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European governance matters more than ever. What is decided on at EU level has huge implications for our daily lives at local, regional and national level. Together we agree in the EU on matters such as free trade agreements with other countries, how to conserve our marine resources and which rules should be applied to ensure free and fair economic competition.

Find out more! Read more about which kind of topics are dealt with at EU level in the European issues and competences section.

As the EU is a modern representative democracy with a system of shared powers and specialised institutions, it is not always easy for individual EU citizens to identify, assess and influence the policy-making process at the right moment with the most efficient tool.

So let's familiarise ourselves with the various ways in which we, as citizens, can elect and task various institutions and become stakeholders when it comes to EU-wide decision-making.

We regularly elect our parliaments in our national capitals and 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 also the head of state). The national government itself is part of the European Council and of the Council of the European Union, 2 of the 7 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 the most direct means of public influence at EU level. Over the years the powers of the 705-member Assembly have been 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.

The direct elections to the national and European parliaments also have indirect consequences: for example, national governments and the European Parliament are instrumental in forming the European Commission. This is the executive body of the EU, which is responsible for proposing legislation, implementing decisions and managing day-to-day business. Even the composition of other EU institutions, including the European Courts, the office of the European Ombudsman, the advisory European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and European Committee of the Regions, is shaped by the decisions made by Europeans in elections.
The European Union is more than a representative government system; it is a modern representative democracy based on day-to-day participation by EU citizens. This principle is enshrined in the Treaty on European Union (TEU), and has consequences for the functioning of the European Union. In short, EU citizens are not just on the big stage of European politics on election days - they can have a say every day! For this reason, the EU has established a comprehensive toolbox of participatory instruments, which links citizens, institutions, policy-making processes and decisions.
While you have the right to participate in EU affairs on a day-to-day basis, most of us will not have the time, know-how and resources to do so. It is therefore very important to choose carefully the best time, the best partners and the best instrument to make your voice heard in an efficient and sustainable way. In order to do so, you may want to choose between a more permanent role on this stage (for example as an elected official, an employee or a civil society representative) or an issue-driven one-off engagement - which in 99 cases out of 100 may be the only way to reconcile your role as an active EU citizen with all your other roles in public, private and professional life.

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 European law – or even complain about an EU official. There are 101 reasons to become an active EU citizen, but there are a few key questions you need to think about 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 almost 450 million people – the quality of your preparatory steps will be critical to success. So, be diligent… and get active!

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    Your issue: a European one?

    The European Union deals with many things. Some may say too many – and according to others, too few. But independently of that important discussion, the EU have a clear list of policy issues (based on its treaties and agreed by all Member States) that it deals with, either as exclusive, shared or supporting competences. So when you want to address an issue of any kind, check the possible European nature of your idea/concern first. It may turn out to be an issue that could be dealt with more efficiently at the local, regional or national level instead.

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    Your moment: the right time to get active?

    Timing is critical when it comes to successfully making your voice heard. You may arrive on the scene too early and nobody will notice – or you may be far too late and the decisions will already have been taken. But in between there is a big window of opportunity to become active. 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 the debate has reached in the (legislative) process. EUR-LEX is a very useful public website for this purpose. The European Commission's Have your say portal 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 need and which participatory instrument you go for.

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    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 (both other EU citizens, but also people in 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 especially the case if you are the victim of maladministration, if you see your rights 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 really good idea to reach out as far and as transnationally as possible, since 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 for your team to be composed of at least seven EU citizens from at least seven different EU Member States.

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    Your tool: which form of participation?

    Choosing the best available participatory instrument for your issue is paramount 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 as the European Citizens’ Initiative. What makes things easier is the very fact that, in most cases participatory projects at EU level can be managed online - although, while you can make your voice heard without the need to buy stamps, you may need to travel at some point, maybe to Brussels to meet with an institutional representative or to a village across the border where you have supporting partners.

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    What happens in the EU is vital to every European citizen – at all levels. And in order to make your voice heard it is crucial to understand which European issues are decided by whom.

    According to the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (Title 1) there are three different kinds of EU competences:exclusive (the EU decides alone), shared (the EU decides together with the Member States) and supportive (the EU assists the Member States).

    Based on these powers, policies are shaped by implementing acts, regulations, directives, legislation or simply institutional decisions without any formal impact on legislation. Furthermore, there are decisions made by the Parliament, the Courts, advisory bodies, such as the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and the European Committee of the Regions, with various kinds of driving forces, impacts and consequences - not least for other levels of governance.

Based on this overview, you can tailor your action to the relevant competence (exclusive, shared or supportive) and consider complementary action at national (or some other) 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 present your idea.

More about division of competences within the European Union: https://europa.eu/citizens-initiative/faq-eu-competences-and-commission-powers_en.