Britain’s relationship with the European Union and its predecessors has been described as ambivalent and half-hearted. It had an imperial past and a relationship with Commonwealth countries. It has looked to the United States as a partner in defence and political affairs and to some extent has seen itself as a bridge between United States and Europe.
As will be apparent from the other sections, the United Kingdom has had a troubled relationship with the European Union and its predecessors. It initially stood back from European integration and arguably tried to sabotage it.
The UK’s interest in European Union was largely economic. Few in the United Kingdom government or population shared the Federalist aim of a united Europe at some future date, held by some in continental Europe.
Margaret Thatcher was happy to accept increased qualified majority voting in the context of the measures required to complete the single market. Many in the Conservative party argued that the further treaty development should have stopped after the 1986 treaty revisions, which had enabled the single market to be completed.
The subsequent Maastricht treaty in the early 1990s which increased the scope of the EU’s powers and renamed the institution as the European Union marked the start of a virtual civil war in the Conservative party, which has continued to this day.
Sovereignty and accountability
The most resonant slogan of the Vote Leave campaign was “take back control”. In its extended form the slogan referred to taking back control of borders, monies and law.
The independent, self-regulating supranational nature of the European Union is described in other sections. Although it is not a federal state (such as the United States), it has many of the characteristics of a federal government. It has its own law-making institutions in which governments participate, together with its own directly elected parliament which together make laws. It has its own administration, the Commission which has many of the characteristics of a government.
Over the years, the EU institutions have made an enormous body of law in the areas within their competence. There are tens of thousands of las across a wide range of areas. All member states and the courts must give effect to and apply EU law. Courts must disapply any inconsistent provision of national law.
Increased powers granted by treaty amendments and the increased scope of powers arising from court interpretations, has meant broadly, that the scope and areas covered by European Union laws have increased steadily. Because the nature of the subject matter ranges from the critically important and central to more peripheral and sector-specific issues, it is difficult to quantify in numerical terms the extent of EU legislation or the proportion which represents of the laws of any given state. However, it is fair to say that it is very significant, and in many of the areas relevant to business and trade, most of the important laws are European Union made.
The EU’s can only act in areas of competence defined by the treaties. Amendments of the treaties require the consent of all states. There are significant legal and practical limits to the EU’s powers. The EU does not have tax-raising powers. It does have a budget to which members must contribute. It does not have an army or police force. There is a single currency applicable to [ ] of the member states. The UK is not part of the single currency area.
A common related criticism is the apparent lack of democratic accountability in the European Union. Most laws are now made jointly by the European Council comprising a member of each government acting by qualified majority together with the European Parliament. The European Parliament is directly elected.
The Commission and the EU Courts
The European Commission is effectively the government of the European Union. In common with all bodies established by European Union laws, it can only act within its treaty functions and the powers conferred by EU laws. It has the power of initiation of legislation. It is argued that it is not accountable in the same way as domestic parliaments and governments. However, the European Commission is accountable to the European Parliament and its committees.
The European Union has its own courts which interpret its laws. The courts interpret the EU treaties themselves, including the scope of the very general freedoms in the area of goods, workers, capital and services as well as many other areas. It is fair to say that the European Union courts have at times, interpreted the freedoms in new ways which have clarified and, in some cases, appeared to expand their scope.
The courts in member states must apply EU law and override and disapply any inconsistent provision of national law. They are guided by the European Union courts to which points of uncertainty of interpretation may be or must be referred to in certain circumstances.
Evolution of Security and Defence Competence
Other claims were made in relation to sovereignty during the Brexit referendum. It was argued that EU common security and defence policy which is an element of the EU’s common foreign and security policy might ultimately evolve into a European army.
The common foreign and security policy is the organised, agreed foreign policy of the EU in relation to security and defence diplomacy. Decisions require unanimity amongst member states and the council. Certain further aspects of matters already agreed can be decided by qualified majority voting. The EU has a high representative in relation to foreign policy.
The EU’s common security and defence policy involves military and civilian missions deployed to preserve peace, prevent conflict and strengthen international security in accordance with the principles of the United Nations Charter. The first deployment was in Montenegro. There have been later deployments in Congo as well as action against pirates in Sudan. There is no standing permanent military structure.
In parallel, the European defence fund is a component of the policy which aims to coordinate and increase national investment in defence research and improve interoperability between national armed forces. It funds projects in specific areas of defence cooperation.