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The European Union Today: An Inside Look at the ‘Four Fs’

(this article originally appeared in the Impact newsletter of the Public Affairs Council)


The European Union Today

Today’s European Union is often misunderstood and its actions often misinterpreted— both within Europe and beyond. But it might best be described by bearing in mind four seemingly disparate attributes: The EU is both fascinating and frustrating; and though at times it remains fragmented, it’s also becoming
increasingly federal.



Here is a deeper look at each of these core qualities.




Fascinating. Since European integration began in the 1950s, the continent has experienced one of the longest periods of peaceful co-existence. The level of interconnectedness — particularly in trade and technology — that has been achieved while still maintaining each member’s national and cultural identity has been a stunning feat for a “club” that today has 28 member states, 24 official languages and over 500 million citizens.


Frustrating. Despite increasing integration, there are dozens of areas in which member states guard their individual national competencies. Moreover, the bureaucratic, slow-moving nature of EU-level decision making, combined with an often inefficient enforcement of European laws, reflects a lack of political will and a reluctance of EU member states to act. Even when policies are advanced EU-wide, diverse opinions make it difficult to decide what is in “the European interest.” One need only look at bans on genetically modified food; efforts to create a “single European sky,” which would streamline and centralize European air traffic control; or the debate over hydraulic fracturing to see how protracted and difficult these discussions can be.


Fragmented. The EU’s motto, “United in Diversity,” suggests that diversity among member states is reconcilable, though unfortunately this is not always the case. To cite just a few examples, there is no single European foreign policy, no cross-border energy infrastructure, nor is there yet a full-fledged trans-EU transport policy. Since the recent economic crisis, national governments in Europe have been under increasing public pressure to keep Brussels from “federalizing” powers — economic and otherwise — and, as a result, exercising more control over European laws and regulations at the national level. This struggle will continue to be a major part of the political discourse in the run-up to the 2014 European Parliament elections.


Federal. With the aforementioned fragmentations in play, and provided we do not consider police cooperation and foreign or security issues, many argue that the level of integration in Europe is already comparable to that of the United States. Chemicals, food additives, air pollution levels, CO2 emission levels, fuel efficiency standards, financial services and mutual recognition of safety standards are all regulated at the EU level, so a presence in Brussels is increasingly important for all major stakeholders — including NGOs, corporations andeven non-European countries with a large stake in import regulations or trade issues. While EU skeptics tend to focus on fragmentation, federalism in Europe is here to stay — and Brussels is bound to have a stronger say in shaping legal, political and regulatory issues in the region.


Political pundits often offer a misleading snapshot of the status quo in analyzing European affairs, focusing on just one part of the complex picture, so it’s important for public affairs professionals to be aware of all four of these driving forces. It will certainly make your efforts in the EU more fruitful.


Posted in EU Affairs

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