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The big stage of EU politics

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.

Find out more! Read more about how to participate actively in the European issues and competences section.

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.

The direct elections to the national and the European parliaments have many 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 judicial branch, the Ombudsman and the advisory European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), is shaped by the decisions made by Europeans during elections.
The European Union is not a purely indirect democracy; it is a modern representative democracy based on day-to-day participation by EU citizens. This fundamental principle is enshrined in the Treaty on European Union (TEU) and has huge consequences for the functioning of the European Union. In short, EU citizens are not just on the big stage of European politics on Election Day; the same applies every day! For this reason, the EU has established (and is still in the process of establishing) a comprehensive toolbox of participatory instruments, which link citizens, institutions, policymaking processes and decisions.
While you have the right to participate on a day-to-day basis in EU affairs, most of us will not have the time, know-how and resources to do so. It is therefore very important to choose 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 a more issue-driven approach — which in 99 out of 100 cases 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 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?

    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?

    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?

    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?

    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.

  • European issues and competences

    The potential impact of EU legislation on national, regional and local policies is the subject of much debate. Research offers all kind of results depending on the method chosen. However, there is no doubt that in certain areas, such as environmental protection or financial regulations, decisions made at EU level also have a substantial impact on all other levels of government. In other words: what happens in the EU at all levels is relevant to every European citizen. This means that in order to make your voice heard you must first understand who makes the decisions concerning different European issues.

    According to the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU, Title 1) there are three different categories 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). On the basis of these powers, policies are shaped by implementing acts, regulations, directives, legislation or, in some cases, simply by institutional decisions without any formal impact on legislation. Furthermore, some decisions are made by the Parliament, the Courts, advisory bodies such as the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and others, with various kinds of driving forces, impacts and consequences, not least for other levels of governance.

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.