Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The European Union: A Grand Experiment

Optical Illusion:   EU flags are lined up, and one views them a tiny hole in this Sculpture, forming a remarkable figure.
American Democracy is not the only experiment in democratic governance!
Imagine a voluntary alliance in which the nations share their sovereignty with each other and whose collective legislation binds all members.  Members are free to leave the alliance at any time.
You need not imagine this because the European Union is this alliance: --a remarkable institution, as 16 of us on Semester at Sea (SAS) learned yesterday when we visited the European Commission in Brussels.
One of my European friends had encouraged me to pursue this trip remarking  “Young people in the US should really understand how the EU works.” 
And not just young people.   All of us – students, faculty and lifelong learners – had our eyes opened about this experiment in “shared sovereignty”.
Originally focusing on trade, agriculture, environment and regional policy, the EU has built common, binding and enforceable legislation among 27 European nations, ten of which are not in the “euro zone” for currency.
Unlike the U.S.A., European nations may leave the EU but except for Greenland, they have stuck with the Union, seeking to promote and protect their common interests.  Europe includes not only core members Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy but also the eastern states of Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia, and Turkey is a candidate state – the definition of where Europe ends and  the Atlantic or Asia begins being a fluid one.
EU is governed by an executive body, The European Council; the Council of Ministers and Parliament who must okay legislation, and the European Commission, a civil service executive / administrative body that initiates the policies.
The European Council, consisting of the heads of state of all the EU nations, meets four times a year.  The Council of Ministers of all the member states and the Parliament, elected directly by the citizens of the member nations, are responsible for passage of the EU’s laws and budget.  EU states are equally represented on the Council of Ministers but participates in a weighted voting based on a population and requiring almost 74percent for a measure to pass, including at least 62 % of the population. 
The Parliament is unique in that each country has representation based on its population but parties are formed, not by nationality, but across national boundaries by groups who must find at least 20 to form a group including at least 7 member states.  This  formula results in parties based not on nationalism but on various political spectra – from left to right and including Greens and a few “grays” who espouse no party affiliation. 
The majority coalition usually fluctuates between from center- right to center- left, but not on the usual national interests. 
The European Commission functioning as an executive and administrative branch is led by 27 appointed commissioners and includes over 40 directorates-general serving the main agencies of the EU.  The Commission suggests legislation but it must be enacted by both the Council and the Parliament.  Thus there are a series of checks and balances but different from those in the U.S.
Moreover, while the EU is not a “world government,” member nations share some decision making with it.  Broad EU legislation policy directives require that member states implement these initiatives into national law.  Other regulations are immediately binding on member states.
The European Court of Justice, located in Luxembourg, plays an integral role in interpreting It interprets the law and also brings infringement cases against states for noncompliance with EU law.  Decisions of the court may be split, as with the U.S. Supreme Court, but the opinions—unlike the Supreme Court -- remain anonymous.  Terms of the ECJ are for 6 years, not life, and the court includes a judge from each member state.
This is such an interesting area of governance to explore.  I’ll be interested to hear what my students think of their visit.  And also what others who have worked through the EU think about it.

1 comment:

Sandy said...

I'll be interested in hearing what your students think of their visit, too. Europe gets a lot of flack -- even from Europeans. But it's a wonderful experiment that has been going on and developing since the European Steel and Coal Community in 1950.