The impact of the EU on the UK

EU Policies and their impact on the UK

Do these two case studies help to explain the growth of hostility to the influence of the EU in certain sections of British society since the 1990s?

EU Treaties became part of the UK's constitution

The process of making treaties is how the EU changes its structure and rules. There is no overall constitution so the treaties add up to the constitution of the EU. The treaties have allowed the EU to move to increasing integration with the development of the EU taking it from a primarily economic organisation to an increasingly political organisation.

  • Treaties are the legal documents that set out the powers of the EU institutions and the rules for decision-making. The key body in negotiating a new treaty is the European Council. The heads of government who make up the Council have the authority to commit their countries to the deals they make with each other.

  • The European Parliament then votes on the treaty. Finally, it is ratified by each member state using its own chosen procedure. The usual method is for national parliaments to take a vote. Ireland is an exception in that its constitution requires a referendum to be held. The first Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty rejected it. A second referendum was held after amendments had been made, leading to a 'yes' vote.

EU Law became part of UK law.

When the UK joined the EU it became subject to EU law. The Factor Tame Case established that EU law is supreme, however EU laws are limited to specific areas and limited by the need to find agreement across the EU by unanimity or by qualified majority. The fact that the EU law applies in the UK has had a significant impact on policy areas such as environmental policy, health and equality. It has also led to an unceasing sense that the UK has lost sovereignty.

How has the EU affected the UK politics

It is perhaps not surprising that the UK system of government has adjusted to membership of the EU without being fundamentally changed by it. The executive has altered the way it works in an ad hoc fashion, in order to co-ordinate British policy and to get the best available deal in negotiations with other member states and EU institutions. The process of `Europeanisation' — the adaptation of UK government structures and domestic politics to EU policies and procedures — is an uneven one.

EU membership has heightened the profile of the prime minister, whose annual routine has included attendance at regular European Council meetings. David Cameron visited his fellow heads of government individually early in 2016, as well as attending the Council, in a bid to renegotiate the terms of UK membership. Following the vote to leave the EU, Theresa May was thrust unexpectedly into the limelight as Britain's new prime minister, conducting a series of meetings with her counterparts in pursuit of a deal that protects vital national interests. British PMs are judged on their ability to stand up for the UK in Europe. Mrs Thatcher's staus was enhance by her success at achieving a rebate (return of money paid to the EU) and David Cameron lost status when he was seen to have failed to bring home significant concessions in the run up to the referendum. (Cameron's EU deal)

Theresa May lost status when she was perceived to have been snubbed by EU leaders.

Decision making in the EU came to be seen as bureaucratic and in the hand of EU officials rather than UK politiciansThe foreign secretary attends meetings of the European Council as well as the Council of the European Union. Other ministers attend meetings of the latter according to their departmental responsibilities. The chancellor of the exchequer represents the UK when the Council of Finance Ministers, known as Ecofin, is in session. But to a large extent the Council simply ratifies decisions drafted by a body of civil servants, drawn from the member states, known as COREPER. (Committee of Permanent Representatives ) A minister who has numerous other responsibilities, and who may spend only 2 to 3 years in a particular department, is likely to rely heavily on the work of these permanent officials. This was seen to lack transparency and added to the image of 'faceless EU officials' interfering in in the UK. Shortly before the EU refrendum the Commons EU Scrutiny Committee called for ' actions to improve the transparency and accountability of decision making in the Council should be addressed not only centrally by the European institutions but by the Government and by the House of Commons as a national parliamentary chamber responsible for scrutinising the Government’s position in the Council'

The feeling that the EU makes laws without democratic oversight in the UK based on the limited resources available to Parliament for scrutiny of EU regulations. Parliament does have responsibility to examine EU legislation, and ministers should not agree to new laws unless it has been debated or reviewed by the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee. In practice, however, the sheer volume of EU legislation makes this a difficult task to perform effectively. The House of Lords EU Select Committee produces thoughtful reports on developments in Brussels, but its status in the second chamber means that it lacks real influence. However, while this is seen by critics of the EU as more evidence of the insidious influence of the EU, the majority of EU regulations are not controversial ( to anyone but the Daily Mail) and are limited to uncontentious matters in to do with the environment or commerce. For example limits on the power of vacuum cleaners or the safe disposal of fridges.

EU membership has enhanced Devolution

Another layer of complexity is supplied by devolution. A number of policy areas in which the EU shares competence with the UK have been devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, including agriculture, fisheries and the environment. On the subject of the UK's overall relationship with the EU, central government has to consult the administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast in order to produce an agreed negotiating position. This is why some writers now describe the UK as having a system of 'multi-level governance', in which policy-making is shared between the national government, the sub-national bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the institutions of the EU. In this sense membership of the EU has cemented devolution in to the working processes of the UK.

Support for membership of the EU in Scotland increased support for a second independence referendum from the SNP-led Edinburgh government. The case for this is that a majority of Scottish people voted to stay in the EU, and thus face being removed from it against their will, as a result of the Brexit vote by the UK as a whole. Constitutionally, Scotland cannot negotiate its own relationship with the EU as part of the UK, so the independence issue has been reopened.