European Union Politics

Palgrave Foundations Series

by John McCormick

Chapter 18: Public Policy in the EU

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So far in this book we have looked at the history, principles, and the political character, institutions and processes of the European Union, and at how it relates to those who live under its jurisdiction. In this final section of the book we examine what the EU has meant in terms of the policies it has pursued. We will see where the EU has been most active, what influences bear on the policy process and key policy makers, and what difference integration has made in practical terms to the lives of Europeans and to the place of Europe in the world.

Public policy can be defined as whatever governments do (or avoid doing) to address the needs and problems of society. It takes the form of public statements, government programmes, laws, and actions, as well as inertia and avoidance. If it was limited to the formal powers of government and its published objectives then it might be relatively easy to understand and measure, but government and governance are also influenced by informal activities, opportunism, the ebb and flow of political and public interest in policy issues, and simply responding to needs and problems as they present themselves.

Understanding the policy process at the national level is not easy, because of unresolved debates about the personality of government institutions, and about the many pressures that come to bear on the process. At the European level, the challenges are compounded by the failure of political scientists to agree on the character and powers of the EU institutions, by the debates about how those institutions relate to the governments of the member states, and by the competing influences of intergovernmentalism and supranationalism. Matters are further complicated by changes in the rules, membership, powers, priorities, and policy agenda of the EU.
  • Public policy is whatever governments do (or avoid doing) to address society’s needs. It takes the form of platforms, programmes, public statements, and laws, but is often also driven by crises, emergencies and opportunities.
  • Formally, policymaking in the EU is driven by primary rules found in the treaties, secondary rules in the form of laws adopted by the EU and judgements handed down by the European Court of Justice, and tertiary ‘rules’ in the form of action programmes, strategies, declarations and other activities.
  • Informally, there are numerous influences on policy, and numerous models have been developed to help understand the system.
    One approach is to see policy as a cycle, beginning with the setting of agendas and moving through formulation, adoption, implementation, and evaluation.
  • EU policy, like all democratic policymaking, is driven by bargaining and the search for compromise, by political games among interested parties, by elitism, and by incremental rather than radical change.
  • Policymaking in the EU also has several unique features, including multispeed integration, spillover, and the democratic deficit. But opinion on the significance of the latter is divided.
  • The EU budget is small and yet it has been the subject of repeated political squabbles over the years. These have abated since a 1988 agreement to replace annual budgets with five-year budget packages.
  • Most revenues come from national contributions from the member states, and most spending goes to agriculture and regional development.