The EU is neither a traditional international organisation like the UN or the OECD, nor is it a true nation state like France or the United Kingdom. Rather, it is a new and different form of supernational association which needs to be understood on its own terms and not by comparison to other, perhaps more familiar models. This is particularly important when looking at European legislation, which is binding and is often agreed by some form of majority voting. This, along with the fact that European law has supremacy over national law – in other words, if the two conflict, then European law wins out – makes for a very different dynamic.
Working the European Union machine is therefore quite different to working the Whitehall machine. Some of the more obvious differences between the UK and ‘Europe’ are as follows:
- Within the UK Parliamentary system, Parliament and the Government are uniquely powerful. Within Europe, both Ministers and officials are negotiators, applicants or supplicants.
- There is no UK equivalent of the Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) system, or of the need for unanimity.
- Where QMV applies, one country alone cannot block progress and will usually be isolated if it tries. It makes much more sense to choose constructive engagement with other negotiators with a view, if necessary, to assembling a blocking minority and then making it stick.
- There is no UK equivalent of the Council of Ministers or the Commission. It is a great mistake to treat the Commission as though it were simply some sort of supra-national civil service – it clearly also has a political role.
- Commission officials tend to be very good or rather poor, with rather fewer moderate performers than one might expect.
- The Commission is vertically organised, so there can sometimes be poor working level co-ordination within the Commission, whether between or within directorates-general. This gives significant power to the cabinets of the various Commissioners. Incidentally, seven of the Commissioners are also Vice-Presidents of the Commission, and each Vice-President is responsible for bringing together a group of Commissioners with related subject responsibilities.
- It is also notable that the Commissioners, their cabinets and their officials (‘Services’) are very open – arguably more accessible to lobbyists and industry than their equivalents in national governments. Partly because the Services are thinly staffed, they have very little information of their own. It can be very helpful if you are the person who briefs them. But watch out for competitive lobbying from the opposition, whoever they may be.
- Relations between civil servants and Members of the European Parliament are also different. Unlike within Westminster, direct contact with MEPs of all parties (and all countries) is not only allowed, it is to be encouraged.
- UKRep too (our permanent representatives in Brussels and Luxembourg) are very happy to meet and help British lobbyists who need advice on operating the Brussels machine.
- EU officials in the Council, Commission and Parliament are almost always very pro-European, as are a large proportion of your opposite numbers in other national delegations. Even if you hate the very idea of European integration or the single currency, you may find you get a more receptive audience for your lobbying if you hide your views and couch your comments and arguments in ‘communautaire’ (EU-friendly) language.
It is important, too, to realise that the dispersed nature of power in the EU means that policy making is a painstaking - and indeed often painful - process in which policies have to trudge wearily between the Commission, national capitals, national parliaments and the European Parliament. This is quite different from the UK where a weak legislature and strong executive normally mean that policy making involves intense and very public debate followed by last minute decision making and quick implementation. Neither is necessarily superior but UK Ministers, in particular, often fail to adapt to the way in which EU policies steadily firm up over time, and can perhaps be tweaked but seldom substantially altered once they are proceeding through the policy machine.