? Russia? Ukraine? The Western Balkans? If these countries are left out, will they presage a new division of Europe?

These — and many other issues concerning Europe's future — have not yet been resolved. Amidst all of this ongoing change, Americans remain somewhat nervous about Europe.

That nervousness on the part of Americans is understandable.

After all, it is some measure of the new world of global affairs which we inhabit today that the single biggest partner of the United States — as well as its largest economic competitor — is not a state.

This article has been adapted from Dr. Carl Lankowski’s opening remarks provided at the hearing: "The United States and the European Union: Understanding the Partnership" taken before the Subcommittee of Europe of the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on International Relations on July 22, 2003. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect any official position of the U.S. Government.