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Introduction to the European Union

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An Introduction to the European Institutions: for journalists, teachers, students, and other citizens

By Sara Høyrup, political journalist and EU interpreter

Treading through the maze of confounding names, and using approximately corresponding terms known from domestic politics, one might explain the division of powers in the European Union in this simplified manner for the sake of understanding:

The European Commission functions as Government

The European Council functions as upper chamber

The European Parliament (EP) functions as lower chamber

And so, the Commission is elected by the Parliament, and the Council represents the parts of the Union. Therefore, the ideological debates take place in the Parliament, where the different political factions are represented and clustered in groups with like-minded politicians from all over the Union.

The Council holds great power, although the Parliament has obtained more influence through the Union’s existence. In the EU, it is all about which institutions have the right to take the initiative to new legislation; and which other institution they need to convince. That differs from case to case, for if anything, EU is a huge, complex machine. Some of us get lost just trying to find our ways around in the buildings.

EP’s current political groups before the upcoming regrouping are, ordered by size:

The European People’s Party (EPP) = Christian Democrats

Socialists & Democrats (S & D) = Social Democrats

Alliance of Liberals & Democrats for Europe (ALDE) = Liberals

The Greens (EFA) = ecologists

European United Left · Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) = far Left

Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFD) = national conservative eurosceptics

Europe of Nations and Freedom Group (ENF) = nationalist antieuropeanists

Oh, and did I forget to tell you that the European institutions are big on abbreviations? Abbreviations that differ from language to language of course. Also, everybody wants to come across as a green democrat for freedom, so do not be alarmed if it all sounds the same: You just need to learn by heart who is whom and representing what.

Divides along opposing views are many in the EU:

North versus South (e.g. regarding the handling of irregular migration into the Union)

West versus East (e.g. liberal or autocratic social models)

Left versus Right (e.g. regarding workers’ rights)

Solid versus populist (traditional parties versus a changing scenery of bubbles)

Center versus extremes (moderate politics versus radical proposals)

Europeanists versus nationalists (the latter rule in many Eastern European countries)

Ecologist versus status quo (being eco-friendly is costly for e.g. farmers and the industry)

Federalism versus inter-governmentalism (how integrated should the Union be?)

Feminist versus meritocracy (should there be quotas to ensure women their rightful place?)

After the EP elections all over the Union late May 2019, the new parliamentarians are tasked with electing a new Commission. In doing so, they need to take into account all of the above divides, as well as the specific interests of each political group.

This year, the EPP seems to get toppled, and will not be able to simply rule together with the S & D. The third and fourth largest groups will want to get their say: especially ALDE, but also the Greens. All four will try to keep populist, extremist and nationalist options out. Why? Because those options would be the end of the European Union.

The newly formed Parliament will also be appointing new presidents of the institutions, and two key posts need ”translation” as well:

The President of the Commission is, in reality, the President of Europe.

The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security is, in reality, Europe’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Two other key institutions in the EU are:

the Committee of the Regions

the Economic and Social Comittee

They are placed in the Belgian capital Bruxelles, around the corner from the three legislative bodies. A rather grim city not chosen for its charms or its infrastructure.

Which brings us to the travelling circus. The Parliament travels to Strasbourg across the border once a month, and this is where decisions are made: the Brussels building is mainly for preparation. These mass travels oblige the other institutions to come along, and the whole thing is costly and cumbersome.

So why do they do it? Because coming together as a Union after the Second World War, all the powerful countries wanted to keep power, and the symbols of power, to themselves. The French city Strasbourg lies in Alsace in the borderland that France and Germany have formerly fought over. The whole point of establishing the European Union was to replace war with commerce, and so it has happened.

And then there is Luxembourg. Here lies the Court of Justice of the EU. Other organs, such as Europol and Eurojust lie in the Hague. They are to do with the justice and police co-operation between the European countries. They combat organized crime and terrorism across the Union.

The related European arrest order makes sure, in theory, that criminals cannot simply cross the open borders in Europe’s Schengen Area and hide from justice.

There are opt-ins and opt-outs, and a whole array of special arrangementes. And so, the United Kingdom and Ireland never formed part of Schengen. And in turn, the four non-EU European countries Switzerland and Liechtenstein, Norway and Iceland are associated with the agreement.

My home country Denmark has so many reservations regarding the European cooperation that it is a wonder that a Dane might become the next President of the Commission. In 2012, Liberal politician Margrethe Vestager had to defend why she was even in the room, and people in full-fledged member states are often not quite sure whether Denmark is really a member of the EU.

As for the Eurozone, both Denmark, Sweden, and the UK have stayed out of it and preserved their own currencies: two differently valued versions of the krone, and the Pound.

The European Union follows an expansionist logic, and it has gradually added a large number of Eastern European countries. This has been a difficult process, both in terms of size and sheer number of languages. And also because the formerly totalitarian societies from behind the iron curtain do not always accept the liberal ideas that the EU live and breathe by.

Turkey was waiting hopefully in the wings, but ordinary Europeans were very unhappy about letting a Muslim country into the Union. The whole thing was paused for so long that Turkey turned the other way and gave free reins to its autocratic temptations and markedly religious agenda. This, however, has not kept the EU from striking a deal with Turkey regarding refugees: Turkey get money in return for taking ”back” refugees from (at the time) the Syrian war.

The EU also has a socalled neighbourhood policy with surrounding countries. Morocco is amongst the countries with a permanent collaboration with the EU. The idea is to foment a small amount of regulated migration but stopping the huge amounts of irregular migration from the third world country itself, and from countries further south in Africa. The failed state Libya further east in North Africa has also struck deals with the EU regarding hindering refugees in leaving, and taking them back without due asylum process in Europe.

But back to Brussels. Here lies also the headquarters of NATO, the Western defence alliance with the USA as its most powerful member. When the EU extended too far east for Russia’s liking, one reason for the military backlash that followed was that to the former Soviet empire, it is all about Western interests infringing Russian interests. But really, EU is about peace: peace through interdependence.///

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