The UK Civil Service

Facts, Analysis and Comment.

Introduction to the European Union

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:

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.

Martin Stanley