European governance matters more than ever. What is decided at EU level has huge implications for our daily lives at the local, regional and national levels. In the EU, we collectively agree on matters such as free trade agreements with other countries, on how to conserve our marine resources or on which rules should be applied to ensure free and fair economic competition.
These are issues on which the EU — based on its Treaties — has exclusive competence. There are also many other policy areas where the EU can regulate, but it shares competences with the Member States. Such areas include social cohesion, the environment, consumer protection, energy, transport and public health — to name but a few.
The EU is a modern representative democracy with a complex system of shared powers and specialised institutions. As such, it is not always easy for individual EU citizens to identify, assess and influence the policymaking process at the right moment using the most efficient tool.
We first need to become familiar with the various ways in which we, the citizens, elect and task various institutions and stakeholders when it comes to EU-wide decision-making.
Every few years we elect our parliaments in our national capital and every five years in the European Union. Here you have an opportunity to become a candidate yourself and run for office.
- The election of the national parliament is critical to the EU decision-making process as it influences the composition of the national government (and in many cases, it also determines the head of state). The national government itself is part of the European Council and of the Council of the European Union, two of the most important EU institutions. The national parliament also has a say when it comes to the EU legislative process.
- The election of the European Parliament (EP) is one of the most direct and powerful means of public influence at the EU level. That is because, over the years, the powers of the EP within the EU law-making process have greatly increased and are now in many ways equal to those of the Council of the European Union (made up of Member State governments).
Read more about the European Parliament’s powers.
So you have a great idea about changing Europe — or maybe just a small problem with setting up a business across the border. You may want to launch a major campaign against an existing EU law — or simply make a complaint about an EU official. There are 1 001 reasons to become an active EU citizen, but there are just a few key questions you need some good answers to before getting started. Assessing them and choosing answers carefully may take precious time.
However, as you are about to become involved in changing the European Union — a transnational political community of more than 500 million people — the quality of your preparatory steps will be critical to success. So, be diligent … and get active!
Your issue: a European one?
The European Union deals with many things. Some may even say too many – others believe too few. But leaving that important discussion aside, the EU does deal with a clear list of policy issues (based on its Treaties and agreed on by all Member States), either as exclusive, shared or supporting competences. When you first come up with an issue of any kind, verify the European nature of your idea/concern. It may turn out to be an issue more efficiently dealt with at the local, regional or national level instead.
Your moment: the right time to get active?
Timing is critical when it comes to successfully making your voice heard. You can act too early and nobody will notice — or you may be far too late and discover that the decisions have already been made (or are in the final stages). But in between there is a big window of opportunity to take action. For example, if you want to launch a rather new idea, it will take a lot of patience and resources to get attention and a response, but you are relatively free to choose the right time for action. However, if you want to influence ongoing public discussions at the EU level on a certain issue, you need to check what stage in the (legislative) process has been reached. EUR-LEX is a very useful public website for this purpose. The European Commission’s new Better Regulation platform is also designed to gather views at every stage of the legislative procedure. Choosing your moment also has implications for the kind of partners you will need and which participatory instrument you opt for.
Your team: collective action ahead?
Addressing a European issue at the European level will in most cases require a solid partnership with other citizens and/or civil society organisations. The simple reason for this is that you need to convince many others first (other EU citizens as well as elected bodies and EU institutions) before you can make an impact. However, sometimes even strong and committed individual action can make a difference: this is particularly the case when you are the victim of maladministration, if your rights are infringed or if you are simply able to pinpoint an issue of concern for the general public. On the other hand, it may be a good idea to reach out as far and as transnationally as possible, as your issue/proposal/idea will be met with greater interest and respect by the EU institutions if there is a truly European team of active citizens behind it. In the case of the European Citizens’ Initiative, for instance, there is even a requirement that your organising team be made up of at least seven EU citizens from at least seven different EU Member States.
Your tool: which form of participation?
Choosing the best available participatory instrument for your issue will be critical for success. Most tools are designed to be handled by several citizens together (or even civil society organisations) but can also be used by individual citizens, such as launching a complaint to the Ombudsman, addressing a cross-border issue with the online problem solving network SOLVIT or petitioning the European Parliament.
Other participatory instruments, however, require collective action from the outset. Such is the case of the European Citizens’ Initiative. What makes things easier is the fact that, in most cases, participatory projects at EU level can be managed online. At the same time, while you can make your voice heard without the need to buy stamps, you may need to travel at some point; perhaps to Brussels to meet with an institutional representative or to a village across the border where you have supporting partners.
Exclusive EU issues/competences
- customs union
- establishing of the competition rules necessary for the functioning of the internal market
- monetary policy for the Member States whose currency is the euro
- the conservation of marine biological resources under the common fisheries policy
- common commercial policy
- conclusion of an international agreement under certain conditions
Shared EU issues/competences
- internal market
- social policy, for the aspects defined in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union
- economic, social and territorial cohesion
- agriculture and fisheries, excluding the conservation of marine biological resources
- consumer protection
- trans-European networks
- area of freedom, security and justice: home affairs; justice
- common safety concerns in public health matters, for the aspects defined in the Treaty
- research, technological development and space
- development cooperation and humanitarian aid
Based on this distribution of competences (and its foundation in the EU Treaties), you may tailor your action to the relevant competence (exclusive, shared or supportive) and consider complementary action at the national (or another) level in the case of shared/supportive EU competences.
Proposals for action which lie outside the areas of EU competence may encounter considerable problems simply in being deemed admissible in the first place by the EU institution to which you wish to direct your idea.
A first overview of relevant issues, including Treaty references, can be found here: ec.europa.eu/citizens-initiative/public/competences.